February, 2014

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Scottish Nature Notes

Keep up to date with the latest wildlife and nature news in Scotland. Regular blogs from RSPB Scotland's conservation teams across the country. Writing about Scotland's amazing wildlife & natural environment.
  • Measuring our restoration management in the northern blanket bogs

    RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, Mark Hancock, gives us an update on work to restore blanket bog in the Flow Country.

    Measuring our restoration management in the northern blanket bogs

    The early spring is one of the busiest times for RSPB researchers, as we prepare for the coming field season.  One of our main projects in the north of Scotland is monitoring the restoration work that RSPB is carrying out in the Flow Country - the huge blanket bog of the northern Scottish Highlands.  Most of this restoration is taking place on our reserve at Forsinard Flows - the largest RSPB reserve in the UK.

    We've just completed a 12-month 'baseline' period of monitoring in areas where restoration is about to commence.  These are forestry plantations that were (controversially) established on deep peat soils in the Flow Country in the 1980s.  In some of these areas, we plan to harvest the trees, block the forestry drains, and restore the blanket bog with its characteristic bog mosses and beautiful breeding birds like golden plovers and greenshanks.

    Greenshank (at left) photographed by a camera trap at a loch-side in Forsinard Flows reserve: a late evening shot from May last year.  The dark feathers on the bird's back are characteristic of the breeding plumage.

    Our baseline data allows us to measure the state of the areas planned for restoration, prior to the restoration work starting.  We're particularly interested in measuring the wetness of the ground - because this is crucial to the re-establishment of the all-important bog mosses, and ultimately, the complete bog habitat with its characteristic wildlife.

    So, how do you measure the wetness of a bog?  Well, first and foremost, we measure how deep the water table is in the soil, and the moisture levels of the surface layer.  We need water tables and moisture levels to be both high, and stable, throughout the year, in order for the bog to start to recover in the restored areas.  Most of the hard work of keeping on top of this monitoring work and making these (and a wide range of other) measurements has been done by my colleague Trevor Smith, ably assisted by Paul Stagg, our TCV Natural Talent Apprentice.

    Field research staff in action at RSPB Forsinard Flows reserve: Trevor Smith (top)and Paul Stagg (bottom), measuring the surface wetness of areas planned for restoration (top) and comparable bog areas (bottom).

    It's been really interesting having a look at these hard-won data.  Trevor has been pulling together a report on our first year's work - here's one of the illustrations from the report, showing the water table in an area of bog we use as a comparison for the restoration areas:

    Water table depth in an area of bog near to the restoration areas (October 2012 - September 2013): the water table is high and stable most of the year.  Even during a prolongued drought in July 2013, it only falls to 350 mm below the surface, and only for a short period.

    The unusual drought period we had last July can clearly be seen in this illustration.  Although the water table fell a bit in the bog, it fell much lower in the areas where restoration is planned, which have all been ploughed to form deep forestry drains.  You can see this is the graph below.  The areas planned for restoration (red bars), which are currently forestry plantations, have water tables about 200 mm lower than those of bog areas.  The green bar is based on areas of standing forestry which are not planned for restoration management.

    Water table depths during a dry period (July 2013).  The bog areas (brown bar) have water tables about 200 mm higher than those of the restoration areas (still under forestry: red bars) and other forestry (green bar).

    Of course, what we hope is that the red (restoration) bars on this graph will start to look more like the brown (bog) bar, as restoration management (e.g. blocking of drains), commencing later this year, starts to wet up the ground again.  This should then help the bog habitat to gradually recover.

    We're expecting the coming field season to be especially busy, as restoration management starts, and we need to keep tabs on our monitoring equipment and quadrants while contractors (with their specialised machinery) take out the trees and block up the drains.  We've always had a lot of help from volunteers based at Forsinard reserve, but this summer we plan to set up a 3-month internship on the bog restoration monitoring work.  Based at the reserve with other volunteers, the intern will have a chance to learn a wide range of monitoring techniques and get an insider's view of the huge range of practical conservation management and research going on at this fascinating site.

