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Good, accessible RSPB reserve
Vane Farm RSPB Nature Reserve (Kinross)
Member Name: worst_trip
Vane Farm RSPB Nature Reserve (Kinross)
Advantages: Accessibility; good visitor facilites
Disadvantages: Loch Leven itself isn't in such a great state (but this is hardly the RSPB's fault)
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.
Summary: Not exactly your Scottish Highland dream, but still a good base for a family day out
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