From East coast to West coast: community learning exchange

Learning Exchange

Sarah Russell, Project Officer, St. Abbs and Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve (VMR), visited COAST last week for a mutual community group learning and ideas exchange. In this guest blog she lets us in on the highlights of the week!

Here We Go!

Having had 6 blissful ‘snow days’ completely cut off from civilisation courtesy of the ‘Beast from the East’ I was slightly concerned about being able to make my way to Arran for the learning exchange.

Learning ExchangeThe Monday morning in question, our road was still impassable, even after three solid days of digging. Our kids were starting to drive us insane, the schools were now open and I had a train to catch!

Being married to a farmer has its advantages, and cross country we went, via the neighbour’s fields in search of tarmac. Thankfully we made it out and I managed to catch a train to whisk me off to the west.

On arrival, it was like a different world, almost tropical. The COAST folk must think me mad complaining of being snowed in! Although arriving later than anticipated, they were all extremely welcoming in their fantastic new, beach side, sea view premises and we started discussions with earnest.

The Octopus Centre

Having identified topics and common objectives that both organisations wanted to cover, I listened with excitement to Manuela (COAST’s Communications Officer) describing plans for the new “Octopus Centre”.

Learning exchangeOne topic that was raised was the management of volunteers.  Volunteers are an extremely important cog within an organisation delivering significant contributions. It was suggested that a volunteer toolbox be created within the Coastal Communities Network, with templates and relevant documents being available to the members.

Without having time to catch breath, Jenny, COAST’s Educational Outreach Officer bustled me off to the Arran Outdoor Educational Centre, a fantastic resource that gives school children (mostly from different schools on the mainland) an opportunity to experience the great outdoors.

I was there in the capacity of “official photographer” while Jenny was delivering her highly informative and engaging presentation to the kids on COAST and the amazing marine life found in the waters around Arran.

It was so engaging that the questions at the end continued for at least an hour! I was amazed at everyone’s knowledge on marine issues and animals and how informed their questions were, they certainly didn’t make it easy for Jenny!

A well needed restful night staying at Jim’s house, one of COAST’s passionate supporters and an active trustee set me up for the next day of intensive talks.


Things kicked off with discussions regarding organisational governance with Paul, COAST’s new Director. As the VMR is updating its governance, I had done quite a bit of research into different organisational structures, and was interested to hear how COAST is set up.

There are many options for voluntary organisations and you have to find the one that is the ‘best fit”. There are organisations out there to help make the decision easier such as your ‘third sector interface’, OSCR and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO). Discussions also included the importance of Committee succession, something that the VMR has failed to implement and has subsequently paid the price.

Fundraising was the next item on the agenda. Thankfully both COAST and the VMR have recently been successful with LEADER applications, so many stories of ‘pulling hair out’ were exchanged!

Fundraising is an ongoing issue for many organisations, and not something that has an easy fix. Having clear aims and objectives and an identifiable organisational brand does make the whole process less of a headache, along with a fundraising strategy which saves time and resources for busy staff.


A boat trip with Russ (a dedicated COAST committee member) to deliver groceries to the local Buddhist retreat on neighbouring Holy Isle was tied in with some ‘field investigations’. Having recruited local creel fisherman, Ian, to accompany us on this trip, we set off in search of buoys that had reportedly been set by an unknown boat, spotted by a local resident.

One line was set adjacent to Holy Isle, and another shockingly within the ‘No Take Zone’. Reportedly this line had fouled the local ferry’s propeller, which works between Arran and Holy Isle. Sure enough, the offending creel line was discovered.

Even having the ‘No Take Zone’ in effect for nine years with prominent publication of the restrictions and the up to £50,000 fine for anyone caught taking anything out of it, bewilderment abounded that someone would flaunt the rules for whelks… let alone anything else.

The well-oiled machine that is COAST then sprang into action, alerting the authorities and using contacts to find the perpetrators. Although heart breaking to see rules put in place to protect our marine environment being abused, it was with admiration that I experienced first-hand the positive effect that organisations such as COAST can have in protecting our fragile and important marine habitats.

The News has hit the front page of the local newspaper, encouraging more vigilance in monitoring the protected areas by the local community. It goes to show that everyone can get involved with whatever background, knowledge or experience and make a valuable contribution to the protection of our marine environment.

Knowledge Sharing

Learning ExchangeAfter all the excitement, a well needed lunch in the local harbour café restored the ravenous crew! A more sedate discussion followed regarding stakeholder engagement, new technology and interpretation techniques.

Opportunities were discussed in connecting similar organisations and the sharing of ideas and/or resources. Creating promotional and educational tools, showcasing the astonishing marine environment surrounding Scotland’s shores benefits not only the organisation creating them, but all marine conservation bodies.

Day three started with an informative talk with Sibbie, COAST’s Treasurer. One important message became clear – to have financial safeguards in place and to ensure that robust accounting and bookkeeping procedures are followed. Outsourcing these activities may cost the organisation, but it will save time, resources and stress in the long run, and also make reporting to OSCR and funders an easier exercise.

Afternoon discussions touched on the importance of research and monitoring. Having sound scientific research and data to refer to, allows the development of sound management and conservation strategies. This is something that sharing knowledge and experience facilitated through the Coastal Communities Network could be really beneficial for organisations trying to establish themselves and deliver on conservation aims.

Working Together

COAST’s parting gift was to throw me in at the deep end assisting local volunteers deliver a “Green” show day at the local primary school. Sixty-seven kids, in different groups were shown an informative video about the local seagrass beds in Whiting Bay and then asked to make their own marine critter to adorn COAST’s seagrass bed displays.

An amazing display created by Francis, a local volunteer provided the inspiration. The imagination and invention by the children was amazing, using recycled plastic items to create the critters, reiterating the message of the problem of marine plastics. The final display and the children’s enthusiasm was inspirational and pushes home the message of educating and enthusing the next generation.

It was with sadness, and exhaustion that I boarded the ferry to start my return journey. One message that hit home as Brodick disappeared in the distance, is that we can make a difference in the protection of our valuable marine environments and working together, our voice is stronger.

There’s much value and potential in the Coastal Communities Network, giving us a platform to get connected and share our knowledge and experiences. Thank you to COAST for hosting this valuable experience!

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