March, 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.
  • Boosting the budget for wildlife-friendly farming

    Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer at RSPB Scotland, blogs about the Scotland Rural Development Programme. 

    Boosting the budget for wildlife-friendly farming

    ‘More money’ is a demand that politicians hear all the time and must get pretty fed up with. But money does matter and some investments have the potential to bear fruit for many years to come. The next Scotland Rural Development Programme (SRDP) is one such long-term investment.

    In my previous blog I explained that despite the SRDP budget being £190m per year it’s really not that much considering the size of Scotland and all the demands placed on it. It has been estimated that Scotland needs £444m each year to meet environmental objectives alone, never mind finding more money for other rural development needs.

    So how can the SRDP budget be increased?

    Option 1Top-up from CAP* subsidies. Scotland’s farmers take a share of £580m per year in subsidy – equivalent to approx £250 from each Scottish household – with few environmental conditions attached. In response to the recent flooding crisis, some commentators, like George Monbiot, have been questioning the benefits Society receives in return for the huge subsidies that many landowners receive from taxpayers. The argument is that subsidies should pay for land management which, protects soils, stores floodwater and creates homes for wildlife, etc... not just producing food. We want a countryside that’s enjoyable to visit, provides us with services and is fit for nature right? That’s certainly RSPB policy. But I digress.

    Before Christmas we campaigned for more funds to be swapped from the subsidy budget to the SRDP budget to reward wildlife-friendly farming. Richard Lochhead the Cabinet Secretary could have transferred 15% of it but chose £9.5% and thereby starved the SRDP of an extra £200m. We were obviously disappointed. There is an opportunity in 2018 to change this decision but for the short term, it’s 9.5% and not enough.

    Option 2Top-up with other Government money. A proportion of the SRDP budget already comes from the wider Government budget rather than CAP funds but this option would mean finding money from elsewhere.  What about the massive transport budget?  The 80miles of A9 to be upgraded has a budget of £3bn. One mile less of that could provide £37.5m for wildlife-friendly farming!

    Option 3Rebalance the SRDP budget. For us, the Agri-Environment-Climate (AEC) scheme within the SRDP is the key scheme as it pays farmers and nature reserve managers to help nature. It has a budget of £48m per year (25% of the total) but we calculate it needs at the very least £60m per year. The AEC scheme supports land managers to create wet areas for lapwing, mow grass in a corncrake-friendly way and plant seed crops for corn buntings....and much more. This scheme can have many real benefits. Smaller SRDP schemes to advise farmers, and help them work together can increase the effectiveness of the AEC scheme, and Forestry Grants are also good in part for wildlife too.

    So what gives (that phrase is becoming a common theme in these blogs)? The biggest share of the SRDP funding pot goes to the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme (LFASS). LFASS is a bit like a top-up subsidy for hill farmers but it is poorly targeted, has little environmental benefit and is poor value for money. Reducing its budget and targeting it better to the most vulnerable farmers is a real option and would allow a transfer to the AEC scheme which provides better value for money and value for the environment.

    In reality, Option 3 is the most plausible option now. But in case we can’t persuade Ministers, we need to ensure that the limited funding works as hard as it can for wildlife-friendly farming. More next time.


  • £1.3bn for the countryside – how would you spend it?

    Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer (Climate) at RSPB Scotland,  is blogging about the Scotland Rural Development Programme and what it means for farmers, wildlife and nature conservation.

    £1.3bn for the countryside – how would you spend it? 

    £1.3 billion - that’s a lot of cash. It’s the amount that the Scottish Government has to spend on Scotland’s rural areas over the next 7 years in its Scotland Rural Development Programme (SRDP).  At approximately £190m per year it’s still a huge amount. Or is it?

    This time last year, I ordered 3 tonnes of topsoil and soil conditioner to grow some veggies in my garden. When it came off the lorry it seemed like a huge amount – had I over-ordered? But when it was spread out it didn’t go nearly as far as I thought it might.

    It’s similar with £190m. If it was spread out evenly across Scotland it would pay £25 per hectare (about one and half football pitches).  That’s not much money to help farmers and crofters look after their land, especially when you consider what the money is supposed to achieve. The Programme aims to support wildlife, halt climate change, protect our heritage, increase farm competitiveness, reduce rural poverty, and so on and so on... You can’t do all that at £25 per hectare.

    So what gives? How can you ensure best value for money – public money – because it comes from our taxes. Well there are a number of things that can be done:

    • Increase the budget
    • Specify the projects and activities that are known to work best
    • Target the money to areas of greatest need and to where the activities will be effective
    • Assess applications and select the best
    • Support those who receive grants with advice and aftercare

    We recently said this to the Government in our response to its consultation on the design of the SRDP for 2014-2020. From our research, knowledge of Scotland’s birds and wildlife, and our work with farmers, we are well placed to help Government design a scheme which supports wildlife-friendly rural livelihoods. We are working right now to help Government develop the SRDP and make sure the £1.3bn is spent as effectively as it can be.

    As we work on some of the issues above with Government, I’ll keep blogging about it and outlining how spending the money on the right things and in the right way can help our wonderful wildlife. 

  • Buzzing with activity

    James Silvey, Species Recovery Officer at RSPB Scotland, tells us about a new bee box design being tested on our reserves.

    Buzzing with activity: New homes for nature going up on reserves

    Mining bee. Photo by Nick Upton (

    There are over 250 species of bee native to the UK.

    Apart from the honeybee and 24 species of bumble bee there are over 200 species of solitary bee. The idea that some bees can be solitary often surprises people who believe that all bees live in harmony, working together for the benefit of the hive. This is not true for solitary bees and in truth is usually not even true for honey and bumble bees.

    The vast majority of the world’s bees are solitary. One industrious female bee does all the work of finding a nest site, collecting provisions and laying the eggs before finally dying, of exhaustion probably.

    There are many common solitary bees in the UK but they are generally overlooked as they appear similar to honeybees and can be seen doing the same job of pollinating flowers.

    However you may have noticed some bees doing slightly odd things like burrowing into old masonry work, as the red mason bee often does, or excavating tunnels in a lawn, as species of Andrena or mining bees can be found doing. You may have even noticed neat little semi-circle holes appearing on your rose leaves and, lacking a visible culprit, blamed the poor snail or slug. In reality this is the work of a leaf cutter bee that uses the sections of leaf to line its nest. All three of these species are described as solitary bees.   

    Whatever the species, one of the most important decisions a female solitary bee has to make is where to make her nest. For many species the answer lies in small holes in wood, stone and even brickwork. Species will also look to the hollow canes left behind by last season’s umbellifers. This has lead to the popular bee house design made up of bamboo canes, and is used frequently by species such as the red mason bee.

    Often these boxes are used in the first season they’re put up. You might see prospecting bees flying in front of the entrance and entering holes with fully laden pollen baskets. Within a few short weeks though the work is done, the bees have gone and all that is left is a mud plug over the entrance protecting the young from various predators and parasites that look to steal the provisions left by the mother.

    What goes on within these solid structures is unknown to many of us which is why 2012 lead me to design a new style of bee box that can be opened without disturbing the hard working bee inside and observe the fruits of her labour. This design has been worked on over the last two years and this year, bee boxes will be sent out to reserves across the UK to monitor and record the local solitary bees who find this design to their liking.

    Boxes will be in place at Loch Leven, The Lodge and Inversnaid where we’re hoping some of our rarer solitary species may take up residence.

    Watch this space.