When you and (most probably) your dog make your way round Harlaw Reservoir, you’ll pass the Visitor Centre, which is opened and closed each day by a Natural Heritage Officer, formerly known as a countryside ranger. Did you ever wonder what else they do?
I recently met Victor Partridge, who has worked for the City of Edinburgh Council as a Natural Heritage Officer for the past 23 years. From Bury in Lancashire, Victor’s love of the countryside led him to earn a degree in geology, which he hoped would result in a career working outdoors. But several jobs he did as part of a government scheme really paved the way to his current job.
“In those days there were schemes open to those who had been unemployed for a year or more,” he explains. “My first job was giving London children experience of the countryside. Many of the kids had never been out of the city.” Subsequent jobs included helping schools create nature areas and supervising a group of unemployed people in making environmental improvements.” These experiences led to a position as countryside ranger in Hereford, where he remained for five years.
The first time Victor saw the Pentlands was by accident. He and a friend were driving from the Highlands to Birmingham via Glasgow. When they missed the turn for the motorway, Victor’s friend suggested they continue via Edinburgh. “We came down a road at the side of the Pentlands,” he recalls, “and I commented that they looked like interesting hills. A few years later I was working with the Pentlands Regional Park.”
Ask Victor what he loves most about his job and he will tell you it is the variety. “No two days are the same,” he comments. “Last week I was at Penicuik High School talking with teenagers about what the countryside has to offer – and all for free! The next day I was meeting with a university professor to discuss how UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) could help us look after footpaths and monitor nature reserves.”
Other days Victor is out and about, checking that such things as stiles, bridges and drains are in good repair. In fact there are 1,500 manmade constructions and natural features that must be regularly checked! Officers are responsible for maintaining 1,000 kilometres of footpath, which is their biggest job. They also remind people to clean up after their dogs and to keep them from “worrying” the grazing sheep. “Every year some sheep and lambs are killed by dogs,” says Victor.
Victor and his colleagues are also very supportive of Edinburgh Council’s Biodiversity Action Plan, which requires that every local authority has to do something to try to protect nature, and to make a plan to show how they are going to do that.
Weekends are busy times for Natural Heritage Officers because that is normally when people have leisure time. “We work one in three weekends,” says Victor. “We’re based at the Hermitage of Braid in Morningside, and usually at least two members of staff are in the hills. We aim to help the public and keep them safe. Most people want to cooperate and follow a few simple rules for proper use of the countryside, but there are always a few problems.”
From October the Natural Heritage Service will operate as two dedicated teams. One will look after the Pentlands, and the other will be made up of three estate workers with practical skills. Currently 16 local volunteers help with patrolling the park and checking for problems with footpaths. “People love the hills and want to help preserve them,” says Victor. “In fact, so many have expressed interest that there is a waiting list!”
Every spring and summer the public is invited to join in regular wildlife surveys. “We concentrate on surveying for particular species that are locally rare,” Victor explains. “And it is always good to have extra eyes to help us do that.”
With the approach of winter, Victor and his colleagues will be reminding people to stay off the ice when the reservoirs freeze. “Because there’s a constant flow of water out of the reservoir, the ice is more treacherous than it would be on a loch,” he says.
Recent planting means that new woodlands are on their way. “Nature never stands still,” says Victor, “so there will continually be changes to the national park, hopefully for the good. The hills will always be there … and so will the national park.”
Published in Konect October 2016
Author: Suzanne Green