A trip to one of Scotland’s many seabird colonies is an unforgettable experience. Whether viewing from a clifftop vantage point or out on a little boat bobbing alongside an island teeming with squawking, swooping seabirds, you can’t help but be impressed by the variety and sheer number of birds.
However, over the last 20 years, this remarkable wildlife spectacle has been diminishing. A visit can still inspire that sense of awe but when you start reading the statistics, a deeply troubling picture emerges. Some of our most amazing seabird species are in rapid decline, particularly in the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland.
Let’s start with Arctic terns- these birds are the jetsetters of the seabird world, undertaking mammoth migrations each season from their Antarctic wintering grounds, sometimes flying 70,000km in a lifetime. 2012 counts of Scotland’s “seabird cities” conducted by RSPB Scotland reveal a poor breeding season for these birds. Arctic terns experienced low productivity (low number of chicks raised successfully to fledging), even where numbers of adults at colonies were stable.
An Arctic tern taking a well-earned break. These birds complete the longest migration of any animal on Earth!
And it’s not just Arctic terns, kittiwakes were in the news this summer as their populations continue to plummet at our seabird colonies, particularly on the Orkney mainland where counts by RSPB Scotland and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee showed numbers have fallen from 10,932 adult birds on nests in 2000, to just 1,965 this year- that’s a crash of 82%.
Fulmars, graceful birds with an unpleasant defence mechanism that involves projectile vomiting oil, are also struggling- with populations from Shetland to Dunnet Head in Caithness, to Tiree in the Western Isles experiencing declining numbers and low productivity. At Dunnet Head alone, there were only 181 adult fulmars on nests, down from 205 in 2011.
Wouldn’t want to get in the middle of this argument- Fulmars are known to projectile vomit in defence!
Arctic skua have been hit hard as well. Scotland is home to the UK’s entire breeding population of these remarkable birds. At RSPB’s North Hill reserve on Orkney, a mere 22 pairs were counted down from just 44 in 2010. This is really a species on the edge in Scotland.
Arctic skua are becoming an increasingly rare sight in Scotland.
Guillemot numbers have increased at several colonies including at Marwick Head on Orkney, Dunnet Head on the mainland and at our Mull of Galloway reserve. However, this is against a backdrop of historic declines and numbers remain well below previous records, particularly at Marwick Head. Unfortunately, the overall guillemot population remains in decline, for instance, Fowlsheugh reserve in northeast Scotland reported a total of 44,920 guillemots this season- significantly less than the 50,556 recorded at the last whole colony count conducted in 2009.
So, what’s happening you ask? Evidence suggests that seabird declines are being driven by climate change, particularly the impact of warming seas on the marine food chain. This results in birds having less to eat and therefore producing fewer chicks.
That’s why we are fighting to ensure seabirds are given adequate protection on land and at sea. To date these fascinating species have been largely marginalised in the process of designating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and we are left disappointed that ‘hotspots’ out at sea where seabirds congregate to feed will remain unprotected.
We need your help to give seabirds a fighting chance. Please take action by emailing Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, and telling him that you support Marine Protected Areas for seabirds now.
*All figures taken from RSPB Scotland Reserve Annual Reports and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee website.
Ross Watson, our Operations Team Leader at Abernethy nature reserve, is about to go on the trip of a lifetime. Find out about his journey to Malaysia for the World Youth Foundation Conference.
From Abernethy to the rainforest
This is something of a first for me - I have never written a blog before, despite sharing an office with the ‘Blog Oracle’ Richard Thaxton. I can only hope that some of his skill is in the room while he is out with a contractor.
Working with Richard, I am based at the Abernethy National Nature Reserve in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park. I am the Operations Team Leader and am part of the team who carry out the practical elements of managing this large and diverse piece of ground. Work is interesting, challenging and busy and involves working with a range volunteers who come here to spend a week or two helping the team doing anything from heather burning to bog woodland restoration. However, I am about to leave this fantastic Caledonian forest for a few days and make my way to a very different forest- a rainforest.
This will not be the first time I have set foot inside a rainforest though. When on a study tour of Norway in June, I was transported via a number of ferries and a bumpy pickup ride to a small corner of a heavily wooded island in the south of Norway. This island proudly boasts sufficient rainfall to class its woodland a rainforest. No monkeys, forest elephants or such wildlife here, but a rainforest none the less. The rainforest I will be entering this time will be the monkey swinging, tiger hiding sort, in a little place called Malaysia.
The purpose of my trip to Malaysia is to work with an organisation called the World Youth Foundation (WYF) at a conference and workshop session they are running called ‘Healthy Environment for Healthy Youth’. The World Youth Foundation is an NGO with special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. It is an extremely influential youth voice to the leaders of the world, and it’s a privilege for me to work with them.
My involvement with the WYF, and presenting at this conference, has come about because of the range of youth development work I have done whilst working for the RSPB since leaving High School. In addition to working, I chaired the Transport, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee of the Scottish Youth Parliament, worked with the European Youth Parliament, and was involved in youth and environment projects in countries such as Pakistan, Morocco and Belarus. Throughout this time, my aspiration was always to link youth development work with the conservation work I was doing at the RSPB. This conference allows me to do just that.
The conference will host speakers from global environmental bodies such as WWF, as well as organisations who are very active in South East Asia. I will be the sole speaker from outside the region, quite an honour really! I will be speaking about how young people, enthusiastic about nature, become involved in conservation land management through the RSPB and volunteering as part of accreditation schemes like the John Muir Award or the Duke of Edinburgh Award. This will be one presentation of eight that will showcase environment or health, and in my case, the benefits of both.
After the presentations, the young people will begin to take their ideas and thoughts away and turn them into actions that will form a conference Action Plan. I will be running this part of the conference and really look forward to it. One of the outcomes of this will be working towards setting up a new forest reserve in Malaysia that will be run by the WYF. Working on the project could result in an accreditation from a scheme similar to the John Muir Award, and will encourage youth involvement.
Not only will they have fun boosting the heath of the rainforest and biodiversity, they will also benefit their own health by being physically active through the important conservation work.
Additional benefits to this may be encouraging other people to get involved raise awareness for the rainforest habitat and, in time, could even result in a paid position.
And let’s not forget the other exciting benefits of attending this conference...the food! Malay cooking is world renowned and cooking classes will be a part of the conference for the global delegation. As well as that, there will be a ‘duck tour’ on the Straits of Melaka, which, working for the RSPB, I imagined a serene guided trip to observe some of the country’s rarities from the luxury of a cruiser while sipping some regional speciality. But no, it will be a duck shaped boat tearing up and down the straight between Malaysia and Sumatra at high speed in a thrill ride only found here.
After the conference is finished, I will spend a further three days exploring different parts of the rainforest to gain a feel for the place and the issues so I can be more informed when it comes to assisting the delegates in developing the project from the other side of the planet. One thing is for certain, the next few days will be full of fun, excitement and new experiences and if I can be a part of a fantastic project like this and gain all of that, I must be lucky indeed.