Based up in the Lomond Hills, nature nut and hillwalker Ben Dolphin is the author of online wildlife and environment blog, Benvironment, and he writes regular nature columns for Walkhighlands and Outdoor Enthusiast Magazine.
Being a countryside ranger gives him plenty of inspiration and through his writing, photos and video blogs, Ben uses his encounters to enthuse people about the natural world, Scotland’s diverse landscapes and….of course…..Fife!
Hello! My name’s Ben and I’m bonkers for the natural world. Not only does it feature in my work as a countryside ranger but I think every spare second of my personal time is either spent in the outdoors, camera at the ready, or indoors writing about everything outdoors.
I won’t pretend that I’ve always been this way though, and indeed I find it astonishing to think back to a time when my every waking thought wasn’t preoccupied with the natural world; pondering where my next hillwalk will be, what my next piece of writing will be about, how I can help with local conservation tasks, or simply snapping away with my camera at anything & everything wild that crosses my path.
However, despite being a lifelong hillwalker my knowledge about the natural world was, until relatively recently, only ever what I’d been able to glean from avidly watching every single programme David Attenborough had ever made or narrated. But then in 2007 after years of guilt-free hillwalking I started to feel as though I was taking from the hills but not giving anything back. I immediately volunteered with a local ranger service to try and redress the balance and, quite unexpectedly, found exactly what I wanted to do. A job where you could raise environmental awareness, protect the hills and actually make a difference.
In the six years that followed I went back to college, got qualified, moved to Fife, accidentally started an environmental blog, became a regular volunteer with the Falkland Centre for Stewardship and the Fife Red Squirrel Group….and then finally got my first paid job as a countryside ranger. Unsurprisingly I’ve since acquired a great desire to protect our natural heritage and help others understand just how very special it is, and I’m immensely privileged to be in two professions where I can do just that.
Through my writing and rangering I try to show people the beauty of our diverse landscapes, but most of all I try to show how our wildlife is every bit the equal in drama and emotion to more exotic places in the world. That might seem a fanciful claim I admit, but whether it’s wildebeest evading crocodiles in Kenya, or chaffinches evading sparrowhawks in Kelty, the survival instinct is the same the world over and the story being told is that same universal one. The best story of all……Life!
What does Fife have to offer?
There’s more to Scottish wildlife than just our iconic species and there’s more to Scotland than just the Highlands & Islands….which brings us to Fife. Famous for once having a mining industry, spawning the Proclaimers, its award-winning fish & chips, and some golf courses at St Andrews…but is Fife famous for its wildlife and natural assets? Probably not.
Fife can surprise, however.
This wedge of a county stuck between the Tay and the Forth is almost an island, so it should come as no surprise that there’s a stunning 117 mile coastal path to walk. A summer stroll along the south and east coasts with their whitewash cottages, sandy beaches and blue sea gives you grandstand views of gannets and terns plunging into the water. The north coast offers you a marked contrast: quiet, sparsely populated and little visited, with expansive views out across the muddy and sometimes shimmering Tay. Beautiful ancient woodland hugs the rugged coastline between Balmerino and Flisk – oddly reminiscent of North America’s lush Pacific northwest, it’s one of Fife’s best kept secrets.
The seabird paradise of the Isle of May lies a few miles off Anstruther, where people flock daily in summer to see the 90,000 puffins go about their business. Seals bask all around the coast, even within sight of Kirkcaldy promenade as trains trundle past, and their mournful cries as they haul out on the sandbanks add a certain something to any coastal walk. And of course, white-tailed eagles, the largest bird of prey in Britain are regularly seen soaring over the Tay Estuary.
If trees are your thing then large stands of Forestry Commission pines, spruce and larch dot the landscape. Largest of these are Tentsmuir and Devilla, the former with its shifting sand dunes along an enormous sweep of beach, and the latter with four exquisitely beautiful lochs and more history crammed into it than your average museum. Fife’s conifer forests are a valuable refuge to its beleaguered red squirrels, but also to the resurgent pine marten…which appears to be reclaiming its old haunts in the west.
Inland we have the fertile, rolling farmland that characterises much of the Kingdom. This isn’t the place many people head in search of natural diversions but, again, you’d probably be surprised at how many lochs, woodlands, crags and dens are squeezed between the fields. Nature reserves are plentiful such as at Bankhead Moss (by the Peat Inn), a rare lowland raised bog where you’ll find the sundew, one of Scotland’s carnivorous midge-eating plants!
Slap bang in the middle of the Fife peninsula are the Lomond Hills. My home. This isolated range rises almost sheer from the Howe of Fife in the north and more gradually from the south, but whichever way you approach them from they eventually end in two peaks (or paps) connected by a high plateau that make up the highest land in Fife.
The hills are upland in nature but range from the urban periphery of Glenrothes to the barren moorland and grazing of West Lomond, at 522m the highest of the Lomond Hills. It’s a diverse and surprising landscape with reservoirs, hills, crags, waterfalls and fields. Fife’s largest expanse of heather moorland is up here, home to many ground-nesting birds such as red grouse and short-eared owls. The old stone dykes that criss-cross the hills offer nesting places for wheatears when they return from Africa in the spring, while kestrels, buzzards and ospreys are regularly seen overhead.
The Lomond Hills is where the Fife winter arrives first and lingers longest. With temperatures decreasing by approximately 1C every 100m you ascend, it can be blizzard conditions up on East Lomond but raining just 2km away in Falkland. Conversely, when the east wind blows and the fog rolls in off the North Sea, we’re often sat above a blanket of cloud enjoying blinding sunshine while the rest of Central Scotland and indeed Fife peers through dense fog. And on days like that there’s nowhere else in Scotland I would rather be.