Scotland - 22/10/2021
Exploring Aigas Field Centre
Earlier this year, Aigas Field Centre received a shipment of 10 camera traps from NatureSpy, marking the start of a new relationship with aims to monitor the wildlife on a Highlands estate, and to educate adults and children alike on the ecology of these species and their importance. Read on to learn more about the Field Centre's conservation programmes and wildlife...

Guest blog by Taylor Davies, Ranger – Aigas Field Centre

Based on a historic Highlands sporting estate, complete with a grand Baronial-style house, gardens full of giant specimen trees, a loch and regenerating woodlands, Aigas Field Centre was established in 1977 by esteemed author and naturalist, Sir John Lister-Kaye. The aims of the field centre were to provide small-group learning holidays and study courses exploring the wildlife, landscapes, and history of the Scottish Highlands, with an emphasis on restoration ecology. From the Moray Firth to the high hills of Glen Affric, the remit of the Field Centre covers a whole range of habitats, allowing one to see bottlenose dolphins, otters, golden eagles and pine martens in a single day! In the years since its opening, Aigas has diversified to include an environmental education centre, Naturedays at Aigas, educating over 5000 students each year and fostering a love and respect for nature in the young generation. Aigas also has a conservation sector, with a number of projects including a long-running beaver demonstration project, Scottish wildcat breeding programme, red squirrel and hedgehog post-rehabilitation reintroduction, and the North Highland Twinflower Conservation Project.

Camera traps can help Aigas in every aspect of our work, and this is why our new relationship with NatureSpy is particularly valuable. With guests, we run camera trapping workshops and through this we are able to show guests wildlife behaviour we wouldn’t normally be able to see. Camera traps can be a powerful educational tool, so our Naturedays education staff will be able to use the traps to show students some of the amazing wildlife we have on site, or even around the schools. It is for our conservation projects, however, that the camera traps will be particularly useful.

Aigas wildcat breeding programme

The Aigas wildcat breeding programme was launched in 2011 in conjunction with Scottish Wildcat Action (now Saving Wildcats). The aim of the project is to breed wildcats in order to increase the captive population, the offspring of which can be released into the wild. The wildcat is now considered functionally extinct in the UK, due to a plethora of issues including habitat loss, persecution, hybridisation.

We try to have as little contact with our wildcats as possible, with a hands-off approach to encourage natural behaviour. This is particularly important during the breeding season, where disturbance can reduce the chances of breeding success. The new camera traps from NatureSpy will help us keep tabs on our cats, monitoring changes in behaviour and health. Already we have been able to observe breeding behaviour in our breeding pair, Brora and Fergus, we eagerly await signs that Brora is pregnant!

Pine martens

Here at Aigas we are lucky to have a healthy population of pine martens on site and in the adjacent Aigas Community Forest. We always try to keep a catalogue of the individual pine martens we have around site – they can often easily be told apart by the pattern of brown spots on their cream bib – and camera traps are the best way for us to build this catalogue. This year, with the help of the extra camera traps with quick trigger speeds, we hope to develop a greater understanding of our pine marten population. We want to know how many individuals we have and their sexes, and hopefully look into territory size and relationships between individuals. We have our regulars, who visit our hides almost nightly, but what about individuals whose territory does not contain a hide?

Den/nest boxes

Various den and nest boxes have been put up in and around the trees at Aigas Field Centre, including pine marten, squirrel, and tawny owl boxes. It is very difficult for us to monitor the use of these boxes; we don’t usually have time to sit watching them for signs of activity! The camera traps from NatureSpy will be a game-changer enabling us to keep tabs on our nest boxes, to see who might be using them and how often. The results of this monitoring will tell us if our boxes are effective, and whether we might need any more putting up. Conversely if the den boxes are not being used, we can start to work out why not, are our den boxes not up to scratch? Or is our habitat on site of sufficient quality that den boxes simply aren’t needed?

Other monitoring

What we see on a day-to-day basis here at Aigas is but a fraction of the activity occurring day and night across the site. Even with our lit hides, which allow us to watch pine martens, badgers, and occasionally owls, deer and foxes, we miss behaviour and events happening away from our eyes. With more camera traps set up in locations throughout the Aigas estate, we will be able to see how animals behave normally, capturing interactions, feeding, foraging, and any other behaviour that we wouldn’t otherwise see.

We also often release rehabilitated wild animals on site, including badgers, red squirrels and hedgehogs in the past year alone. It is important for us to monitor the health and wellbeing of these released individuals, and the camera traps from NatureSpy will enable us to do so.

We have already got so much valuable footage using these ten new camera traps, and we are extremely grateful to NatureSpy for providing us with this loan. We hope that this will mark the start of a long and fruitful relationship with NatureSpy enabling us to learn a great deal more about our local wildlife, and can continue to enthral our guests and school children using the wonderful footage we capture.

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