Conservation Manager, Stuart Benn, is back with a new blog...
It’s not an Illusion
A wee girl clings on to the side of a house – HEEEEELLLLLLP!!!
I dangle from a window ledge.
But, don’t worry, it’s not as alarming as it looks – the whole thing is an illusion, part of an interactive piece of art in London that I went to when I was down south last week. The ‘house’ lies flat and an angled mirror tilted above makes horizontals appear vertical.
A lot of people insist that they don’t like art – it’s all fusty old galleries and long-dead painters. But that’s preconceptions for you - the day I was at the exhibit it was absolutely mobbed – all ages, all nationalities, all sorts of folk were there having a great time, enjoying art, having fun!!
And after they’d had a crawl over the ‘house’ many of the families went just round the corner to the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden where kids (and adults!) can run around and touch flowers and hear the buzz of bees – a space to breathe surrounded by nature. As with art, many people have preconceptions about nature – it’s boring, not for the likes of me, what’s the point of it. But those enjoying themselves in that little oasis in the middle of London gave the lie to that - this was nature as fun, nature as part of their lives, nature as a necessity, not something that just happens somewhere else or on the telly.
Participation has been a theme this week. One year on from the Olympics the talk at the Anniversary Games was about the legacy. Did people just enjoy watching the sport or did they feel sufficiently motivated to get up and take part themselves?
And participation is important - just as there are loads of reasons why being active in sport is good for you the same holds true for nature: physical and mental health, social skills, a sense of wellbeing, the satisfaction of achievement, to name just a few. But, unfortunately, just as these benefits become more apparent, as a nation we participate less. Children now spend a fraction of their time outside compared to when I was little and, consequently, are far more familiar with brand names and logos than common flowers and birds.
And, unfortunately, this disconnection from nature isn’t an illusion which can be put right simply by tilting a mirror, it’s real.
The cost to ourselves and to nature of allowing this disconnection to continue is too great so the RSPB and others are taking this fight on. When I was south I also saw some great presentations on work the RSPB is doing with the University of Essex and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to measure children’s connection with nature and how to increase it - really exciting work and I’ll come back to it once the report has been published in the autumn.
In the meantime, we can all do this wee survey and see how connected we are with nature in our gardens, our communities, the countryside. Maybe it’s lots or maybe it’s not as much as we thought or maybe you are still to discover what you can do for nature and nature can do for you.
RSPB Conservation Officer, Sarah Sankey, tells us about the challenges facing Orkney's seabird cities...
The Orcadian seabird story
Orkney was, until recently, famed for its seabird spectacles. Today, as I ascend the cliffs of Marwick Head reserve, instead of a growing sense of awe and excitement, I walk with a heavy heart and a deep sense of foreboding. I remember that just ten short years ago, as I left the car and rounded the corner towards the cliff, the air would be pungent with guano and the sound of thousands of seabirds like an orchestra would fill my ears. It would take a further 10 minutes of walking to actually catch sight of the seabirds but their presence could be felt at quite a distance!
Today, the orchestra has dwindled to something more like a quartet. Over the last ten years the seabird cities of tens of thousands of birds have become mere villages. Makes me wonder if the loss of seabirds from the islands of Orkney will be a legacy of the 21st century.
Marwick Head reserve was once the mightiest seabird city of the Orkney mainland. However, ten years of poor breeding success has seen kittiwake nests disappear from some of the cliffs. Guillemot numbers have also been hit hard and nearly halved since 2000. The end result of such massive loss of birds, is that when gazing across our characteristic cliff faces, the first thing that strikes you is not the birds present but the large areas of ledges exposed, areas of white guano-stained rock all too clearly displaying the ghosts of recent past.
Once the telescope is set up, the picture becomes even sadder. As well as the empty sections, I can now see abandoned, not even properly made, nests of kittiwakes- many with no young. The following pictures show how dramatic these changes have been. The kittiwake colony was taken first in 1997 and then again this season, at the same site. This year, only 2 pairs attempted to breed here and these nests have failed already. The unthinkable is happening – our kittiwake colonies are going extinct. We have lost 7 colonies across the island, and another 2 that are rapidly heading in that direction.
