Free wheeling

Written by on 28 January 2013 in Interviews

 How easy is it to get out and experience Scotland and its natural habitats? Jim Densham decided to get on his bike and try

The length and breadth of Scotland there are unique spots of countryside, every corner teaming with wildlife and plants.

This year those areas are taking on even more importance because as part of the Year of Natural Scotland, people are being encouraged to get out and see their country with fresh eyes and take advantage of every wildlife reserve, walking trail and cycle path that they can.

But in a world that is increasingly concerned about its carbon footprint, there is now greater focus on the means of transport you use to get to your destination.

So it was that last year, Jim Densham, a climate change policy officer at RSPB Scotland, set himself the challenge to get around as many of his employer’s reserves as possible - without using the car.

Limiting himself to either public transport or his own steam, he travelled 953 miles, taking in 10 reserves up and down Scotland in three weeks.

During that time he covered 758 miles by train and 193 miles by bike - and ensured that the whole time his own Vauxhall Astra remained parked up at home.

As well as showing just how it could be done - and seeing how much carbon emissions could be saved in undertaking his task - he used the challenge to collect anecdotes and information from staff at the reserves to help inform his work on climate change policy.

The RSPB allows its staff to take a paid sabbatical of up to a month after they have worked there for seven years - as long as it has some relevance to the job they do.

Densham, who moved to Scotland in 2010 after working at the RSPB headquarters in Bedfordshire, felt that while many of his colleagues spend a month carrying out birdwatching surveys or other related tasks, he would try to hit upon a different idea.

He said: “I’d been talking to a colleague about slow travel - the idea of travelling without producing lots of carbon emissions – preferably without a car.

“The work I’d been doing was looking at climate impact and what we’re experiencing now, so those two ideas came together.”

RSPB has been one of the groups trying to influence legislation, such as Scotland’s 2009 Climate Change Act, and its implementation - but Densham said it also wanted its members, supporters and others to think about the potential future impact.

He said: “I thought a great way of doing that would be to go out to our reserves and collect some of those stories that perhaps the reserve staff are seeing day to day, but aren’t really prompted to think that could be a climate change impact.

“Working on climate change and seeing a need to not use the car too much and try to keep the emissions down, I thought, well, perhaps I could get fit as well at the same time and show that you can get to RSPB reserves without having to use the car.

“There is a bit of a perception, sometimes, that our reserves are in the middle of nowhere and farflung, and they’re quite hard to get to and I guess some of them are of course, but then there’s quite a lot which you can get to by public transport or on a relatively short cycle.”

He set up a blog, ‘Green Travel to Green Places’ to record his journey, which he completed over the year - although because of work commitments, he managed only three of the four weeks out visiting the RSPB reserves.

Included in his journey was a ferry trip from Coll to Tiree, where he saw a Basking Shark and a pod of dolphins, he got tantalisingly close to an otter-sighting at the Wood of Cree and faced a steep hill climb on his bike to get to the reserve at Loch Leven.

He also picked up information from wardens and RSPB reserve staff on the potential impact climate change could have in the future, with their accounts, for example, of the erosion of sand dunes on Tiree.

Although he is careful to point out that the evidence of what is currently happening is not necessarily caused by climate change, they are the sort of events where there is a growing concern they could become more common if trends in global temperature continue.

He said: “The first place I went to was Baron’s Haugh, which is near Motherwell. It’s right next to the Clyde and it’s a wetland area, and there has been more rainfall and extreme rainfall events happening on the Clyde catchment.

“That has meant that the River Clyde has flooded and gone up and down in its river levels quite significantly - more in recent years during the summer months rather than always at the winter.

“That has the effects of washing out the riverside path and I saw where it has been gouged out on the river bank by the flooding waters - as well as the water topping the banks and going into the wetland area which we manage for birds and we see nesting birds in the spring and summer.

“That has been a recent problem, where nests have been flooded out through a number of heavy rainfall events - those sort of things which were rare in previous years are becoming more common.” He added: “We can say that these things could be exacerbated by climate change because we’re seeing more of them. We’d have to have a lot more scientific study to make sure that it was - but certainly we can say that these things are known to be likely to happen in the future.

“We know that we’ll have more extreme rainfall, but what does that actually mean? It might mean that your house gets flooded, or a railway gets flooded, but for nature it means nests might be washed away on some of our most precious wildlife sites.” His estimate of how much CO2 he saved on his journey is about 60 per cent - and even though he did not manage to get to all the reserves, he believes physically it would be possible.

However, he added that there should be improvements to some of the transport links to allow people to get closer to nature without relying on the car.

“Some are still very difficult to get to by bus - bus services into rural areas are an issue in many places and that caused a bit of a problem, and it would be good to see more bus services connecting to nature.

“I did look when I went to Dumfries and Galloway, at not taking my bike, getting the train there and getting a bus across, but I just found it very diffi cult to locate a bus that would take me near a reserve in the morning and then be able to be picked up again and back to the nearest town. It was really diffi cult to negotiate that sort of planning.

“It would be great to see a few things, more dedicated cycle paths and cycleways, or not dedicated so much but an extension of the Sustrans route - that would be really great to make cycling to nature a more pleasant experience.

“Th e other thing is train travel. Th e train is great, you can get out and about, you can get into the countryside very quickly and easily and you can walk from stations.

“But I found the service taking your bike on the train was a bit of a hit and miss affair.

“I had a problem where I went to Oban and I couldn’t take my bike back on the train because all the bike spaces were full up and I had to go back and collect it another day. That lost me time but it was also quite frustrating because it’s not a very adaptable or flexible system.” One spin-off is he has found that he is far more willing to leave his car at home now both in and out of work, which includes taking the bikes on holiday with his wife and young family.

“It’s very easy to fall into the habit of using your car because it is so simple, but this is about changing the mindset, it’s about thinking, what are my everyday routes? How can I go by public transport or is my bike up to scratch?

“I found out that getting into the office for me is a lot quicker by getting on my bike rather than using public transport or the car. It’s quite a fun thing to find the quicker routes and the cycle-friendly routes that make that happen.

“That’s open to everybody. It’s not easy, it’s a bit of a challenge to find where are the routes to get to nature, but it is easier and easier to do these days.

“Some of these journeys do take longer to do,” he said. “You’re not just jumping in a car and getting somewhere within an hour, you might take a bit longer to get on a train or cycle.

“But actually, you can enjoy the nature as you go, you take a bit more time, and it might take a bit of getting used to, but it is a more enjoyable way of getting out and seeing nature.”

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