World Youth Skills Day: Keilidh Ewan on the Nature Identification Youth Scholarship
To celebrate World Youth Skills Day, we caught up with Keilidh Ewan, Education and Outreach Officer for the River Dee Trust and a past recipient of our Nature Identification Youth Scholarship.
I’ve always been curious about nature and as a child have fond memories of pinching my parents’ camera and whiling away the hours capturing snapshots of wildflowers and minibeasts in our back garden. Growing up in Deeside with meandering rivers and rugged mountains on our doorstep, it was a challenge not to be inspired by the landscape around you. I never really grew out of this curiosity – and am still that big kid today, with their nose in the ground or looking up for a flutter in the trees – but now I get to share the joys of the outdoors with others through my job.
After leaving school, I went on to study photography and learnt how to story tell from behind the lens. This provided me with a toolkit of practical skills that stretched so much further than simply using a camera and took me into the world of work with a focus on communications and marketing. In 2019 I first dipped my toes into conservation, joining the Scottish Wildlife Trust as a Digital Communications Officer supporting a nationwide effort to protect the red squirrel. It fulfilled a real longing for my two main interests to overlap, and when an opportunity to apply for a Nature Identification Youth Scholarship through the Cairngorms National Park arose, I knew I had to give it shot.
That summer I threw everything into writing up a field journal of observations with my camera and binoculars at my side as part of the Scholarship submission, and after being invited by the judging panel to a day in the beautiful backdrop of Abernethy Nature Reserve, was over the moon to have been awarded one of two fully funded places on the year-long course.
The next year built my confidence in the outdoors like never before. We explored everything from understanding different habitats to identifying animal tracks and signs, appreciating migration routes and even recognising bird species by song. Not only did it hugely broaden my understanding of our natural world, we gained invaluable experience alongside professional wildlife guides in the field. It was a truly unforgettable experience.
This new knowledge took my career on a trajectory that I could have only dreamed of – and now I have the privilege of working every day with people, wildlife and the outdoors.
Back on home turf, I’m delighted to now be working for an organisation that protects one of the UK’s highest rivers, the River Dee.
The River Dee Trust is a charity with community sitting at its heart, and alongside the Dee District Salmon Fishery Board, is working towards a vision of a thriving river with a focus on intensive freshwater conservation action to help save the iconic Atlantic Salmon.
The Trust covers all 81 miles of river from its source high in the Cairngorm Mountains to the North Sea and aims to improve our knowledge of this unique ecosystem through research, informing restoration and conservation efforts.
As you drive through Deeside you’ll likely notice some of the Trust’s work to address the impacts of climate change on the river; with small tree enclosures dotted throughout the banks of the upper catchment and landscape-scale planting taking place to help provide vital long-term shade to the river. You may notice what looks like wind-blown trees in the water where there are little or no trees on the banks, which have been introduced to create deep sheltered pools for fish to protect them from the likes of predators and provide a cool refuge during particularly hot spells. These are just a handful of examples you might see in passing.
Communicating these efforts with the wider community and providing educational information to schools is also one of the Trust’s key aims, which is where my role comes into play.
These days you can find me wading through watercourses with schools looking for invertebrates and investigating what they can tell us about the health of the river, speaking with community groups about habitat restoration sites, or coordinating volunteer days to support our riverbanks from the impacts of climate change. Every day is completely different.
Through the Trust’s education programme, we provide opportunities for young people to experience the river first-hand and learn what makes it so special. Some young people may not have known about the rivers that flow through Aberdeen City and Shire, let alone visit them.
Since joining the Trust in January, I’ve visited just shy of 1500 school pupils in the classroom and on the riverbanks, we’ve planted 2794 trees with youth and community groups, taken our message to various public events and even made an appearance on an episode of Countryfile.
Just like the Scholarship Programme provided through the Cairngorms National Park Authority, it’s so important that we continue to provide opportunities to equip young people with skills, knowledge and confidence in the outdoors. It’s incredibly rewarding working with young people when you see those special life-long connections being made and knowing that it could inspire our next generation of countryside rangers, biologists and conservationists able to look after these special wild places makes it all worthwhile.
For more information about the River Dee Trust, visit https://riverdee.org.uk/