Now is the time to shout out for the depressing state of Orcadian seabird populations and to look closely at how we can best stop these losses. Here at Marwick, based on current trends, kittiwakes could disappear in as little as two years. In 2004, 2007 and 2008, monitoring revealed that not a single kittiwake chick fledged from Orkney breeding plots. In time, recruitment to historical colonies is reduced until, as in the case of these colonies, there are no birds returning to breed.
These pictures of guillemots at Marwick also show clearly how dramatic the changes have been in the past ten years. In recent times, this part of the colony has not fledged a single chick for several years in succession and this year looks to be another devastatingly poor one. Sadly, it comes as no surprise that we are finally seeing a large reduction in numbers of guillemots returning.
We brace ourselves for bad news again this year, as breeding productivity is on track to be extremely low. Why is this happening? There are fundamental changes occurring in our seas around Orkney that are hitting our seabirds. They are sensitive to a marine food web which produces the sandeels that are so crucial to their breeding success. Sandeels are an incredibly nutritious meal for chicks and are the key food item during the breeding season and they are simply no longer here in any numbers. Birds are forced to make huge trips out of local waters, far down the coasts of mainland Scotland or across the waters to Scandinavia to find food. Unsurprisingly this is leaving the adults in poor condition and the chicks behind,exposed on the ledges.
As I pack up my gear and descend the cliffs again, there is one certainty in my mind, it is time to speak up about this tragic situation before our cliffs empty completely. I fear the day when I climb these cliffs and find nothing but flowers and rock but that day is drawing nearer. We must help our seabirds at sea and protect the delicate ecosystem that they are so intrinsically linked to.
The Scottish Government has launched a consultation on Marine Protected Areas but has only proposed sites that protect black guillemot – ignoring the rest of Scotland’s seabirds that are struggling to cope. Please take part in our online action telling the Government you want MPAs to protect the rest of Scotland’s seabirds – click here.
A night in the great outdoors
I’ve been on lots of camping adventures in my life and anyone who knows me will know the majority of my stories come from those nights in the wild...or my backgarden.
Growing up, summer nights were the best opportunity to camp in our garden with lots of other kids from the neighbourhood. Ghost stories, shadow puppets, lots of snacks and the promise of staying up just a little bit later than usual added to the excitement. Setting up the camp was a particularly enjoyable event as it required imagination and a lot of furious debate about where each person would sleep and which board-games to bring. We experimented with all sorts of structures including conventional tents, a makeshift tepee that didn’t hold up in the wind and the rain, and even a bed sheet thrown over a washing line attached to two trees.
The joys of camping have stayed with me and I continue to look forward to the warmer months and the chance to see somewhere new.
I find the drama of camping exciting too, like the moment you discover you forgot to pack tent poles and have to jury-rig a system to keep your tent up and the contents dry on a rainy day, or when someone (ahem) leaves the food behind and the nearest shop is miles away. Although it may not be funny at the time, the decision to stick it out, despite discomfort, is what makes it an experience to remember.
One of my favourite moments, no matter where you are camping, is when there’s a pause in conversation and you tune in to the sounds of the world around you. The hoot of an owl, flurry of bats in nearby trees, chirp of crickets or rustle of a hedgehog are amplified and you realise just how many wonderful creatures are sharing their home with you.
This August 9-11, we have a brilliant and rare opportunity to learn more about the nightime wildlife on our reserves and in our gardens thanks to the first annual Big Wild Sleepout! There are lots of events happening across the country. On August 10th an exciting camping adventure awaits at the Rosemarkie campsite on the Black Isle, complete with tour of our nearby Fairy Glen nature reserve, onsite catering, storytelling and even a morning tai chi session on the beach (my kind of camping!).
If you are closer to Loch Lomond, spend the night at the Lagganbeg Holiday Park and enjoy an exciting opportunity to discover the fantastic wildlife at our nearby Loch Lomond nature reserve. BBQ facilities, tours, storytelling and much more will be on offer. A real experience to remember.
To find out more about The Big Wild Sleepout visit the website: http://www.rspb.org.uk/thingstodo/sleepout/. Hope to hear about your camping adventures in the coming weeks!