May, 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.
  • Super sandeels

    Allan Whyte, Marine Policy Officer at RSPB Scotland, gives us an update on the campaign for Marine Protected Areas in Scotland.

    Super sandeels

    Sandeels are probably not an animal you are overly familiar with; you will hopefully have read a little about them on our website. However, this small, silvery fish is something of a superhero in the sea. Sandeels are utterly vital for marine animals like seabirds, dolphins, whales and porpoises. However, sandeel populations are declining, largely due to the impact of climate change on the marine environment.

    Sandeels are a vital food source for puffins and other seabirds.

    As many of you will know, the Scottish Government has proposed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to protect a range of species, including sandeels and black guillemots, but has ignored the other 23 seabird species which breed around our coasts.

    We will keep fighting for MPAs for Scotland’s seabirds, but right now the most effective thing we can do is to make sure our Government lives up to its promise to protect sandeels and black guillemots. Our seabird populations are under increasing strain from a lack of food and the impact of climate change and it is vital that we protect these species and the food they eat.  

    This infographic depicts the impact of climate change on the marine food chain.

    We’re asking people who care about Scotland’s marine environment to write to their MSPs telling them why protection for seabirds and sandeels is so important to them.

    There are three things our Government must do when it finally announces which MPAs are designated this summer:

    • Designate the 6 black guillemot MPAs
    • Designate the 3 sandeel MPAs
    • Designate the Firth of Forth Banks Complex MPA for sandeels

    The map below outlines where proposed MPAs are located. Are any near you? You can also take a look at an interactive (and lots of great pictures of marine wildlife) at

    So who exactly do you write to? You will have 7 list MSPs and one constituency MSP. To find out who your MSPs are, visit To save on postage, you can place all  8 copies of your letter (addressed to each individual MSP) in one envelope addressed to The Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, EH99 1SP.

    Keep checking our website and blogs for updates on how things are going.

    Thanks for all your help and support for giving nature a home at sea.


  • Everyone’s a Winner

    Conservation Manager Stuart Benn meets the winners of the RSPB Scotland Photographic Competition

    One of the best bits of my job is getting to meet up with great people and so it was this week when I got a couple of days out with some of the winners of the RSPB Scotland Photographic Competition.

    Day one was with Andy, Dominic and Eric and having won a photographic competition, they wanted the chance to take more pictures so I took them to one of my favourite spots near Loch Ness. Despite the cool wind and showers, the ring ouzels sang, the spotted flycatchers snapped passing midges, the swallows and martins zoomed by and common sandpipers skittered off. A really enjoyable day though I don’t think we ever quite managed to get the wildlife and photographers in precisely the same place at the same time to get that killer image.

    Emma takes the controls

    On day two, I met Lesley and her niece, Emma, at Loch Garten where we were given a privileged behind the scenes look round Operation Osprey by Jen Clark. This is a special year at Garten as it is 60 years since ospreys returned here as a breeding bird in the UK and, all being well, their 100th chick will fledge too so this really was a special treat. Emma even got to operate the nest cameras and there’s not many people get to do that!

    And at the feeders, a red squirrel scurried about and posed for the cameras – one for next year’s comp perhaps?!

    Red squirrel at Loch Garten (Lesley Garven)

  • Scotland's Grand Canyon

    Scotland's Grand Canyon- a tour of opencast coal sites in East  Ayrshire

    One of the perks of working for a nature conservation organisation is the occasional opportunity to get out of the office and see colleagues in action and the special places for wildlife we fight for.

    Over the past year, RSPB Scotland staff have been working to highlight the sorry state opencast coal mines have been left in across Central Scotland, following the collapse of the two biggest surface mining companies last year. We are pressing for action on restoration, and robust regulations to ensure the same problems don’t happen again. Regional staff have visited these sites on many occasions over the years, but we decided it was high time some of us less familiar went to see the impacts first hand.

    So, on a grey Monday morning, we were whisked away for a ‘grand tour’ of East Ayrshire’s opencast coal mines. Before long, we started to spot mountains of overburden- a mix of soil and rock dug out of the massive opencast pits - metres from the main road.

