In a new series, Stuart Benn, our Conservation Manager for the Highlands, shares what inspires him about nature and our plans to protect it.
What makes us change?
I’ve been a birdwatcher all my life but never gave rooks a second thought. Then I read Mark Cocker’s Crow Country and I’ll never look at or think about them in the same way again. I love watching their ragged winter flights to roost staying out until it’s too dark to see. But, I’ve also started counting the six rookeries local to our house for no other reason than I want to and enjoy it though, no doubt, somebody in the future will find the information useful. In North Scotland, now is the perfect time to count – no leaves yet on the big beeches that they favour but the rookeries are in full flow.
One of these rookeries sits right next to a garden centre so gives a good opportunity to combine trips. I know absolutely nothing about garden plants but I do know that I want flowers that are good for bees and butterflies. Trouble was, how would I know what to buy? Step forward Sarah Raven who’d thought about the problem too but did something about it. I’d watched the programme so knew to look for the Bee Friendly or Perfect for Pollinators logos and, right enough, there they were - each little pot with its own idiot-proof symbol (or not). No delving through books or the internet, no asking the staff in the hope that they might know, just having the information available in the quickest, easiest way possible.
Two ‘Butterfly Blue Beauty’ Scabious, a ‘Heavenly Blue’ Lithodora and a Ceanothus later we were back home and preparing the ground. It’s still too cold for insects to be out here in any numbers so it could be a wee while before we see what the flowers attract but I’m sure they will prove popular and make a bee or butterfly’s life that little bit easier. In the meantime, the robin certainly appreciated our efforts!
In future blogs I’ll talk about the ambitious plans that the RSPB and others have for large scale changes in the countryside to reverse the massive declines of wildlife that have taken place. But, for now, let’s celebrate the little but important changes that we can all make - go on!
Climate change is a major threat to wildlife in the UK and across the world. We urgently need to take action to reduce its effects. That includes the development of renewable energy, such as windfarms, to reduce our green house gas emissions. We know that badly sited or designed windfarms can be harmful to some bird species. That's why RSPB assesses individual windfarm proposals to ensure they would not harm important bird populations and carries out research to improve our understanding of the effects of windfarms on birds.
New research led by RSPB and funded by Scottish Natural Heritage has found that wind farm construction can prompt local reductions of up to 50% in breeding numbers of Curlews and Snipe. These losses persist after the wind farms become operational, but do not occur on nearby sites without turbines. The results support previous work which found lower densities of both these species and Golden Plover in the vicinity of operating wind farms than on nearby moorland.
These findings confirm that regulatory authorities and developers should avoid locating wind farms in areas of high value for upland breeding waders where possible, and should invest in research to test ways to reduce the disturbance impact of construction activity at sites where these species do occur.
The study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, considered onshore, upland wind farms in 18 locations in Scotland and England, and studied ten gamebird, wader and songbird species, comparing bird numbers in the area before, during and after construction of the turbines. The study did not focus on birds of prey or migrating swans and geese, where collision with turbine blades is more often a damaging impact of wind farm development.
Some species such Red Grouse showed temporary declines during construction with numbers later recovering, whilst others showed little or, in the case of Stonechats, even increased during construction. However, the change of greatest concern was the effect of wind farm construction on local Curlew densities, given the severe wider declines of this species across the British Isles.
This important study will do a great deal to inform how we deliver renewable energy whilst protecting nature at the same time. In particular, it shows that we need to ensure that wind farm developments do not add further pressure to nationally declining Curlew populations.
Climate change is a huge threat to wildlife and we must do all we can to tackle it by pushing forward with clean renewable energy technology. But equally we must minimise the potential impacts on wildlife of the wind farms that are being built in the UK. This research helps to strike that balance.
This study shows that the real threat for some species is not from the turning blades of the turbine itself, but from the construction work which happens before they are even switched on. The good news is that there is plenty we can do to minimise this impact, and armed with this knowledge we can start to develop new guidelines for wind farm developers to ensure that when they are putting wind turbines up there is a minimum of disruption to the local environment.
To find out more:
An earlier RSPB study published in 2009, also in Journal Applied Ecology is published online here.
The BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey report for 2010 showing national declines of Curlew populations of 30% (England), 53% (Scotland), and 49% (Wales) can be found here
The RSPB engages with most major windfarm proposals in the UK. We do this because we know that badly sited or poorly designed windfarms can be harmful to some bird species. However, the majority of windfarms in the UK can be developed without unacceptable impacts on birds. This is illustrated by the fact that we ultimately maintain an objection to less than 10% of the windfarm proposals we engage with.
You can find further information about the RSPB’s work on climate change and our approach to wind and other renewable energy is available on our climate blog and on our website. Information about some of the specific windfarm cases we are involved with is also available on our website, here.