What’s it like to be a Rural Skills Apprentice?

It is an important part of our Heritage Skills project to support and encourage Callander’s young people to take up apprenticeship opportunities. But how do you decide if it’s the right way forward for you?

We asked one of our current Rural Skills Apprentices, Niall, to give us the lowdown on what he’s been up to over the last few months and the high points of the experience. Niall had finished three years studying Countryside Management at SRUC Oatridge when he joined the Callander’s Landscape team, his first employment in the conservation industry.

Over to Niall:

People working in a shallow trench

Working on the main trench at Cambusbeg West

I’ve managed to get up to quite a lot in the time I’ve been an apprentice, starting out with archaeological digs, which I’d never had the opportunity to do before. The most notable dig I was a part of was at Cambusbeg, just outside Callander. There was thought to be an Iron Age hill fort at this unique site in a clearing in a coniferous woodland. There were also remains that indicated the presence of structures such as a broch and several longhouses. This meant the site had multiple layers of history and archaeology overlapping; it made for an intriguing excavation. I learned new techniques in excavating as well as planning, mapping and sketching out sections of the main 10m x 1m trench.

I’ve managed to boost other skills like wildlife ID, especially with the WeBS counts (Wetland Bird Surveys) that I’ve carried out with rangers from the National Park at lochs such as Loch Venachar and Loch Achray. I’ve also had the chance to build on pre-existing skills such as invasive species control.

In all the projects I’ve been part of, I’ve got to meet a great bunch of volunteers. Being surrounded by people who are as passionate as you are about the outdoors and conservation is a great feeling.

The apprenticeship has exceeded my expectations as I’ve got to meet some really lovely and knowledgeable people, whilst doing the kind of conservation work I love as a job. Many people come from different backgrounds so you can gain a unique perspective by talking to all of them about their experiences and findings, especially those who have worked in the same site or area for many years and have seen how it has developed. Everyone is always open to help and willing to teach you new things, which creates a supportive work environment that I’ve not experienced anywhere else.

I have particularly enjoyed my time spent working with Scottish Natural Heritage. Having worked and researched on Flanders Moss during my time in school and college, I was familiar with the site and its significance as an area of conservation value. Getting the chance to work on it again was great, having learned about coppicing and its purpose as well as carrying out invasive species clearing. I hadn’t had the chance to clear western hemlock before, and didn’t realise how easily it spread, so this was a new skill learned.

Another massively beneficial element of the modern apprenticeship are the options for training courses. Just before the lockdown period, I was able to start my pesticide ticket which will be a great help in any future conservation roles.

The opportunities that come with the role, like being able to work with organisations such as Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry and Land Scotland and the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Rangers, are big highlights of my time spent in the apprenticeship, along with being able to work in such a significant area of conservation and natural beauty as the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. I have always loved the hills and the highlands, so getting to commute through the area and work there is a big boost.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 lockdown interrupted Niall’s normal work, although he did get the opportunity to get involved in some other projects under the Callander’s Landscape umbrella that could be undertaken while working from home.

I was supported to continue work from home – this allowed me to get further involved in different desk-based projects such as the Oral History Project, under the guidance of Ross Crawford from CLP and Monica Holloway from the Callander Heritage Society. The aims of this project are to capture past memories from residents of Callander, while tying it into their interactions with the amazing surrounding landscape. My role in this project so far has been to be a transcriber for some of the interviews. The opportunity to play a role in this project as well as have a go at transcribing – which I’d never done before – has been great and I’ve really enjoyed the transcription elements.

The rural skills apprenticeship is, in general, not a desk job though. Although Niall was able to get involved in related work, he was keen to get back involved in outdoor projects. Since August he has been busy back out in the field: helping with more archeological digs, finished his pesticide training, achieved his chainsaw ticket, and also helped create the scavenger hunt for families taking part in the John Muir Award. Always lots going on!

Want to find out more? Check out the project page and articles, or contact the Callander Youth Project for more information.