    Our first stop was the now derelict site at Powharnal, near the village of Muirkirk, which was mined by Scottish Coal - at the time, the largest mining company in Scotland and second largest in the UK. After crossing a small woodland, we were on the site [Please note: there is no right of access to these sites and any visits must be authorised by the landowner].  What we didn’t know immediately, gazing across a ‘loch’ that looked to be about 20 hectares, was that below the surface lies a ‘void’ of at least 50 metres deep, filled with ground water. A few gulls bobbed along the surface, surrounded by steep slopes of the overburden mounds.

    Walking on the edge of the void at Powharnal.

    Unsurprisingly, the flooded voids at this and other sites are causing serious concern for local communities, and the water level looked alarmingly high, and within just a few metres of the road and River Ayr.

    What strikes you walking around the site is the sheer scale of it. We trouped to the top of the overburden mound and were greeted with a view of more of the same. You’d be forgiven for thinking that such operations must, surely, be located well away from sensitive wildlife areas.

    But unfortunately, perhaps the most shocking fact about the Powharnal site is that a big chunk of it, about 100 hectares, is within the Muirkirk and North Lowther Uplands ‘Special Protection Area ‘ or SPA, protected under EC law. ‘Special’ because it is considered prime habitat for breeding populations of hen harrier, short eared owl, merlin, peregrine and golden plover. The habitats that support these birds, and a wealth of other species, include important areas of peat bog. What the picture shows below  is the 45 degree angle of the overburden, smack in the middle of the SPA.

    Overburden smack in the middle of the SPA.

    So how did the site come to be left in such a state? Allowing mining in a protected wildlife site doesn’t exactly sit well with the Scotland’s reputation as a country which values its special places for nature, or its ambitions to transition to a low carbon economy. Seeing the site was certainly a harsh reminder of the consequences of our energy-hungry lifestyles. It was an interesting experience to relate my own energy use to the landscape right in front of me.

    Open cast coaling was nevertheless big business in Scotland until last year, when Scottish Coal and ATH Resources collapsed. It became apparent that there would be massive difficulties in restoring several sites left behind, including at Powharnal and also Grievehill, another site overlapping the SPA. These sites were consented on the strict basis that restoration standards would be high, to avoid breaching European law.

    Even though the companies originally set up financial bonds - insurance policies to ensure restoration happened in case they went bust - it emerged after their collapse that the bonds were massively inadequate. The shortfall has been estimated at £200 million across Scotland, with the majority of this in East Ayrshire.

    Looking at the images here, you can see the enormity of the task at hand. How do you shift that much earth, truck by truck, and begin to bring nature back to the area? And who is going to pay for it? With the issue of breach of with European law (and associated heavy fines) looming, clearly a plan needs to be put in place as a matter of priority.

    View of the void at Powharnal from the top of the overburden mound.

    After our walk through Powharnal, we stopped for a quick view of the Duncanziemere site where coal is still being extracted by Hargreaves, one of the few remaining operators. We expect to see an application to extend this site soon.  Across the road is Low Moss - a lovely example of a raised mire habitat, with the sound of birds enjoying it.  Whilst it doesn’t seem right that any new sites should be consented until we have sorted out the restoration challenge, at the very least we hope that any new plans will avoid the most sensitive areas. Otherwise, an extension could wipe out an important home for nature.

    Our last stop before heading back to the office was in the valley housing the adjoining Greenburn and House of Water sites. The former is operated by Kier Mining, and the latter has been taken over by Hargreaves but is a big part of the ‘restoration challenge’. The view from here was perhaps the best example of the day of what can happen when mining continues across and defines an entire landscape. I have been to the Grand Canyon in the US, and the exposed seams at these mines reminded me in no small way of the spectacle. Let’s hope that we see concrete action on restoration soon. And let’s hope that these areas are supported to transition away from industry that is continuing to leave a damaging industrial legacy in Scotland.