Notes from the Cairngorms Connect Tree Nursery: Just a volunteer?

Posted: 1st June 2023


Kate has long been a part of the Tree Nursery at RSPB Abernethy Reserve in the Cairngorms Connect restoration landscape. In this blog, she explores her personal connection to the Nursery, as a place which has changed and grown over the years.  

“I’m just a volunteer” or “only a volunteer” – how often have I heard that said and I’ll have said it myself in the past a few times, I’m sure. But I think it’s only really in these latter few years that I have felt that as a volunteer my work is useful, important, appreciated and I now have a genuine sense of belonging. I am part of a team of volunteers who are enthusiastic and dedicated in our work at the Tree Nursery, where we support and learn from David, the Cairngorms Connect Tree Nursery Manager. Very shortly after Al, my husband, and I moved up to this area, we sought out voluntary work in the outdoors, and began working at RSPB Abernethy. We both thoroughly enjoyed the variety of jobs throughout this National Nature Reserve. We enjoyed being with both staff and volunteers and we began to have a real sense of belonging in this incredible area, that we had first come to know in the 1960s on visits with our mountaineering club.

It was after a day of cone collecting, when putting equipment away and leaving our bags of cones at the Tree Nursery that I questioned what was happening there and it’s purpose. I instantly had a feel for the place – situated in a peaceful location, with substantial stores, locked accommodation for equipment and a polytunnel. There were quite a few long beds for trees – mostly Caledonian pine at that time – but somehow there was an air of neglect. My eyes kept roaming to the amount of weeding needing doing. I suggested I could go there and weed. So regularly, in all weather, I found great pleasure in working there, alone and in peace.

Photos from Kate’s journal of the Tree Nursery. Credit: Kate Fowler.

Sometime after, Al started to come and work along with me. I was a bit grumpy at first, for as much as I loved his company, I really did enjoy my alone time in that wonderful place. However, I was becoming more aware that my solitary weeding would not keep the place in order. So, eventually, work parties were arranged, and groups of long-standing RSPB volunteers and Friends of Abernethy would come to the nursery to tend to the trees and deal with the never-ending job of weeding.

Suddenly there was more activity and staff members were collecting seed from species like downy birch and alder. Cuttings were taken of montane willow and there was talk of the best way of propagating aspen. Seed was stored and beds were prepared for the sowing of seed. It was suggested that Al and I should visit the Tree Nursery at Trees for Life and we spent two days of tuition there.

There was talk of funding bids. What was this all about? We soon found out it was all about Cairngorms Connect. As volunteers at this time, we were all a bit lost as to what was happening, but I think all of us were excited for the future of the Nursery.

Then life at the Tree Nursery changed so much. Cairngorms Connect was truly up and running and David, our Tree Nursery Manager was appointed.

Volunteers are a core part of the Tree Nursery. Photo: Mark Hamblin/

We now had an incredible purpose in our work. David recruited regular groups of volunteers and we have now learned to collect seed, plant seed, pot the tiny trees into root trainers, plant the tiny trees out into newly made nursery beds, take cuttings and now we have planted our trees out at the forest edge, along water courses and out onto the mountains. And of course, we continued to weed.

Al died very suddenly last year. I know he was a much-appreciated volunteer, both for the RSPB and Cairngorms Connect. He loved his work at the Tree Nursery and even before David started, Al quietly got on with organising extra nursery beds. He made staging and structures for shade netting and work benches – although, I did ask him to make some for my 5’2″ and other petite volunteers, but I think a lot of them were veering more to suit his lofty 6’7″.

The seedlings grown in the Tree Nursery are planted in the Cairngorms Connect landscape to bolster missing or under-represented species, primarily broadleaves or montane species. Photo: Mark Hamblin/

Our son, Alasdair, set up a crowd funder in memory of his dad and it was absolutely fitting that the substantial amount of money raised should go to the Tree Nursery. Special tree carrying harnesses were purchased and were first used on the first Willow Walk in 2021.

I don’t like to mention age much, but I feel very fortunate that in my mid 70s I have been fit and healthy enough to take part in the last two Willow Walks. I’m not fond of walking in large groups and particularly on the mountains, but this coming together of a community of like-minded spirits has been an incredible experience. Carrying our precious load of montane willows over the Cairngorm Plateau and down into the Loch A’an Basin – a place that has meant so much to Al and myself as far back as the 1960s – and now with a hope for the future of a healthier landscape.

Cairngorms Connect’s Willow Walks are where Cairngorms Connect partners and volunteers carry downy willow saplings into the Cairngorm Mountains. This small species of native willow tree is specially adapted for life in the extreme climate of the Cairngorm mountains but sadly, is struggling to survive.

Personally, I would have found the loss of Al even harder without the commitment, the excitement for the future of the Tree Nursery and for the friendships I have made as a volunteer.

No … I am certainly not “just a volunteer”.

This blog was originally posted on the Cairngorms Connect website. The Cairngorms Connect Tree Nursery is supported by the Endangered Landscapes Programme, the EU LIFE Programme-funded LIFE 100% for Nature Project, and the Scottish Government’s Nature Restoration Fund, managed by NatureScot.

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