Guardian of the Glen

Nelson Institute graduate student contributes to conservation efforts in the Scottish Highlands

October 25, 2018

Nearly three hundred years ago, wolves roamed the lush forests and glens of the Scottish Highlands, but today, many of those lush forests are gone as are the wolves that called them home. The loss of this apex predator has led to an upsurge in the red deer population and a cascading effect on the ecosystem balance. While the reintroduction of wolves to Scotland remains a controversial topic,  Paul Lister, a conservationist and owner of the 23,000 acre Alladale Wilderness Reserve near Inverness, Scotland has been developing plans to reintroduce the wolf to his property. As a part of this mission, he has enlisted the help of experts and scientists from around the globe, including Nelson Institute Environmental Conservation graduate, Autumn Nielsen.

In fact, Nielsen spent her summer working with wolf expert, Cristina Eisenberg and the EarthWatch Institute on a baseline research study at Alladale Wilderness Reserve to determine the impact wolves would have on the property. The project was a part of her final professional project with the Nelson Institute Environmental Conservation Professional Master’s program, which is an accelerated learning program that is working to prepare conservation professionals to solve some of the most urgent challenges in biodiversity conservation and environmental protection.

For Nielsen, attending the UW-Madison, Nelson Institute Environmental Conservation Professional Master’s program wasn’t always a part of the plan. In fact, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point with a degree in biology, Nielsen wanted to practice her skills, participating in a number of conservation-based projects. It was during a job search that she happened upon the Nelson Institute program description and decided to apply.

“When I came across a posting for the conservation program I thought it looked interesting because it was accelerated and included a practical project,” said Nielsen. “I never wanted to do a thesis based program, so when I learned it included a practical project I was like, hey, I could actually go to school and get a Master’s. It really fit how I think about the environmental sector, so I applied and I was really happy that I did.”

Developed to meet emerging global challenges and demands, the Nelson Institute Professional Programs is a 15-month blended curriculum with on-campus and remote experiences to accommodate working professionals. The final, fourth semester is spent completing a leadership project, which is what led Nielsen to the Scottish Highlands.

“For the project, every student finds an organization to partner with thanks to the help of [Program Coordinator for the Environmental Conservation Professional Master’s] Meghan Kautzer,” Nielsen said. “You basically have a meeting with Meghan where you discuss your interests, skills and what you want to gain. In my case, I had my meeting with Meghan and felt like I was all over the place. I had a lot of interests, but two of my interests were citizen scientists and wolves. So, I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go in, but Nathan [Director of the International & Professional Programs at Nelson Institute] had a connection with EarthWatch Institute because he had met their chief scientist Cristina Eisenberg. It turned out that she had a project in Scotland this year surrounding a property that wanted to bring in wolves. They were basically doing a baseline ecological study for potential wolf reintroduction in Scotland and when I heard that I immediately said, yes.”

The next step of the planning process included communications with Eisenberg and the team at EarthWatch Institute, an organization that invites interested members of the public to participate in scientific field research and education. Together, Eisenberg and Nielsen outlined the professional project goals, which included writing training materials for the volunteers and gaining experience in training and supervising fieldwork, skills Nielsen hopes to use in the next stage of her career.

Once the plans were in place, Nielsen joined the team at Alladale Wilderness Reserve in June 2018 and began working with the Earth Watch team and the property manager to gather data on the property.

“During my time on the property, there were four staff, two lead technicians, two interns and we had six different groups of volunteers,” Nielsen said. “As an intern, I helped to facilitate the volunteer’s fieldwork. We did woodland surveys to see how well their tree planting was going and if they were seeing vegetation changes as a result of their tree planting.”

In fact, since purchasing the land associated with the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, the owner and his staff have planted more than 800,000 Scots pine and have started reintroduction projects for a range of flora and fauna. 

“As a part of our work we were also doing red deer behavioral observations,” Nielsen continued. “For example, you would select a deer based on a random number table and you would speak into a voice recorder noting what that deer was doing. Our job was to train volunteers in those methods so the volunteers are really part of a field team. The volunteers don’t fill out data sheets, but they are doing the work.”

Nielsen said it was typical for the team to spend eight hours a day in the field, but everyone had two days off per week and evenings were spent cooking and interacting with members of the team.   

“You’re constantly interacting with the volunteers and talking about science and what you’re doing on the property,” Nielsen said. “It was a great opportunity to work with Cristina Eisenberg as well as the citizen scientists. It was fun showing them what science is about and what field work is about. It’s an exhausting job, but it’s increasingly rewarding and it’s an amazingly beautiful and natural place. I would recommend it to anybody.”

For Nielsen, the project was a success as she was able to gain new fieldwork skills while expanding her understanding of project management and citizen scientist education, but there is still more to be done before Alladale Wilderness Reserve will be able to reintroduce wolves.

“Part of our study was to determine if they are ready for wolves, but there are also a number of legal things that will need to happen before the wolves can be reintroduced,” Nielsen said. “This was a baseline study, so they hope to take more data next year. One year of data isn’t enough to tell you something, so I think they are planning to take a year or two more of data to really understand what is going on before they make any decision.”

While additional scientific studies are needed, Nielsen shared that some of the legal concerns surrounding the project including opposition from some sheep farmers, hikers and hunters. In regards to the farmers, Nielsen says that many worry about the impact free-roaming wolves would have on their herds, while hunters have similar concerns about how the wolves would impact the deer population. To remedy this, Alladale Wilderness Reserve representatives have offered to enclose the entire reserve with a fence. This has raised opposition from hikers and other groups as this does not align with the “right to roam” which is a law that allows free access to certain open land throughout Scotland.

“The U.K. manages wildlife very different from the United States because they don’t have as much public land as we do here,” Nielsen said. “So, that was an interesting experience learning about that. Also, we coordinated with the land manager on the property who has been there for over 20 years and getting his perspective on things and what he thinks should be done with land management was fascinating.”

In August 2018, Nielsen returned to Wisconsin and graduated with her Master’s degree in Environmental Conservation. She’s now returned to her hometown and is in search of her next adventure, but Nielsen says she is grateful for this experience and all that the Nelson Institute had to offer. 

“I really loved all the staff at Nelson, Meghan was our program coordinator and Nathan and Professor Rob Beattie are great as well,” Nielsen said. “A lot of the other professors are great too, there wasn’t anyone from Nelson that I didn’t like. I felt very supported by the staff and faculty. I think that’s one of the strengths of the program, its very student centric and I just felt very supported and encouraged as a student.”