Helping Handa- a collective journal

At the beginning of April, a fantastic volunteering opportunity arose for our members of staff to visit and volunteer at Handa Island. Three members of staff joined Rab Potter (Reserves Manager) and Chris Archbold (Reserves Project Officer) and the Handa Island team for a week of adhoc tasks including replacing non-native conifers in the Bothy plantation with trees native to Sutherland.  

The Island © Scottish Wildlife Trust

Our staff, Rosie (Riverwoods Partnerships Officer), Bianca (HR Officer) and Felix (Conservation Officer – Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels) had a wonderful time and have written a collective journal about their trip!

Day 1
An early morning start for the Edinburgh team. We drove up with Rab from Perth, stopped at the Coigach and Assynt Tree Nursery to pick up the whips for planting! Whilst at Coigach, a man with a dog named Holly gave us a loin of venison (Roe deer!) 

We stopped by Ullapool to meet with Chris and Felix and collect our food for the week.We alighted the boat over to Handa from Tarbet and moved our belongings to the Handa bothy.

Our team started our adventure by exploring the island and ventured on a walk up to a viewpoint named ‘The Stack’ where we saw several seabirds such as: Guillemots, Razorbills Kittiwakes and Fulmars. We walked along to ‘Puffin Bay’ and lay on the thrift or ‘Sea pink’ and continued our viewing of the gliding fulmars over our heads. Alas! No puffins to be seen. 

Our night ended with a cooked meal of vegetarian bolognaise and getting to know our bunkmates for the week.

The Bothy © Scottish Wildlife Trust

Day 2
Our day began with watching Rab, Chris and our Handa Ranger, Linnea clean the septic tank (compost toilet for visitors). Watching, not participating! We left that to the professionals. Rosie, Bianca and Felix explored the beaches and rock pools nearby – with sightings of Oystercatchers and Ringed Plovers.  

Following this, Rosie and Bianca ventured out to the east side of the island with the Handa Team whilst Chris spotted Felix as he went for a dive to find some scallops (unfortunately, there were none and they came back with cockles instead). The hiking group saw several sea birds including: shags in all their deep emerald glory and even a sea eagle chasing the kittiwakes – the first of many!  

In our free time after the walk, Bianca decided to brave the ocean and went for a quick dip, along with one of the volunteers and found that a seal had been swimming alongside them! Bianca took 2 hours to warm up but expressed that it was worth it!

Our feast for the evening was courtesy of Chef Felix with a creamy leek and butterbean pasta. A fantastic first full day on Handa.  

A fun fact we learned: Although they are considered as seabirds, a Shag’s feathers are not waterproof! This allows them to dive and stay underwater longer.

Day 3
The start of our work week. We all got up and ready to head to Tarbet to collect and move timber used for the boardwalk around the island. On a physically challenging day, we loaded the boat in two loads and then off the boat to the bay in another 2 loads. Felix also taught Rosie how to tie a bow line knot!  

A total of 100 12ft runners and 1000 slats were moved by our team (with the solid help of the power barrels), lasting the full work day, the team worked with immense positivity and definitely earned our lunch that day!  

In the evening, we rescued a dead beached Risso’s dolphin out of the main visitor beach, with the help of a passer-by’s boat who took the dolphin away from the beach. The team watched from a distance and as soon as they thought we were out of sight, let the dolphin go…we feared it would come back on our beach after all that effort!  

At the end of the happenings, Rosie, Chris and Bianca spotted Felix as he snorkelled along the landing beach. 

© Scottish Wildlife Trust

Day 4
Tree planting day! Chris talked us through how he uses the strimmer to clear the area we were going to work on, and the team learned how to plant the trees by demonstration from Rab and Chris.

Pit planting: use a spade to cut into the earth in a square shape until it breaks all the roots etc. Tip it over and put back in the hole. Put the spade in the middle for space for the plant. Put the tree in and fill it with soil, make sure there are no air pockets by pushing it down with your feet or hands. Put the stake next to it, consider sun travel through the day and protection from wind etc. Wrap a tube around it and tie it to the stake.  

