Ross Watson, Woodland Trust Scotland
Andis, in his understated fashion, advised us we were to visit the Institute for Environmental Solutions, but left the explanation for what this was to the hosts. Our arrival at an equally understated building with a small airfield and areas of allotments turned out to be an incredible place. Introduced to us as being owned by the Latvian Richard Branson, the Institute for Environmental Solutions (IES) is a not for profit NGO, which aims to engineer solutions to environmental questions, designing equipment and methodologies that can then be used by the 11 other companies owned by the founder in a for profit basis.
It is an impressive set up, with a (for Latvia) diverse staff of 35, who are highly skilled and experienced in their fields of biology, chemistry, electronics, and others. The umbrella vision for IES and the other 11 companies is an ethos of environmental thinking through medicine, art, beauty, and gastronomy.
There is a conscious effort to break the barriers between science based knowledge and the experience of people who have gained a deep understanding of the land through years of working and living with it, blending the two to gain a higher level of understanding. This is done through job swaps, careful recruitment, local projects, and shadowing.
One of the main themes of discussion was on the best use of existing agricultural land to maximise products, and diversifying that product to reduce the need to clear more land for farming as the population continued to increase. This is done through looking at the potential of other crops and ‘weeds’, and looking at best ways to cultivate products currently being unsustainably harvested, such as ginseng, and camomile.
The topic that caused greatest discussion here was their use of technology to monitor and assess growth of species, from dandelions to wolves. Through the use of their monitoring plane, an ex UK Police plane, or through pre-programmed drones who carry out fixed point flights and analyse the data automatically via dedicated software, these ideas prompted many thoughts amongst the group.
Some of the equipment used for ecological monitoring.
In our current situation with the management of deer, helicopters count deer pushed out of woods, dung is counted and tree damage is measured. Through the use of visual video, thermal video, and spectral screening, these drones and software can potentially count fairly open woodland with less disturbance, and can also assess the hot points for damage through use of the spectral screen. This would allow the land manager to better understand the population, where it spends its time, and where it is hitting trees hardest. With fixed point flights, this can be done more frequently at a fraction of the cost of the helicopter and is directly comparable, with the software producing usable data, and not requiring manual counting of population.
Monitoring ground ivy growth using visual and infared drone cameras on a fixed flight transect.
One of themes running throughout the trip was the ability to recall where we had been, or who we had visited according to the food eaten. This place was unforgettable. An incredible lunch provided by the company, with the opportunity to discuss further with some of the staff who we met through the morning. During this, it provided valuable time to discuss their thoughts and experiences of herbivore monitoring further, prompting discussion amongst members of the group on how to move things like this forward in Scotland, who would lead this type of work, and how it may be paid for.
The finishing pitch from host Ugis Rotbergs was to offer the opportunity to host secondments at the Institute to allow people to further understand and experience the topics relevant. Every single one of the group left that place with their heads reeling with information, and plotting a way to return.