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Bat Caves and Beavers and Rats. Oh My!

By 12th September 2014

When you’re running down the twitter feed and someone tweets a photograph of an actual, real-life Bat Cave it kinda stops you in your tracks.  Perthshire Wildlife was promising a walk to a Bat Cave in Perthshire and OMG how much did I want to go? What sort of person, I wondered, can offer a walk to a Bat Cave?  A person that I wanted to meet, that’s who!

Daniele Muir and I catch up for a quick chat about Perthshire Wildlife and the Bat Walk and as I sit listening I can’t help but ask another question and another question and another question.  She is bursting with enthusiasm and I am lost in a wonderful daze of dragonflies, swifts and beavers. Enough! We have to meet properly, with lots of time to spare, so that Daniele can tell me all about this amazing life she has spent in nature. 

In between this meeting and our Big Personality catch up, I pop her Bat Walk up on facebook and almost instantly there is a comment from an old neighbour singing the praises of this animal woman that the local children loved to visit.

“Oh that was when I worked for Zoolab and had a house full of animals. I did school visits and all the kids would come round to pet the rats. It was such good fun.”

I’m already hooked. A Bat Cave and a queue of children waiting to pet your collection of rats. You don’t get much more Big Personality than this.

Daniele primary schoolDaniele tells me she has been in love with nature for as long as she can remember. As a small child she lived in Lunan between Montrose and Arbroath and, she says, it was idyllic.

“There was a wall that ran along the bottom of our garden and a den that stretched for half a mile down to an old railway bridge.   I was always outside playing and I daydreamed about setting it up as my own nature reserve. I was in the young ornithologists club, which is like the Junior RSPB, and every month I had this little pile of magazines to read through, one from them, Living Countryside and BBC Wildlife.  I loved it all.”

I wonder if she was a bit of geek (I mean this in the nicest way possible – I was a geek at school. Lots of the people I really like were.) She laughs and tells me about an underhanded compliment she once received:

“It’s weird that someone like you is interested in stuff like this.” was one person’s ‘kind’ way of saying a normal girl shouldn’t love bats.

“But I did. I liked boys, nightclubs and bats!” 

As you might expect Daniele left home to study Environmental Science and after completing her degree at Aberdeen Uni she headed to Farborough in South England to continue her studies in,  Environmental Management.

“I was near Basingstoke Canal and I’d never seen anything like it before. It’s built on chalk and the water was so clear and beautiful. There were dragonflies everywhere; if I’d known then what I do now I may have paid more attention.”

Dragonfly

She’s referring to her part time job as the Scottish Scotland Officer for the British Dragonfly Society. As well as setting up Perthshire Wildlife she works part time as a Ranger, consults on a swift conservation project in the Carse of Gowrie and, as I’ve just explained, also works with the dragonflies.   Her life is wrapped front-to-back and back-to-front in nature.

After Farnborough she spent some time training with the Scottish Wildlife trust as an ecological surveyor, looking at plants, rivers and birds. She went from here to the Forestry Commission Scotland where she surveyed plants in different habitats.  At this time she was living in Dundee with a boyfriend and working in Highland Perthshire.  

“I loved it. There were the most amazing forests and wild, wild landscapes. One of the locations I worked at was Loch Bhac and when you travel to this as your office every day, you know you’re lucky.”

With this statement in mind, what comes next is a bit bizarre! She headed off to Kuwait with her then boyfriend and worked for a year as his personal assistant.

“It wasn’t all bad. I learned to dive there and would go swimming with dolphins. I had one of my most amazing wildlife experiences ever swimming with a turtle - it was wonderful. But I missed the greenery and the outdoors. It was all built up and I was homesick.”

One year was enough, she was back to the UK and decided that in order to get ahead she needed to brush up on her IT skills. She took a course that saw her end up at Rhodes Uni in Grahamstown, South Africa, living close to her sister who was out there at the time.  She was on work placement doing IT for the botany department and together with a Dutch and German Student she was taken on a trip around the National Parks of the Southern Coast.. 

OwletWhat becomes clear as I chat to Daniele is that she recalls her life through a very distinct set of nature led milestones. Her experiences with wildlife all pinpointing specific times and places in her story.  It’s not complicated or contrived, like some stories. She’s not searching for dates or recalling her age or haircolour.

For this portion of the story she describes sitting in South Africa and watching pied kingfishers “they’re black and white, and bigger than our kingfishers. They are just beautiful. And the sands are so, so white all along that coast.”

From South Africa she headed to France working for two seasons as a Wildlife Guide for a camping company.  It was mainly British and Dutch holidaymakers and Daniele offered guided walks for families in the wild area surrounding the campsite.    

“That was possibly the best two seasons of my life. I was so, so happy taking out families, chatting about the wildlife. The nature around the sites was stunning.  All I could think at the time was ‘This is what I want to do. I am good at this.’ I woke up everyday and walked out to find Golden Eagles, Wild Boar and Wild Orchids.   People loved it, I was passing on my knowledge and people enjoyed what I was saying.

I remember one boy, his family came out on every walk I offered for the two weeks they were there. We were walking in the Lapanouse de Cernon which translates as the ‘Orchid Valley’ and he was running around with a butterfly net, tramping on these amazing orchids and all I could think was ‘he’s going to be an entomologist!.’ It was a pleasure to spend time with people like that.”

When she came back to the UK she had in her head the idea of setting up a business that offered the same guided walks and wildlife experiences to families in Scotland. I’m poised, ready for the Perthshire Wildlife story to start but this wasn’t her time. She worked as a seasonal ranger at Ben Lawers and Crombie Park in Angus offering guided walks and carrying out practical work and wildlife surveys. 