Again, the team smashed this out of the park within the work day and with the help of one of the seasonal volunteers, Katie. We planted over 120+ trees including Birch, Alder, Oak and Rowan. Katie then informed us that our friend the dolphin landed back on Traigh Shourie, another beach on Handa located on the west of the island. At least it was out of the main visitor beach! 

We also learned how to identify conifers from Chris and Rab:

Spruce = spiky when you feel the needles
Fir – smells fruity
Larch = lots of needles come off in your hand
Pine = the needles are in pairs when you pick them off  

Again, we definitely earned our dinner that night! Chef Felix whipped up the cockles they had found earlier on in the week along with the main meal: sweet potato and chickpea curry. What an interesting combo!

Day 5
An interesting night for our team after the previous meal! But we powered through. The weather turned for the worst as we did a full loop of the island, having to be very careful with our footing due to strong winds and showers.  

The team proceeded to do a litter pick at one of the sites in the east of the island, with some interesting finds such as milk cartons and shoes!  

The afternoon was spent bringing wood down from the bothy and stacking it away for the Handa team to use for their fire. Our mentors, Chris and Rab taught us the mechanics of the chainsaw and we lived out our lumberjack dreams for a couple of hours, chopping up firewood. We also had a go at fixing some of the board walk that were broken and left feeling very accomplished!

Day 6
Last full day on Handa. The team helped out with a beach clean in one of the other beaches – Traigh Shourie, where our friend the dolphin washed back into! We finished up with all our tasks, including chopping up the last of the firewood and then we had some free time before the dreaded departure home the next morning.  

Rosie and Bianca went for a quick swim at the beach whilst Felix tried to go last minute dive but found that due to technical difficulties Roger, the ferry operator was unable to collect the visitors right away. Instead, Felix and the Handa team initiated a group beach clean on the landing beach with over 20 visitors that had been waiting for Roger. A fantastic way to end the day. Rosie and Bianca went for one last lap around the west of the island, enjoying the luxury of being only 2 of 9 on such a beautiful island during sunset!

Chef Rab made some mac and cheese and we all reflected on the wonderful week we have had together. A truly memorable experience. 

Sightings on Handa:  

  • Ringed plover, we took some notes on their habitat, behaviour and appearance which was an incredibly mindful activity:  
    Face looks like a mask, white and brown
    ⁃ Pinky orange beak and white under beak
    ⁃ On rocks eating seaweed
    White underside
    Light brown top of head and top of body
  • Sea eagle
  • Guillemot
  • Razorbill
  • Great black backed gull
  • Kittiwake
  • Fulmar
  • Oyster catcher
  • Black guillemot
  • Shag
  • Eider ducks
  • Snipe
  • Hooded crow
  • Grey seal
  • Robin
  • Blackbird
  • Meadow pipit
  • White tailed eagle
  • Great Skuas
Staff hard at work! © Scottish Wildlife Trust staff

The staff members who took part shared their stand out moments and what they learnt from this volunteering experience:

Bianca: “Handa was an exhilarating experience and one I will never forget! For me, as the Trust’s HR Officer, it is all about the people and the best thing to take from this week was that our staff and volunteers on the reserves do such amazing things on the ground. It was so refreshing to learn from my colleagues and has really cemented my passion and admiration for the people that we work with and the work that we do here at the Scottish Wildlife Trust. A fantastic week of spirited teamwork and connecting ourselves to nature.”   

Felix:Thanks for an extremely productive week in the sunshine with a great team, can’t wait to return and see our handywork over the coming years – highlight has to be watching white tailed eagles soaring effortlessly above us whilst we lug timber up and down a windy beach.”

Rosie:I had the most amazing time in Handa – spending a week outdoors learning from colleagues who have so much passion and care for their jobs was truly inspiring and exactly why I wanted to work at the Trust!”

A huge thanks to Rab, Chris and the Handa Team (Linnea, Katie, Lora & Rebecca) for having us for the week. 

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At the beginning of April, a fantastic volunteering opportunity arose for our members of staff to visit and volunteer at Handa Island. Three members of staff joined Rab Potter (Reserves …

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