Scottish Nature Notes

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Scottish Nature Notes

Keep up to date with the latest wildlife and nature news in Scotland. Regular blogs from RSPB Scotland's conservation teams across the country. Writing about Scotland's amazing wildlife & natural environment.
  • Why nothing less than a new food law will do

    Last weeks Programme for Government announcement reflected the lack of commitment to a Good Food Nation Bill that the Scottish Government has been promising for years. Vicki Swales, RSPB Scotland's Head of Land Use Policy, explores the reasons why new food legislation is crucial.

    Why nothing less than a new food law will do

    For the past two years the Scottish Government has been promising to bring forward a new law to drive change in our food system – a Good Food Nation Bill. So far, we’ve seen little progress. Last week’s Programme for Government said only that a Good Food Nation Programme will be published this autumn and will seek views on ‘…what legislative measures might be required’. This is far from a firm commitment.

    It is difficult to see why Government is on such a go-slow when there is so much to be gained from introducing what could be a truly ground-breaking piece of legislation. Get it right, and there’s a real opportunity to tackle obesity and other diet related ill health and ensure everyone in Scotland has access to enough nutritious, healthy food. The wages and working conditions of those working in the food sector, including farmers and farm workers, could be much improved. And the environmental impacts of our food system - from declines in wildlife to climate warming greenhouse gas emissions – could be greatly reduced.

    It’s those environmental effects of our food system that brought RSPB Scotland to the Good Food Nation table. But we know that the environmental challenges around food can’t be addressed in isolation. Food is at the heart of so many of today’s great societal challenges – but also offers a solution to them – and we need to work together in common cause. That’s why RSPB Scotland has been working with the Scottish Food Coalition* for the last few years, calling for an overhaul of our food system and setting out how a new law could drive the changes we so desperately need.

    Safeguarding our natural environment must be central to any new law. In many parts of Scotland, High Nature Value farming is still commonplace and needs supporting to enable it to continue. But such farming is under increasing pressure and elsewhere more intensive forms of agriculture are dominant. Modern farming methods such as the use of pesticides and fertilisers and intensive livestock rearing and crop production methods can have significant impacts on wildlife and landscapes and on our climate. At the same time, food production itself is already being challenged by climate change, as witnessed during this summer’s hot weather and drought. We need wildlife and climate friendly farming - including organic and other agro-ecological farming methods - to become the norm and a clear definition of sustainable agriculture to be adopted.

    Beyond the farmgate, processors and retailers ensure we have greater food choices than were imaginable fifty years ago. But these choices come at an environmental cost and often entail energy and water intensive processes and the increasing transportation of food from one end of the country to the other and beyond. Most shocking of all is that throughout the food chain, from farms to households, approximately 30% of all the food produced is wasted. In Scotland that amounts to 630,000 tonnes of waste each year from households alone. This is expensive, increases the amount of land we need to grow food, and creates harmful greenhouse gases.

    In the face of so many problems, it can seem daunting. But the good news is that we already know very many of the solutions. If we can adopt them at scale so that green farming becomes the norm, food processing and distribution is localised and diversified, and we are helped to make less impactful choices as consumers, we can make real progress. Everyone can act but we need Government to show leadership and drive the changes needed, legislating to stop bad practices and incentivising good practices. A Good Food Nation means so much more than a narrow aspiration to grow food and drink exports or protect products of defined origin, as valuable as those are. That’s why we need a far-reaching food law – bring on the Good Food Nation Bill and do it now.



    *The Scottish Food Coalition is a civil society coalition working for food justice. We want to transform our food system in Scotland so that it contributes to everyone's health and wellbeing, values the work to put food on our plate, supports high animal welfare, and sustains our wildlife, natural resources and environment for generations to come.

  • Success for Hoy's white-tailed eagles

    It has been a brilliant year for white-tailed eagles on Hoy with chicks for the first time in over 100 years and a successful Eaglewatch for visitors all summer. Lee Shields, RSPB Scotland Warden based on Hoy, shares all the exciting news in this blog.

    Success for Hoy's white-tailed eagles

    It has been an exciting year on our Hoy nature reserve, with the news that two white-tailed eagle chicks have successfully left the nest. We were delighted to share the news in June that the first white-tailed eagle chicks to hatch in Orkney for 145 years had been confirmed and watching the daily activity at the nest has been a joy for all who were lucky enough to share it with us.