She tells me she was back at Crombie Park last month, training a group in dragonfly identification and recording..

“I went into the back and there, hanging from the ceiling, was a dragonfly mobile I had made 14 years earlier. It was as though I had come full circle.” 

DM Beaver WalkI’m looking at this softly spoken, smiling woman. She looks young for her 43 years and yet, has what my nana would have called an old soul.  The connection that she clearly has runs deep and I can’t help thinking that most people who follow their dreams to their end and make a life out of their passion will, at some point come full circle. It’s inevitable.  

After the seasonal ranger work the Zoolab job came up and before you could say Madagascan Hissing Cockroach she had a house full of animals and a daily drive to schools all over Scotland.  

‘What, you had to keep the animals at home with you?’ I’m a bit perplexed at the thought of this, I can’t lie!

“Yes! I had this amazing array of animals and I basically looked after them, loaded them into my car and headed for whichever school had booked me. So I could be in Inverness one day and Edinburgh the next. I loved the animals and I really enjoyed working with the kids. They loved it so much – that’s why they used to come to my house. To see the ZooLab pets.”

What sort of pets…?

“Let’s see. I had rats, scorpions, a tarantula, a Madagascan hissing cockroach, a corn snake called Jaffa, toads, a giant African Land Snail… lots! I became so attached to them, though and if one died I would get upset. I was exhausted with all the driving and it was a lot of animals to care for so I gave it all up to join the Countryside rangers. That was 12 years ago!”

Last year there were some cuts in her department and all of the rangers decided to lose a day rather than anyone getting paid off. This is when she picked up part time work with The British Dragonfly Society raising awareness of dragonflies and their importance to our natural habitat. She’s spent the last few months  going to events and encouraging people to start recording dragonfly sightings.       

She also consults on a swift project and works with the Carse of Gowrie Sustainability Group raising awareness of the very real danger of extinction facing this wonderful, native bird.

“Swifts live in nooks and crannies, mainly in old buildings; they mate for life and come back every year to the same spot. As old buildings have been demolished and new ones have gone up, all of the natural nesting points for swifts have vanished. With my work as a  Ranger we set up a swift project that asked people to report sightings so that we could set out swift priority zones. We passed that information to planning and when applications were made for developing in these areas they were asked to build in swift boxes and nesting nooks. It’s incredibly easy to do and could help to save a species.”

Batcave

There is passion and love in every word she speaks; when I ask her about her career highlights, she tells me about an ‘amphibians in drains’ project she took from initiation to fruition.

“Thousands of amphibians die in gulley pots every year. We set up a watch and encouraged the reworking of country roadsides to save these animals. The project won three awards for Perth and Kinross Council.”

Although a part time job as a countryside ranger, Swift Conservation Consultant and Scottish Dragonfly Officer may seem like full time work Daniele decided that this was her time!

“You know that old saying about changes opening a window of opportunity? I embraced that.  I started Perthshire Wildlife last April and I’m gradually growing it so that next spring I can do more guided walks and launch the day tours. I can’t wait!”

This year there have been walks in the Bluebells Woods, Beaver walks, Bat walks and outings to spot deer in their natural habitat. Next year she plans to do minibus Day Tours to some of Perthshire’s nature hot spots. Imagine a day spent spotting deer, looking at wild orchids, red grouse, black grouse, redkites and, if you’re really lucky, Sea Eagles.

“I had to sit my mini bus license which is why it couldn’t happen this year. I’ve been so busy with the swifts and dragonflies it was impossible to fit it all in.” 

Side note… How much do you love that she has learned to drive a minibus in order to make this happen?!

Daniele with Boy

“I think it’s really important that kids get out into the country and explore. My childhood was idyllic and I can’t help but feel that kids nowadays seem to be chained to computers and game stations.  I’ve been reading research that says this generation is becoming detached from nature and that saddens me. If you don’t know about this stuff how can you care for it? We need to do something that engages kids in a way they’ll enjoy and makes learning fun.”

“Studies have shown that greenspaces and the outdoors can aid mental health issues. I can’t help but see the obvious link here. Of course it does – fresh air, connecting with nature. What’s not to love? It destresses everyone I know!”

There is a real sense of duty burning at Daniele and a genuine wish to share her love of nature and wildlife with everyone around her.  She takes me with her on this journey and my imagination is fired up no end (to whit, there will be a kids’ Perthshire Nature Column starting very soon on Small City, Big Personality!)

I want to know her favourite experience – out of all of these amazing connections she has had with nature and from all of her life’s major milestones what is her standout moment.

Lemony Snicketts“It’s a tough one. But probably seeing beavers in the wildl in Scotland for the first time. The official release of beavers was over in Knapdale in Argyll but at the same time some escaped from  private collections in Perthshire and they have been breeding and living on the Ericht ever since. These are the beavers I take my walks to see. Its breathtaking.”   


Today she has one dog and five rats. Lemony Snicketts is her most recent addition rescued from the streets of Blairgowrie! “The really nice guy at Something Special Flowers called it in. There are two in the rescue centre at pets for home right now…. I’m trying to resist but they’ve been there two weeks already. That rat number could seven by the time I see you on Saturday!”

Daniele is 43. Her life is wrapped front-to-back and back-to-front in nature. She is as infectious as a small child. And she knows the way to the Bat Cave.

***

Check out our events section for Daniele's Bat Walk on Saturday 13th September. The Bat Walk!

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