Many of our reserves feature fascinating archaeological sites along with spectacular wildlife. Crystal Maw, a Project Officer at RSPB Scotland, tells us about some of the prehistoric sites on Colonsay and Oronsay.
The Hebridean islands of Colonsay and Oronsay boast a wide range of prehistoric sites, including early shell mounds, three cairns, eight standing stones, eight hut circles, five ancient field systems, nine forts and an impressive medieval priory.
The medieval priory on Oronsay. Photo: Andy Hay
Perhaps the most mysterious and telling archaeological remains are the shell middens of Oronsay, known locally as Sheeans, or fairy knowes.
These middens are mountains of kitchen waste and blown sand left in hollows along the coast. They were created by Mesolithic hunters who started to arrive here around 7500BC, and carbon dating shows that these people were using the island for at least 700 years between around 4100BC and 3400BC.
The mounds are composed mainly of limpet shells, but an array of other items has been found, including pierced cowries shells (presumably used for jewellery), bone pins and the remains of a seal, otter, red deer, pig and dolphin that no doubt were used for food and for clothing.
Bones of cormorant, shag, goose, shelduck, water rail, ringed plover, tern, gull, razorbill, guillemot, gannet and red-breasted merganser were found. Most exciting of all, eight bones of the now extinct great auk were discovered. This prompted the naturalist Symington Grieve to write The Great Auk, or Garfowl: Its history, archaeology, and remains in 1885. The auk must have bred on the skerries around Oronsay and been hunted for food.
The Chough is on the Amber list due to small population size and historically declining population. Photo: Andy Hay
Oronsay is one of the most important Mesolithic sites in Europe. RSPB Scotland has been managing the island as a reserve since 1996, in a farming partnership with the owner, to increase the populations of species such as chough and corncrake. But our role includes protecting the heritage of the island for future generations.
The fairy knowes still hold some mystery. We do not know whether the midden sites were permanently inhabited by those ancient, hardy communities or intermittently visited from the island interior or other nearby islands. Another question that springs to mind is why people suddenly stopped living here all that time ago. Perhaps there is much more to be discovered on Oronsay....
Fancy a visit? Oronsay is accessible from Colonsay at low tide and you should follow local advice before crossing. The crossing is only suitable for 4x4 vehicles.
For more info visit: http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/o/oronsay/index.aspx
Our Seabird Policy Officer, Rory Crawford, discusses Scotland's seabirds and how you can help them.
Scotland and Seabirds
Scotland has many natural treasures, but there is one in particular I think we often overlook. It’s no surprise really – it happens all over the world – people take it for granted that the wildlife they see around them is commonplace everywhere. I imagine there’d be far fewer extinctions if we appreciated and took stock of the importance of seemingly common species more often.
A salty sea dog like me is always banging on about it – but it’s worth repeating: Scotland (and the UK as a whole) is internationally important for seabirds. The world’s largest Manx shearwater colony is on the Isle of Rum. The vast majority – close to 80% - of the global population is divided between this island, Skomer and Skokholm in Wales. It’s not often you read about these enigmatic seabirds, so I promise to blog about them later in the week.
The world’s biggest northern gannet colony is found on St. Kilda, and the UK as a whole is home to 59% of the entire global population. A gannet colony is an astounding sight – and some of the most impressive in the country are RSPB reserves – Ailsa Craig, Grassholm and Bempton Cliffs are all incredible viewing (and smelling!).
So seabird colonies are truly amazing and I think they are our greatest wildlife spectacle.
Gannet. Photo: Andy Hay
In spite of this, it won’t have escaped your attention that, as a nation, we’ve done a rather poor job of protecting the most important areas of sea for our seabirds. We enter 2012 still without a single marine protected area safeguarding the places where seabirds feed at sea.
All the legal tools are there – the EU laws and national legislation that the RSPB and our supporters campaigned so hard for. It’s time for these tools to be used, especially at a time when many seabirds are struggling.
Over the coming months, important decisions are being made across the UK about the location of marine protected areas (MPAs). After years of campaigning, we think it is absolutely critical that seabirds, the jewel in the crown of our marine biodiversity, are properly protected by this network of protected areas.
In Scotland, we’re handing over the signatures we’ve accumulated so far on our marine ‘Stepping Up for Nature’ pledge to the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment, Richard Lochhead on the 6th of March. We want to show him the strength of support for Scottish seabirds – and this is the final push.
So please – sign the pledge, tweet the link, stick it on your facebook, tell your friends, your granny and her cat. The politicians need to know that this stuff matters.
Sign the pledge here: www.rspb.org.uk/marinepetition
Our Seabird Policy Officer, Rory Crawford, is back with another seabird saga.
The tale of the great auk – Scotland’s great extinct penguin
After what I was saying Tuesday about taking our internationally-important seabirds for granted, I felt it important to re-tell a story that should serve as a cautionary tale. The tale of the great northern hemisphere penguin that was once common as muck – but is now exctinct.
Great auks were once found right across the North Atlantic – from Newfoundland, where the largest known colony was found on Funk Island (nothing to do with James Brown, as far as we know) to Iceland, across to Scotland and as far south as Madeira.
These birds looked a lot like big razorbills or guillemots. Standing at around 85 centimetres tall, their tiny wings made them look rather unwieldy. Not that it mattered too much to the great auk – these birds were flightless, built to pursue prey underwater.
It’s a huge disappointment that all we see of these birds now is the awkward-looking stuffed museum specimen you can see in the picture below. Just as penguins look slightly ridiculous waddling around on land, take one look at them shooting around underwater with nothing but the tiniest flick of a wing and you’ve got a much better insight into the true majesty of the great auk.
Great auk in the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. Photo: Mike Pennington
Being flightless, as well as being rather unafraid of humans, led ultimately to their downfall. Without the ability to fly away from hunters, great auks were easy pickings for humans seeking an easy meal. It is rumoured that sailors were even able to anchor their boats next to colonies, lay out planks and herd great auks directly on board, where they would inevitably meet their end.
The last great auk in Scotland was killed on Stac an Armin, St. Kilda, where three islanders captured the bird and kept it alive for three days. When the weather deteriorated, they were convinced the auk was responsible, and killed it, believing it to be a witch.
As global numbers dwindled, the last few were sadly killed as specimens for collections – and the very last northern hemisphere penguin was killed on Eldey, Iceland between the 2nd and 5th of June, 1844.
It’s too late for the great auk – but it’s not too late for some of our cracking modern-day seabirds. Do your bit and sign our marine pledge and get everyone you know to do the same. If you haven't already, please watch our video and share the message
These guillemots still have a chance! Sign the Marine Pledge.