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  • Writer's pictureJake Escapes

Bear, Berry, Biosphere

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

A tale of two UNESCO Biospheres in South West Scotland and Eastern Finland

It is three years on since I ventured to Finland for the first time. I was part of a group of representatives from the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere making our way towards a nature tourism learning journey to the North Karelia UNESCO Biosphere.

I had definitely jumped at the chance. Nature – tourism – learning - journey. All four words struck a chord and when I read about how we would be taking part in a slow triathlon I was hooked and up for biking, hiking and sailing in new to me places like Mohko and Ilomantsi.

North Karelia Biosphere boasts Koli National Park and over 2,000 lakes. The region is around 70% covered in forest with a rich Karelian culture. The communities aim is to address global problems with local solutions, foster nature and find sustainable ways of living.

I’ll cut to the climax. It was an amazing trip. The people gelled. The itinerary was well thought out. The food and drink plentiful. We learned how to ‘play’ the kantele and enjoyed inspirational historians, musicians, entrepreneurs and local people. We discovered berries!

The best things in life are free …

But it really is true that the best things in life are free because, along with the people, it was the air, earth, fire and water that took hold of the senses. It was the hot cold therapy and the thrill of perhaps coming face to face with a bear that made us feel alive. (Hopefully!)

Nights in the tipi with burning logs, star gazing and the authentic Finnish sauna. The coldest boat trip known to man! Their highest hill wasn’t ‘Scotland’ high but it was cute and the flat lands seemed somehow less flat when my companion performed a bumpy bike somersault!

The Finnish location is remote. Just 2km from the Russian border where you were more likely to spot a crowd of bears than a crowd of people. It was quiet, it was secluded and it lacked the Christmas appeal of its popular neighbour Lapland. But this was its appeal.

For those who really want to get away from it all this is a great shout. Flights from Edinburgh to Helsinki then Helsinki to Joensuu, followed by road travel following a line of a million trees took us to a picturesque spot worthy of a Facebook ‘check in’ ;)

Outside is where it is at … Who knew 6 months later a pandemic would hit and we would be locked up. Kept in. Who knew then that nature was about to extend its grasp to those who had paid it little heed. Not only had it space to recover and thrive but it was yelling ‘hey folks, remember me!’

Suddenly a walk was a luxury. Fresh air was the saviour. The people took to hill climbing and paddle boarding in their hoards. Bikes were dusted off. Ebike sales soared. Kayaks, scooters, CrossFit reminded our dwellers that outside is where it is at. Embrace the friluftsliv!

Some of us didn’t need convincing. Others gave it a shot and returned to the safety of the pubs revolving door. But many converts seem to be here to stay. Wild swimming groups cropped up everywhere bestowing the positive mental and physical health benefits for all.

It had always been obvious to some but now it was obvious to most that in Scotland our nature is tourism ready! Sure a few better placed signs wouldn’t go a miss but we are open, we are wild, we are adventure playground and wellness retreat combined.

Find the place nobody has been …

We have hills, mountains, seas, stretches of beach and coastline, lochs, greenery, gardens, rivers, paths, wildlife, beauty, bothies, eagles, snow, surf, breathable air, wild camping. We have specialists who can guide you, train you, accompany you on your adventure.

We, along with nature, can make you feel energised, accomplished, relaxed, peaceful, exhilarated, inspired, welcome. Bring the right clothes! Ditch them if summer randomly appears. Feel the rain on your face and the sun on your back – often on the same day!

There is no wrong way to do nature. Apart from irresponsibly. Enjoy it solo or Insta the hell out of it! If you climbed to the top of that Munro, you deserve some recognition! Like, like, love your beach fire angle and your waterfall jump. Go forth and market!

Up the ante. Find the place nobody has been as though it just appeared upon your wandering radar. The fresh seafood experience to die for, vamp up your glamp, make friends with a highland cow, drive the Bealach na Bas (not for the faint hearted!)

A triumph of nature …

Yip outdoors is hot (ish). And kind of free. In this cost of living crisis we won’t be beaten on living our best lives. We want to find gin distilleries and pizza shacks in Scotland’s back gardens (yes, really). Run out of ‘wow’ related superlatives as we witness view after view!

So in this triumph of Scottish nature where does the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO biosphere fit in? Have you ever tried to explain a biosphere to anyone without them asking ‘but what exactly is it?’ ‘what is there to do?’ Here comes the science part …

The Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere is one of only seven UNESCO biosphere areas within the UK and one of only two in Scotland. It has been recognised internationally as a world class environment for people and nature. Special huh.

This special designation awarded by UNESCO is recognition of the fantastic array of landscapes, wildlife, cultural heritage and learning opportunities offered for communities, businesses and visitors to experience and celebrate in a sustainable way.

A world first, yes, a world first …

So in short, it’s something to shout about. It might not be a tangible attraction per se but it’s a destination in itself. A geographical boundary that might just blow your mind. It’s also punching above its weight by forming part of the world’s first UNESCO trail!

‘What’s that?’ ask the Up The Ante’s! ‘We love a world first’. Well how do you feel about some of Scotland’s most iconic, diverse and culturally significant collabs? World Heritage Sites, Global Geoparks and Creative Cities are hanging out with the cool kid Biosphere.

Therefore nature lovers are hanging out with history, science, music, design, literature and cityscape lovers in a world first, I repeat, world first pioneering initiative with its very own digital trail and a wealth of wonders within.

So South of Scotland has a lot to shout about. We know your heart is in the highlands and you don’t want to miss out Edinburgh but if you really want ‘undiscovered’ give us a try! Check out our top ten guide of biosphere discoveries! You won’t be disappointed!

Top Ten Guide to Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere …

1. Explore Robert Burns birthplace village of Alloway and final home of Dumfries!

2. Marvel at the unique land installation of Crawick Multiverse!

3. Find ancient castles and castle ruins including Culzean, Drumlanrig and Dunure!

4. Go on a unique safari to discover deer or highland coos!

5. Visit the first UK designated international Dark Sky park!

6. Climb The Merrick, the Biosphere’s highest hill!

7. Take in the beauty, waterfalls, flora and fauna and environmental art of Glentrool

8. Be exhilarated by outdoor adventures in the forest, water or mountains with guides!

9. Learn about cooking, creative writing, distilleries, foraging, history or herbal folklore!

10. Walk the Ayrshire Coastal Path for beaches and so much more

This is just a biosphere taster. There is so much more out there in terms of landscapes, wildlife, hidden snugs, rolling hills, charming villages, bays, forests, friendly people, food & drink, world class golf courses, seaside fish & chips and family attractions. Phew!

Public transport is very doable in this area. You can get trains from Glasgow to most places and local bus services are pretty regular too. Or drive the South West Coastal 300, the road trip for lovers of Scotland and fall in love with everything ‘OMG stop the car!’ you see.

So whether your vibe is bears and berries or you prefer a bit of Burns and beauty, the North Karelia Biosphere and the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere are a great place to start. Nature tourism is oh so ready and our brilliant biospheres are leading the way!

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