“ Address: Kinross / Perth & Kinross / Scotland „
The RSPB Vane Farm bird reserves is at the southern end of Loch Leven - which is a largeish body of shallow water surrounded by a disappointing amount of intensive agriculture in the Perth and Kinross district of Scotland. It's apparently an excellent place to watch wild waterfowl in autumn and winter, but personally I've only visited in summer when there is a bit less to see. Still, it's in a lovely setting with walks through birch woods up the hill behind the loch and the RSPB centre, together with the extensive metalled walks through the woods and around the loch, make it a good base for a family day out.
From the RSPB centre one of the walks takes you out and under the (very busy) main road adjacent; there were house martins nesting in the underpass when we visited, and also young toads going about their business which were really nice to see. Next you come to a series of small artificial (?) ponds in which parties of schoolchildren can go 'pond dipping.' Even without a net, there's a fair amount to see here in terms of freshwater invertebrates and aquatic / marginal plants. One of the nearest bird hides to the RSPB centre is in this area; this looks out over some shallow pools at the edge of the loch.
Unfortuantely Loch Leven has suffered from its positioning in Scotland's lowland belt; excess input of nutrients from the farmland around it affects the water quality, which is very poor particularly in summer, and during the warmer months there are regular 'red tide' warnings in the local press for the loch as toxic algal blooms emerge. In this sense Loch Leven doesn't really count as one of Scotland's 'wild places': away from the RSPB-owned land, you can see the extreme encroachment of agriculture right up around the margins of the loch. I found this difficult to overlook or forget about even during a day's visit to the site.
Still, the very accessibility of the loch means that visitor numbers are high and that the RSPB facilities are quite good. Well-maintained paths suitable for all-terrain prams as well as bicycles run around the edges of loch in the RSPB-owned areas (these are largely screened from the loch by earth embankments to avoid scaring the birds). At the centre there is a largeish car park, and moderately large (for an RSPB reserve) gift / birdwatching gear shop. Upstairs there's an all-right cafe that appears to have embraced a 'Fair-Trade everything' ethos (which means in practice of course that the fizzy cola is sustainably sourced but doesn't taste so good). The great advantage of the cafe is that being upstairs, it commands great views over the road to the loch on one side, and onto the hilly ground behind the centre on the other. (Although that said, if I was visiting for a whole day I would probably bring with me a picnic lunch instead). Similarly the public loos in the centre, while not all that much to complain about really, are of a standard that if this was a bird reserve in a more remote part of Scotland, would probably make me prefer to take my chances by going behind a secluded bush.
It costs about £3 - £4 for non-RSPB members to get into the reserve; if you're in the RSPB entry is free.
Loch Leven is situated midway between Perth and Edinburgh and is the largest loch in the Scottish Lowlands. The loch has the largest breeding population of ducks in inland Europe and is visited by thousands of migrating ducks, geese and swans every winter.
In recognition of its importance for wildlife, Loch Leven has been designated as a National Nature Reserve (National Nature Reserve status indicates that a site is one of the UK's most important sites for wildlife).
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds owns and manages a reserve on the banks of Loch Leven. This makes a superb focal point for a visit to the area. Members of the RSPB get in free; there's a small charge for non-members.
The facilities at Vane Farm are truly excellent. There are several bird hides, one of which is completely enclosed and glazed; a real boon on a cold Scottish morning at the loch side. There are also two trails for walking and bird watching, a large car park (with several disabled bays), toilets (including disabled toilets and baby changing facilities), a shop and a café. Indeed, there's all you need for a day out in the countryside.
A visit to Vane Farm at any time of the year will be a treat. The local scenery is beautiful at any time of the year, and the reserve itself is set in woodland at the base of the lovely Vane Hill. In summer, visitors will be treated to the spectacle of ospreys fishing in the loch and flying off with their catch to feed their chicks' voracious appetites.
The best time to visit is, however, autumn. Here the golds, reds, and browns, of the trees on the surrounding hills positively glow in the autumnal sunlight. In the morning, mist will be rising off the loch and the sound of thousands of pink-footed geese can be heard as they call loudly whilst searching for food.
The walk to the top of Vane Hill is well worth doing. This hill is only a couple of hundred feet high, so it only takes half an hour or so to get to the top, but what a view! At the top of the hill, visibility permitting, you can see for miles around taking in the lovely Kinross countryside.
The view is dominated, however, by the loch spread out below. An amazing spectacle visible from here are the flocks of geese flying about the loch; a viewer on the top of the hill actually looks DOWN on the birds flying below. This is quite an eerie feeling!
Back down at the visitor centre, its well worth trying the café. This is superb for two reasons; firstly the food is excellent. Top quality food, from quite a varied menu is served here. Best of all, however, you can eat your food looking out of the wide windows at the loch spread out before you. Binoculars and telescopes are provided for visitors to get a close look at the wildlife below.
The shop is also worth a look. Selling the usual RSPB fare of books, DVDs, clothing and bird food, it's a good place to pick up a souvenir of your visit.
The RSPB reserve at Vane Farm has a strong educational focus. School visits are hosted all year round aiming to show kids nature in a fun way and the prices are extremely good value.
A trip to Vane Farm, especially for families, is highly recommended if you're in the area. There's plenty to see and do (including eight miles of cycle track around the loch) and places to shelter if the weather turns inclement. Staff at RSPB reserves are invariably friendly and helpful, so if you've any questions on what to see (or what you've seen), just ask.
If you want to know more, the RSPB's website has lots of information and can be found at http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/v/vanefarm/index.asp.