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Scotland's kestrels in severe decline

Last modified: 13 September 2014

Kestrel

Image: Graham Catley

Kestrels are magnificent birds of prey that have fallen into a pattern of steep decline in Scotland. As a result, RSPB conservationists are carrying out urgent research to help understand why numbers of this popular species are diminishing so rapidly.

Between 1995 and 2012 kestrel numbers decreased by 65% in Scotland – the biggest decline of any monitored bird species in the country. The figures come from the latest Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) 1 which is carried out each year by over 2,800 volunteers across the UK. In Scotland, 471 sites were monitored in 2013, but kestrels were only observed in around 35 of them.

Early studies conducted by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science suggest the intensification of agriculture could be the main reason for the significant drop in numbers. Specifically, preliminary results suggest that kestrel numbers have fallen at times when there has been a change from spring-sown barley to autumn-sown wheat and oil seed rape.

This change in agricultural practice means there is less food available in the winter for prey species such as voles and seed-eating songbirds, which in turn means less food for hungry predators like kestrels.

Other factors which are being investigated as possible contributors to the decline include: climate change, increased competition for nest sites, a rise in the use of second generation rat poisons (which could affect kestrels if they eat effected rodents) and intra-guild predation (which is the negative effects on kestrels from larger predators like goshawks and peregrines).

Staffan Roos, Senior Conservation Scientist at RSPB Scotland, said: “It’s really sad to see kestrels suffering such large drops in numbers in recent years. Research into what is causing the decline is vital because once we know what factors are having an impact we can offer advice on how to increase the populations of this charismatic bird of prey. For example, we can speak with farmers about increasing field margins to boost vole numbers, which would give kestrels a more abundant food source.

“We are already supporting practical steps that we believe will help us to understand the population decline better. We support the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme, which recently has increased the monitoring of kestrels and ringing of kestrel chicks throughout Scotland. This will provide useful information on the survival and movements of kestrels. We also provide nest boxes, including on some of our reserves, to reduce the risk of competition for suitable nest sites.”

Brookfield Drinks, the owners of Kestrel Lager, supports the RSPB in its efforts to identify the causes of the kestrel population decline. The money they provide is used to fund the research programme set up to help save the kestrel, increased monitoring of kestrels in Scotland through the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme and to advise landowners, land managers, crofters and farmers on wildlife friendly practices that will benefit these beautiful birds.

How you can help

Nature in the UK is in trouble and some of our more familiar garden species are amongst those suffering serious declines. We can all help by giving nature a home where we live.

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