Back to the Future @ SCENE

Living at a field station can be a challenging experience, from working in extreme weather to insect infestations and long, active days. But life at a field station is also full of rewards for the intrepid field biologist. Typically in remote or semi-remote locations, they offer those living there a uniquely intimate look at the surrounding natural world. Dr Dominic McCafferty reflects about his own time living and working in the wilds, as well as giving a little bit of the Loch Lomond station’s history.

Many field stations are in remote or semi-remote areas, giving their inhabitants unique perspectives.
Many field stations are in remote or semi-remote areas, giving their inhabitants unique perspectives.        © David Palmar

Back to the Future @ SCENE

I stowed my gear on RRS James Clark Ross and watched Bird Island Field Station recede into the mist, only the peaks of mainland South Georgia visible as darkness fell. This had been my study site and home for the previous two and a half years while researching foraging behaviour of fur seals with the British Antarctic Survey… but it was now time to head north. Fast forward 20 years to May 2016 and I am unloading boxes of equipment, books and a computer at the Scottish Centre for Ecology and the Natural Environment (SCENE) in Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park—a move from the main University of Glasgow campus where I have been teaching for some time. Sooner or later it was going to come to this. I have always been drawn to field stations: as an undergraduate I spent a hot summer at Tour du Valat, a French research station within the wetlands of the Camargue, studying the egrets and flamingos that thrive in the marshes and salines of the Rhône delta. Nearer to home I’ve been lucky enough to spend two autumns on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, studying the grey seals as they come ashore to pup. I am now enjoying Loch Lomondside and the uplands of Scotland as winter approaches.

A little close for comfort: The British Antarctic Survey field station on Bird Island, South Georgia surrounded by Antarctic fur seals on the beach.
A little close for comfort: The British Antarctic Survey field station on Bird Island, South Georgia surrounded by Antarctic fur seals on the beach. © Dominic McCafferty

This year we celebrate 70 years of field stations on Loch Lomondside. Like most research stations, SCENE had humble beginnings when, in 1946, field laboratories were assembled from ex-army huts on the west shore of Loch Lomond at Rossdhu.1 In 1964, the University Field Station (as it was then known) was built on the current location on the east shore of the loch, 5 km south of Rowardennan. The current research facility at SCENE was completed in 2007 and the teaching building was officially opened in 2014. The research facility houses lab space, aquaria for running in-house experiments, offices, and living space for students. Both PhD and Masters students are based here, running experiments at the facility and in the surrounding environment. This building is named in honour of Professor Peter Maitland, one of Scotland’s leading freshwater ecologists today. The newer teaching building—named in honour of Dr Harry Slack, the first Director (1946-1972) at both Rossdhu and Rowardennan—hosts residential courses for university students, as well as a diversity of short courses, training workshops and meetings. The second Director was Dr Roger Tippett from 1972-1995, after whom Professor Colin Adams became the current Director.

It was Professor Adams who led the redevelopment of SCENE, and he continues to run an extremely active research group in freshwater ecology. He is joined by our Deputy Director Dr Barbara Helm, an ornithologist specialising in circadian rhythms and seasonality in birds who conducts her research in the surrounding woodlands. This Autumn we are delighted to welcome Liza Wallace, who has joined the support staff, providing essential assistance to Rona Brennan (bursar), who caters for all SCENE residents. Davy Fettes and Stuart Wilson continue to provide the essential technical support in the lab, on land or by boat on the loch.

Recently, I came across an interesting report highlighting the scientific value of field stations. The authors had compiled an inventory of more than 1200 biological stations that are currently in operation in 120 countries, stretching from the Arctic to the Antarctic. It seems SCENE is similar to many other field stations around the world: a large proportion were set up after World War II, and more than a third are currently linked with universities. One fascinating statistic they report is that “the global network of biological field stations constitutes an environmental infrastructure worth above US$1.3 billion per year, which is comparable with the annual budget of CERN (approx. US$1.2 billion in 2014).” This certainly highlights the scientific significance of our field stations as a global resource for environmental monitoring, research and education.

So what is the appeal of a field station? For me, as an ecologist, it’s inspiring and just seems right to be surrounded by the natural environment on a daily basis. It’s certainly renewing my interest in avian ecology. Many like-minded types also comment on the camaraderie and shared experience that is a feature of field station life: that mix of work and socialising that comes with a small, close-knit community.

My main role is to coordinate the MRes Ecology and Environmental Biology, a one year Masters course providing scientific training for a career in ecological science or a PhD. Most of the teaching takes place on the main University campus in Glasgow (only 1 hour away by car) but this is the second year we have been running a bursary scheme for students to live and work at SCENE while undertaking their MRes. Our two new bursary students are settling in well to life at SCENE since they started in September: Danielle Orell is a keen fish biologist and Lucy Winder an ornithologist (you’ll read more from them in due course). If you are reading this and are interested in an MRes at SCENE, have a look at how to apply.

After many years living and working in field stations, I now look forward to future research opportunities and many more field adventures. So, it’s back to the future at SCENE, and great to be here in the 70th year of research at Loch Lomondside.

Thanks to Colin Adams for interesting discussions on the history of the field station and to David Palmar for kind permission to use his superb Loch Lomond panorama
  1. Maitland, P. S. & Hamilton, J. D. Glasgow University Field Station at Rossdhu, Loch Lomond: the first British University Freshwater Field Station. Hydrobiologia 290, ix–x (1994). doi: 10.1007/BF00008945

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