Polly Freeman is one of a handful of rangers in the Cairngorms whose duties include managing thousands of visitors to Scotland’s largest national park.
The seasonal ranger, with her Collie Effie at her side, is the first line of defence against the so-called ‘dirty campers’ who blighted many Highland Perthshire beauty spots last year.
As lockdown restrictions lift, there is a potentially huge job facing her and her colleagues this season.
She said: “People still have to enjoy the outdoors responsibly.
“If you think of images of camping, a campfire is one of the first things that springs to mind, so it’s understandable why people do it.
“But if you don’t know what you’re doing it can be dangerous. You can’t control burning embers and if it catches onto something it can be really bad.”
Polly is in her second year as a seasonal ranger with the Cairngorms National Park Authority.
She said even tidy campers sometimes leave a tell-tale circle of charred grass from their fire.
“You are supposed to leave no trace behind that you were camping. Leaving black and burned grass is a pretty big sign that you were somewhere,” she added.
‘We approach people nicely’
Polly continued: “You do get some people who seem to think the right to roam means they have the right to do anything, but it’s not like that at all.”
She said the vast majority of campers are “brilliant” and clear up after themselves.
“But there are a few that need reminded of the rules.
“We approach them nicely of course, and most of the time people are nice back. We don’t want to go in aggressive, that would just put people’s backs up.”
Although problem campers have dominated the headlines, the ranger job is much wider.
Rangers must also ensure dogs are under control, for example, among many other tasks where personal skills come to the fore.
“Bringing my own dog, Effie, helps with that. People are more responsive if they see I am a dog owner as well,” Polly added.
Busiest season ever?
I joined Polly and fellow CNPA seasonal ranger Tom Cole on Sunday to visit Glen Tilt, Atholl Estates, to learn more about how they are preparing for what could be their busiest season ever.
Polly and Tom will work to support Julia Duncan, the area’s full time ranger.
The first business of the day was to take in a tour of Glen Tilt to see if campers had been out over the long weekend.
The unseasonal Easter forecast, and the current stay local coronavirus advice, appeared to have discouraged many campers.
But the ranger team expect a busy season after a year of coronavirus restrictions and with many foreign holidays looking increasingly unlikely.
Julia, who took the Atholl post over from Polly two years ago, said: “It’s good to work with rangers and discuss how they can help us in our work maintaining the land and speaking to people out and about.”
The rangers will check out typical hotspots throughout the week and, when necessary, talk to visitors to remind them of the rules.
“Atholl Estates is about 140,000 acres of land, so it is a lot for one person to keep on top of,” Julia said.
Tom, who is also in his second year as a seasonal ranger with the Cairngorms National Park Authority, feels that while they do have to remind a “small minority” of visitors how to behave, the job is a rewarding experience.
He said: “We expect it might be quite a busy season because a lot of people might be holidaying in Scotland.
“It’s nice to get to grips with the site before it gets busy.
“But I love being out at the park and it’s nice to see visitors.
It’s just a small minority who maybe don’t know how to behave outdoors.”
“It’s just a small minority who maybe don’t know how to behave outdoors and maybe have fires inappropriately or create other problems.
“But 99% of people are fine and it’s a great job being out and about.”
A life-long outdoor enthusiast, Tom tends to spend his days off out in nature — but will use that opportunity to get to places he doesn’t tend to visit while on shift.
“We focus our resources where they are needed, so we often visit the obvious walking and camping spots.
“While out and about, I’ll often see somewhere in the distance or up a hill that there’s no real need to go to at that moment, but think ‘wow what’s it like there’.
“So when I have some time off I’ll be out to see it. It’s nice being out and enjoying these places.”