Rhododendron Ponticum, And Scottish Eco-Tourism

img 6981 300x225 Rhododendron Ponticum, And Scottish Eco TourismLiving in an area that sees plenty of sun, and hot dry summer weather, Rhododendrons are the last plant I would expect to see running amok through my neighborhood, but this popular garden plant is doing just that through the British Isles.

My sister and her husband recently traveled to Scotland to stay with friends, and catch up on some our family history, in the Scottish Highlands.  While they were there, they  discovered that the number one targeted invasive species “across the pond” was the popular garden plant the Rhododendron.  While the plant is innocuous throughout most of the United States, keeping to itself, and minding it’s manners, in the cool moist climate of Scotland, it has been changing the face of the Scottish Highlands, and spreading at an alarming rate.  Like most invasive species, the Rhododendron ponticum has several trademarks that make it both a nuisance, and an ecological threat, including rapid reproduction, soil altering qualities, and inedible and poisonous foliage and flowers for wildlife.  This beautifully blooming plant has rapidly taken over entire under-stories of the forest from the Lowlands of Scotland to the Highlands, where unfortunately, after centuries of forced human relocation, cattle outnumber the people, and habitat managers are hard to come by.

Fortunately for the Scottish people, their clan system has been a boon when it comes to organizing new initiatives for the country, and The Highland Council, Scottish Natural Heritage, Highland and Islands Enterprise, and others groups have worked together closely with the local people to educate, and encourage large scale action toward a detailed Highland Biodiversity Plan.  Sharing a few similarities with other habitat initiatives that I participate in, this Highland program seeks to protect the areas that have been compromised by years of neglect, and uncontrollable invasive growth, to rebuild the diverse habitats that make Scotland unique.  There is an urgency here though, to save the plant and animal life that occurs only on this small pocket of the planet, before it is completely overcome by the invasive competition, such as the Rododendron ponticum.  The “UK Biodiversity Action Plan” reported on 238 priority species, and 42 priority habitats in need of help in Scotland alone, with 192 of the species, and 40 of the 42 habitats falling within the boundaries of the Scottish Highlands.

Obviously there will be huge obstacles standing in the way of such a monumental habitat restoration project, so I began doing a little research into the local projects run with such brilliance by the Scottish people, and discovered a new wave of eco-tourism that targets the Scottish Highlands themselves, bringing in extra hands to help.  According to BBC’s Gardeners World, a group calling themselves the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, has devised a wonderful scheme to attract eco-conscious people to volunteer their “holiday,” to environmental projects across Scotland and England.  They are known as BTCV Conservation Holidays, and specialize in “Eco-tourism”, providing volunteers with food, shelter, plumbing, and a service project with local people, in an exotic location, most often located near historical or tourist locations. The “Ardross Castle project” specifically targets the Highland Rhododendron, and has been making great strides in controlling the plant, in areas that would have be overcome without large scale management.

The BTCV company began only a few years ago as 40 volunteers, but their eco-tourism packages have hit such a chord with volunteers, that there are now projects available in Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, working on biodiversity, and sustainable living. Their package deals allow potential volunteers to choose a type of work that most suits them as well, with skills ranging from dry stonewalling, coastal clean-up, and woodland management, to name a few. The group can also help tourist volunteers target the local attractions after their projects are done, to make a vacation more complete.

Eco-tourism is a brilliant idea in my book, because it helps channel an individual’s efforts in a way that not only makes a difference on an environmental issue, but it invests each volunteer in the specific area that they are working with on at a deeply personal level – which I think will make more of a difference in the long-term future.  I think BTCV is also tapping into a quirky human trait as well, that makes it easier for many of us to provide menial labor, and charity in a beautiful location, before we feel comfortable doing it at “home.”  I think it’s commendable that companies like this assist local people, like those working in the Scottish Highlands, to create regular influxes of volunteers into areas that ordinarily wouldn’t receive much help or word of mouth recognition.

My thoughts: I’m not sure if I would ever participate in eco-tourism.  I’d like to think that I will commit to environmental causes closer to home, for my own volunteerism, but the idea of traveling to another country to learn about the people and the place is intriguing.  If I was to volunteer with a company like BTCV, I’m sure that it would be in an area that I felt ancestrally tied to, as a way of learning some of my own cultural history, and spending some time absorbing the customs and rhythm of the place and people.

What do you think:  Would you ever participate in a form of eco-tourism?  Would it make a difference if you felt a personal, or historic tie to the location? Do you think that eco-tourism is here to stay, or is it another fad riding on the heels of our global warming fears?