    An important date in the calendar for us this year, before the field season kicks in earnest, is a conference on all the research work going on in the Flow Country, organised by the Environmental Research Institute in Thurso, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.  These days, the Flow Country is a top destination not just for biodiversity research, but also for climate-related science.  The climate researchers are interested in how huge bogs like the Flow Country, with their deep peat soils, collect and protect vast quantities of carbon, originally taken out of the atmosphere by plants over thousands of years, and held in the saturated peat.  We're all really looking forward to the conference, where several new projects, including three PhD studentships, will be reporting some of their first results.

    Researchers from the Environmental Research Institute (Paul Gaffney, left, and Roxane Andersen, right) measuring water quality & carbon dynamics in a watercourse below restoration areas in the Flow Country.

  • Airds Moss- a hidden industrial gem

    Jill Harden,  Project Archaeologist at RSPB Scotland, uncovers an industrial gem at our Airds Moss nature reserve.

    Airds Moss – a hidden industrial gem

     Archaeological sites are extremely varied in type, period and extent and this is reflected in the range that is protected by law as being of national importance. Scheduled monuments don’t just include prehistoric burial mounds or Roman forts. There are also medieval castle ruins, post-medieval abandoned farmsteads and fields, and much, much more.

    Airds Moss, hidden between Muirkirk and Cumnock in east Ayrshire is not really the sort of place where one might expect to find a site of such significance. But just because it is on the edge today doesn’t mean that it was so in the past. It is here that we can still see the only 18th century charcoal-fired blast furnace for commercial-scale production of iron in south Scotland. You have to travel north to Loch Fyne, Loch Etive or even further north to see others. And the Tarrioch ironworks at Airds Moss is not just unusual for its location. It seems to be the only recorded example where the local estate owner funded the works, rather than a commercial company from afar.

    The Earl of Cathcart’s ironworks, constructed in the early 1730s, took advantage of local materials. Around Airds Moss the geology, deciduous tree cover and river Ayr provided the natural resources that were fundamental for successful iron production. Here, hematite iron ore could be quarried nearby rather than being brought by sea from Cumbria, while charcoal must have been made in the area. Water-power was harnessed by digging an artificial waterway from the river Ayr to a wheel that worked the furnace bellows. It was only then that sufficiently high temperatures could be reached to create the pig iron, ready for casting or working into wrought iron in a forge.


    The grass-covered mound immediately behind the tree conceals the stonework of the furnace.

    This ironworks may now be in ruins but elements are still clearly visible:

    • A large mound is the obvious remains of the furnace.
    • Immediately to the south is a rubble strewn area – presumably the housing for the waterwheel below and, above, the access to the top of the furnace for loading the iron ore and charcoal.
    • To the east is a pond area, which originally held water until it was needed at the works, and beyond the broad, canal-like waterway with massive banks on either side – the excavated earth hand spoil from the leat.
    • The sluice-gate at the edge of the river Ayr some 200m away has long since disappeared.
    • Bypassing the furnace, a drain leads out northwards from the pond to the river – a ‘safety valve’ for the water levels.
    • West of the furnace is the leat from the waterwheel, crossed by a small, finely-built, arched stone bridge. Horse and cart would have crossed this, laden with pig iron from the furnace, climbing up the bank to the track out to the ford over the river Ayr.


    The massive banks that line the waterway from the river Ayr to the Tarrioch ironworks.

    Although the works may only have lasted 20 years it was clearly a huge commitment for investor and labourers alike. The number of men needed must have been considerable, both during the construction phase and when it was producing pig iron, but we aren’t even certain where they stayed; there is still much to learn, not just about the place but also about its links into the wider environs.

    Today the site is very quiet – sheep graze the riverside, a variety of water and moorland birds frequent the habitat, and occasionally you’ll meet someone on the long distance footpath that runs alongside the ironworks. The River Ayr Way traces the length of the water from its source at Glenbuck Loch east of Muirkirk, down through Mauchline to the coast at Ayr, some 65km in all. I wonder how many walkers realise that this site exists, let alone how important it was in the development of Scotland’s industries.

