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£600,000 boost for rare wildlife on Orkney

Last modified: 06 July 2017

Curlew profile

Image: Steve Round

RSPB Scotland gives thanks to funders, supporters and local community

Some of the UK’s rarest wildlife has been given a big boost, it was announced today, thanks to funding from Coastal Communities Fund, Orkney LEADER and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, for an ambitious project on one of Orkney’s islands.

The project, led by RSPB Scotland, aims to start a wildlife-friendly farming operation on Egilsay to increase numbers of rare and threatened species such as corncrakes, curlews, lapwings and great yellow bumblebees.

Along with helping improve the way the land is managed to better support wildlife on RSPB Scotland’s Onziebust reserve, the project will provide a training programme to enhance skills in wildlife-friendly land management throughout the county. It will create four new job opportunities and a residential volunteering scheme on the island. In addition, through improved access, interpretation and a range of public events, it will raise awareness of the importance of Egilsay for wildlife and contribute to the hugely important wildlife tourism sector in Orkney.

Sarah Sankey, RSPB Scotland’s Orkney Manager, said: “We are really grateful for all the funding and support we have received for this ambitious project. Starting a wildlife-friendly farming operation at Onziebust on Egilsay will help to safeguard the future of rare and threatened wildlife such as corncrakes, curlews, lapwings and great yellow bumblebees. But we are also excited about the unique opportunities the project will provide for local people to learn, volunteer and experience wildlife on Egilsay including enhancing their skills in areas such as wildlife-friendly land management and wildlife recording through the training programme. We hope that the project will help to raise awareness of the importance of Egilsay and all of Orkney for wildlife and contribute to the hugely important wildlife tourism sector. We look forward to working with groups and individuals across the county in the coming months”.

Once widespread, Orkney is one of the few places in the UK where corncrakes still breed. However, with just six calling males recorded across the county so far this year, they are on the brink. Corncrakes depend on plant cover from early spring until autumn to raise young. The project aims to provide improved late-cut hay fields and adjacent cover for the birds early in the season in order to help secure the future of this iconic species in Orkney.

Great yellow bumblebees have also undergone a dramatic decline across the UK and, like corncrakes, are now largely confined to a few places on the Northern and Western Isles. Egilsay was considered a stronghold for these rare bees in the past and this project aims to rebuild their numbers by restoring species-rich grassland.

Orkney is also an incredibly important home for breeding waders, including curlews, redshanks, lapwings, oystercatchers and snipe. Despite accounting for less than 0.5% of the UK’s land area, Orkney is home to more than 10% of the breeding population of some species.

RSPB Scotland’s 270-hectare Onziebust reserve, which is a mix of wet grassland and improved fields, is already an important home for breeding waders. However, the project will allow the land to be managed by sensitive cattle grazing of the wet grassland and wetlands, using rare breed animals, to provide ideal conditions for breeding waders. Through the creation of the right conditions on the reserve and by providing advice to other land managers across Orkney, the project aims to ensure that, despite widespread declines across the UK, Orkney continues to provide a home for significant numbers of these much-loved birds.

RSPB Scotland was awarded nearly £240,000 from the Coastal Communities Fund towards the project, which is being part financed by the Scottish Government and part funded by the Orkney LEADER Programme 2014-2020 through a contribution of more than £85,000 and also received £35,000 from Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Francesca Couperwhite, Head of Strengthening Communities, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, said: “We are delighted to be supporting this exciting project.  While the development will provide valuable new jobs on a fragile island, it will also provide a welcome boost for tourism, through interpretation and events, helping to attract more visitors and creating opportunities for additional services and jobs in this very small community.”

Phyllis Harvey, Vice Chair of the Orkney LEADER Local Action Group, said: “I am pleased that the project will benefit from the Environmental funds available through the Orkney LEADER Programme, and encourage others with ideas for environmental projects to speak to the local LEADER team at the Orkney Islands Council about the possibility of funding”.

Many of Orkney’s important species and habitats cannot be conserved on nature reserves alone. Despite this and the importance of Orkney for wildlife, there are currently no opportunities within the islands to train to either work in nature conservation or to advise landholders how to manage for wildlife. This project will set up a varied training programme to address these needs and a residential volunteering programme to allow comprehensive training in conservation. The need for such opportunities has been identified by key local stakeholders and results from resident surveys.

A comprehensive education programme will be developed for younger audiences, such as the Rousay, Wyre and Egilsay primary school, to compliment the training programme too. This will initially focus on the plight of corncrakes including taking part in practical conservation activities.

To achieve the project’s ambitious goals, four new job opportunities will be created on Egilsay, an island with a population of just 18, along with a residential volunteering programme to help people get hands on experience of managing land for wildlife and wildlife monitoring. RSPB Scotland will also be working with the local community to improve access and interpretation on the reserve as well as providing events on the island to encourage more visitors to the island and to raise awareness of what a special place Egilsay and the whole of Orkney is for wildlife.

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