    White-tailed eagle takes flight


    Following a glorious, sunny summer, with both adults working hard to feed the chicks, the youngsters were looking increasingly restless and all eyes were on the nest ledge to see when they would take their first flight. In late July we were impressed with the vigorous wing flapping seen, as the chicks built up their muscles in preparation. Then the momentous day came on 8 August, when volunteers at Eaglewatch saw both chicks take to the wing for the first time. Since then, the young eagles have gained confidence and we have seen them almost every day, testing their skills with longer flights and more challenging landings around the cliffs on windy days.

    Eagle in the nest


    With the eagles nesting opposite a car park on the nature reserve, we have had the opportunity to share this spectacular wild story with visitors and island residents, as Eaglewatch has been running in the car park every day since Easter. Staff and volunteers have had a wonderful summer, welcoming more than 6,000 visitors and helping them share great views of the eagles. Our new eagle interactive display has been popular, giving people an engaging perspective on how big these birds really are and encouraging people to use their senses with our eagle-eyed scavenger hunt challenge. Our last day at Eaglewatch on 2 September was full of fun with walks, face-painting and crafts plus views of the whole eagle family at once to end the day.

    Colouring activities at Eaglewatch


    The success of this pair of eagles following disheartening failures in 2015 and 2016 is hopefully just the start of the white-tailed eagles reclaiming more of their traditional haunts around Orkney. The two young eagles are likely to remain in the area for a few weeks yet, as the adults begin the process of encouraging their young to hunt for themselves. Thereafter, no one knows where the youngsters will spend the winter and we are keen to have any records of sightings from anyone who sees them.

    The youngsters in the nest with their tags showing


    Both youngsters have a blue tag on their wings each with a white letter on it (B or C) that can be read from below (if the bird is flying overhead) or on the ground. If you have seen one of the tagged birds (or even managed to capture a photograph) we’d love to hear from you at the RSPB office on 01856 850176, or via our RSPB Orkney Facebook page. In the meantime, the Eaglewatch team look forward to the next chapter in the Orkney eagle story next Spring when we hope for another spectacular season.

  • Archaeology on the wild side

    Jill Harden, Reserves Archaeologist at RSPB Scotland, shares some of the intriguing historical finds to be seen at RSPB Scotland Forsinard Flows, which is in the Flow Country right in the north of mainland Scotland. 


    Archaeology on the wild side


    Ben Griam Beg with Ben Griam Mor beyond – a long walk in


    Ben Griam Beg stands at the SW corner of the Forsinard Flows reserve overlooking a vast swathe of open peat moorland. It is a long trek in from the main road to reach the foot of the hill, and then there is the 1300 foot climb to the top. But on a good day the walk is worth it. The views from the top are fantastic – from Hoy (one of the islands of Orkney) some 40 miles away, to the mouth of Sutherland’s River Halladale, before continuing anti-clockwise to pass Ben Loyal, go round by Morven, and then over the rest of the RSPB Scotland Forsinard Flows reserve that stretches into Caithness.


    Beki by the hillfort wall, enjoying the view west beyond


    We were visiting to record the designated prehistoric hill fort at the top of the hill – the first stage in the archaeological monitoring work that we do on our reserves across the UK. And this site is particularly intriguing. It’s the highest hill fort in Scotland. But it was clearly never used for occupation or defence. Presumably it was a gathering point for people, a place for exchanging news and confirming allegiances, for trade and ceremony. The views towards the mountain and from the top must have played an important role in all of this.


    Paul walking the bounds of the ruinous fort wall


    The wall enclosing the top is ruinous – only 1m high and 1.8m broad in parts – impressive when first built but hardly so today. Colleagues were definitely underwhelmed. What we were all pleased to see, though, was a flock of ptarmigan. And then a mountain hare or two. Although the hill appeared wild and windswept, in fact it has a varied flora and fauna, with valued alpine plants too.


    Frances and Sydney honing their flora identification skills


    But they weren’t our only high point. On the far side of the hill, a little way down from the top of the very steep S slope was a flat circular millstone, around 1m in diameter. It lay split in two against a roughly constructed drystone dyke. And it wasn’t the only millstone. It was difficult to believe that this hill had once been the site of a stone quarry, specifically for millstones. During the late-1980s students from Edinburgh University did an archaeological survey here, recording such things. But since then archaeological comments have concentrated on the remote siting of a prehistoric fort. Nobody had highlighted this distant location of a post-medieval millstone quarry. How intriguing.


    Found at last – Sydney and Frances at the broken millstone


    Further research is needed to unravel the history of this place. Millstones like these were needed for large water-powered grain mills that were in use during the 1800s. The mills at Achiemore and Forsinain, close to the river Halladale, are testament to arable farming along this fertile strath. Is this where the millstones quarried from Ben Griam Beg were bound for, or were they sent further afield?