    Nowadays you really have to use your imagination to start to grasp how noisy, smelly, and eye-smarting the ironworks would have been in its heyday. But when I visited the site last week with the warden Stephen Owen and area reserves manager Gerry McAuley we had little time to think about this. The wind howled and the rain lashed down, while the sleet and hail battered us. I’ll have to go back, if only to get a few clear photos.

    Please note: This site is one of several that due to its size, location and/or conservation sensitivity is not capable of accommodating large numbers of visitors. 

  • Drum roll please...RSPB Scotland photo competition winners announced

    Lisa Dove, Community Fundraiser for RSPB Scotland, reveals the winners of the 2013 RSPB Scotland photo competition.

    Drum roll please...

    With over 200 entries received, our judges had a tough job to do deciding the winners of the 2013 RSPB Scotland Photography Competition. Dean Bricknell, John Aitchison and Andy Hay spent much time sifting through photos and even found a few surprises. With so many top quality entries it is clear that Scotland has fantastic wildlife, nature and photographers!

    Our expert judges (l-r) Dean Bricknell, John Aitchison and Andy Hay.

    Thank you to everyone who took the time to enter the competition and helped us spread the word. Now without further ado we present the winners....

    RSPB Scotland Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    The top prize has been awarded to Iris Waanders of the Netherlands. Her stunning photo of two red-necked phalaropes was taken on a visit to Shetland.

    Judge John Aitchison said: “Red-necked phalaropes are wonderfully confiding but they are also small and they move continuously which makes them hard to photograph.  Unusually among birds the males are less brightly marked than the females so this photograph is interesting as it shows the drabber, slimmer male mating with the more colourful female.  It's an excellent photograph of a fleeting and intimate moment in the lives of these fascinating birds which, RSPB research has just shown, cross the Atlantic when they leave Shetland then fly to the Pacific ocean to spend the winter on the sea close to the Galapagos Islands - the only European bird to do so."

    Second prize went to  Richard Bennet for his fantastic photo of three otters fishing off Yell in Shetland.

    Animal behaviour

    We received fantastic entries in the animal behaviour category including this winning photo of a dolphin and jellyfish taken by Lesley Garven at Chanonry Point, Fortrose.

    The second place prize was awarded to Andy Hayes. His stunning photo of an osprey wascaptured at Rothiemurchus Estate in the Cairngorms.


    A fiery sunrise captured the judges imagination and Dominic Boulding scooped top prize in the category for the impressive photo of Cairngorm Mountain.

    Sylviane Moss’ photo of a moody sky near Camasunary, Isle of Skye came a close second.

    Giving Nature a Home

    A photo by Jonathan Avery of a blue tit feeding a hungry chick won the prize in the Giving Nature a Home category.

    A colourful damsel fly making a home for itself on a duck pond near Langholm secured second prize for Stanley Wilson.

    People & Nature

    Another win for Lesley Garven, this photo of a dolphin leaping off of Chanonry Point captured the judges imagination and was awarded top prize in the people and nature category.

    Eric McCabe’s tranquil portrait with wildflowers at Tweedbank in the Borders took second prize.

    Young Photographer of the Year

    The title of RSPB Scotland Young Photographer of the Year was awarded to Imogen Hayden, aged 11, for her beautiful photo of a white-tailed eagle on the Isle of Skye.

    Judge John Aitchison said: “Imogen's photograph is a real winner and she's only eleven!  I have filmed white-tailed eagles taking fish and I know how hard it is to take a decent photograph of them.  Giving Nature a Home was the theme of the under 18 category and the reintroduction of white tailed eagles to Scotland has been a great success.  They really have been given back their home here.”

    Rona Ballantyne, aged 14, scooped second prize for her endearing photo of a mouse taken in Perth.


    Congratulations to all of our winners and the runners up!