I’m almost finished my Master’s degree and thought it would be nice to take time out of writing my dissertation to write about my dissertation. As an aspiring wildlife biologist, I intend to combine my love of the animals and fieldwork, with my inner mapping (and now modelling) nerd. To do this I went to the Isle of Rum to observe red deer Cervus elaphus. Not quite in the Caribbean, but off the West coast of Scotland, the Isle of Rum is home to a population of red deer that have been individually studied since 1972 as part of the Isle of Rum Red Deer Project.
On our way to Rum, a course friend, Callum, and I spent a week at the University of Edinburgh learning about the existing database and checking for data entry errors that could get in the way of accurate analysis. While in Edinburgh we did some sightseeing, and took part in the “March for Science” with researchers from the University among other scientists and supporters from further afield. This was the first march I’d ever been on and it was a very positive first experience, the scientists were an organised friendly bunch and I even met two of the cuddliest scientists to date.
After a few days, when all the data was checked, we started our epic train journey to the coast. The scenery immediately won me over; Loch Lomond was stunning, with snow-capped peaks near Fort William that took me by surprise having come from the sunny South. We stayed overnight in a seaside village and got the ferry across in the morning. Much to our pleasure, we saw two harbour porpoises Phocoena phocoena, a grey seal Halichoerus grypus and a raft of puffins Fratercula arctica during the ferry crossing. The island couldn’t have welcomed us much better either; the sun was shining as we pulled up to a gorgeous stone cottage with sea views and a rustic coal Rayburn. This was exactly the kind of break from university, reality, and internet that I needed.
After setting our bags down and enjoying lunch, the first afternoon was spent learning how to identify individual deer. The long-term study relies on individual based knowledge; therefore, each deer must be uniquely identifiable. To make this easier, a pocket guide is created each spring with the markings and names of each deer within the study area. Tagging takes place when deer are calves and thus smaller, easier to catch (supposedly) and a lot more biddable. Unfortunately, our stay didn’t overlap with the calving season so we weren’t able to get involved with this side of things. A multitude of biometrics and samples are collected, including samples for DNA analysis, for ongoing research projects. Females are marked with a collar, and numbered ear tags holding in tri-coloured flashes. Males are marked with numbered ear tags holding in simpler coloured flashes. Both sexes are also marked by ear punches. As with any identification system there are times when tags or collars are lost and sometimes even with a spotting scope it is difficult to identify the deer. Luckily, the field assistants who work on the island full time know the deer inside out and back to front!
As part of my research project we carried out behavioural observations on the deer that spent their days on the short greens. It was largely unsurprising when the deer spent much of their day grazing and ruminating, and grazing again. This did provide us with the perfect opportunity to practice our identification skills, as well as acquire a tick or two. Back at the University of Reading I am completing the other part of my project, which involves sitting behind my computer and creating an energy budget model for red deer in NetLogo. I am enjoying this work too, although the de-bugging of code has been frustrating at times. My model aims to replicate the island’s study population by modelling each individual based on its energetic requirements. In theory, the completed model could be utilised as a scenario-based predictive tool.
Mostly we worked hard, but sometimes we took shelter from the wind. Photos by Callum Relph-Assirati
The second part of our fieldwork was focused around Callum’s project, and when put bluntly it involved mowing the island with a pair of kitchen scissors. As part of his thesis, Callum is attempting to quantify the biomass of vegetation at various points on the island and calibrate this with satellite imagery. This became an excuse for us to walk around the whole island and take samples from quite breath-taking locations. After the vegetation samples were collected, they were sorted into their relative components including live and dead grass, heather, and moss. In addition to Callum’s samples, we sorted some samples from the study area that were added to the long-term dataset that we had been checking whilst in Edinburgh.
As well as fieldwork, we enjoyed the pace of island life; meals took forever to prepare on the Rayburn, generally only one of us had a bath each evening, we played good old-fashioned card games, ate s’mores and I didn’t wash my hair once. One of the nights was particularly special as we walked/stumbled a 10-mile round trip from our house to the village hall where we joined the May ceilidh. Despite having four left feet between us, Callum and I made for an entertaining partnership, and we had so much fun! The short time I had spent on the island was perfect, although when we left we were eagerly anticipating fish and chips followed by a shower. On our return ferry crossing to the mainland, we were blessed with a sighting of a pod of common dolphins Delphinus delphis that seems to me a good enough sign that I should go back.