December, 2014

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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.
  • Bad science (or never let the truth get in the way of a “good” story)

    Senior Conservation Policy Officer, Richard Evans, has this response to a recent article on sea eagles in the Daily Telegraph.

    Bad science (or never let the truth get in the way of a “good” story)


    White-tailed (sea) eagle David Tipling (rspb-images.com)

    Last month, we blogged [1] about a piece in the Daily Telegraph[2] that suggested that more birds of prey were killed by wind turbines than by gamekeepers.  We pointed out that the paper had fallen into the trap of selection bias[3], because birds killed by turbines were far more likely to be reported than birds killed by gamekeepers.

    Well, the Telegraph is at it again, this time beavering away at the hoary (but seasonal) old chestnut of white-tailed (sea) eagle diet[4].  According to the press release[5] from SNH and partners (Forest Enterprise Scotland, National Farmers Union of Scotland and RSPB Scotland), a camera placed by FCS at a sea eagle nest on their land to record prey brought in by the adults showed:

    The sea eagles brought a total of 117 prey items to the nest between January and July. Analysis confirmed that 67 items were unidentifiable, 21 were mammals, 14 were birds, 7 were fish, and either 8 or 9 were lambs.”

    The Telegraph headlined their story: “Sea eagles eat more lamb than fish, despite their name, according to research.”  “Eight or nine” is more than seven, so the Telegraph is right this time, surely?

    Ummm, not when the data are subject (just like the wind turbine and illegal persecution data) to selection bias.  Let’s look at those figures a little more closely.  Firstly, well over half the items recorded carried to the nest by cameras were “unidentifiable”.  This is not particularly surprising.  In the experience of most RSPB staff with sea eagle nest watching experience, including the use of cameras, it can be very difficult to identify some prey items, particularly if they are small and nondescript in colour.  A bit like most inshore fish and many bird species known to be taken by sea eagles.  And not in the least like lambs, which (as many RSPB staff with sea eagle nest watching experience can confirm) tend to appear very obviously large and white, and on camera also woolly.

    But eight (or nine) is still more than seven, right?  Actually, almost certainly wrong when the fractionally smaller category (7 items) is much more difficult to identify than the marginally larger one (8 or 9 items); and when (as here) most items were unidentified, and likely to include many from the difficult-to-identify category (here fish; and previously, illegally-killed birds of prey). 

    But it gets worse.  This time the Telegraph is guilty of a special type of selection bias commonly known as hasty generalisation[6].  As any fool knows, you can’t (or at any rate shouldn’t) generalise from a sample of one.  But that is precisely what the Telegraph article does, by applying the (incorrectly interpreted) results using a single technique, from a single year and a single site, to all sea eagles everywhere.

    We have known for a long time[7] that some sea eagles take some lambs, some of which are taken alive (but at least some of which in turn are in poor condition).  We also know that there’s great variation between the diets of different pairs. So while the latest camera deployment tells us something about the diet of this pair in 2014 (mainly that we don’t actually know most of what they ate), it doesn’t allow the wild extrapolation indulged in by the Telegraph in this article.

    Which all goes to show that you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make him think. Or something like that.

  • For The Love Of.....A White Christmas

    Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer with RSPB Scotland, is back with another blog on the For The Love Of...campaign - just in time for Christmas. 

    For The Love Of.....A White Christmas

    The odds of a white Christmas in Glasgow this year are currently 3-1 (from a well known bookmaker) but may be cut even further now that we have had the first proper winter weather. The likelihood of a white Christmas used to be much higher. When Dickens wrote 'A Christmas Carol' back in 1843 I’m sure his bookmaker would have stopped taking bets on it. The last official white Christmas was in 2010 – there was snow on the ground and snowfall was recorded.

    Last week we had the announcement that 2014 will be the hottest year on record – both in the UK and for the whole globe. This graph shows the warmest years quite nicely and it would seem that the trend probably means less chance of cold winters in the future. 

    Scotland has been warming through the 20th century so global warming and climate change is already happening here – its not a thing of the future http://www.climatetrendshandbook.adaptationscotland.org.uk/. So what about a future white Christmas? 

    The trend for warmer years has gone hand in hand with warmer spring weather, spring starting earlier, less frost days and less snow cover. But, in Scotland, there is also a trend for more precipitation (rain and snow and anything in between) but on the same number of days as before. So if it is going to snow on or before Christmas day perhaps we might be in for a heavier dump of snow.

    If you are a gardener, you might be pleased with less frosts and snow damaging precious plants, but some of our rarest mountain plants actually need snow. The blue heath Phyllodoce caerulea needs snow as an insulating blanket to protect against frosts. 

    Without, snow cover, the white coat of a mountain hare or feathers of ptarmigan are little use as camouflage from eagles. Cold winter weather also kills off pests and diseases that might otherwise run rampant through the countryside. Snow and ice aren’t just fun for those who love ice-climbing, they are also essential to many of our precisely evolved species.

    Mountain hare

    We do sometimes talk of climate change impacts in terms of climatic chaos and the threat of extreme events – including heavy snow storms and freezing conditions. And the physics of global warming means that a warmer atmosphere can hold more water in clouds and that leads to more volatile weather. So no-one can rule out a white Christmas in the future, just don’t go placing any bets just yet.  

    If you love a white Christmas, sledging on a crisp morning or our wonderful winter wildlife, why not go online and tell us about it at www.rspb.org.uk/fortheloveof  

  • See Peat....Think Rainforest

    RSPB Scotland Conservation Policy Officer, Alexa Morrison, takes a look at what wind farm developer, Scottish Power Renewables is doing to restore peatlands at Black Law wind farm, and why it is so important to protect our peatlands from development impacts in Scotland.

    See Peat....Think Rainforest

    Working in conservation policy means that I’m mostly office-based, so when I have an opportunity to get my wellies on and see some conservation work on the ground, I jump at the chance. So I was excited to be invited, with other RSPB Scotland colleagues, to visit Black Law wind farm to learn about progress with peatland restoration work. 

    Figure 1: Black Law wind farm pictured in summer

    Black Law is a 54-turbine wind farm, built in 2005, making it one of the largest and one of the first operational sites in the UK. So why is RSPB Scotland interested in this site? 

    The developer, Scottish Power Renewables, had to remove approximately 470ha of conifer plantation (about 650 football pitches) to make way for the turbines. The trees had been planted on deep peat, over 4m deep in some areas, which was drained historically for commercial plantation forestry. 

    RSPB Scotland strongly supports renewable energy to help meet our important climate targets – but it is crucial that wind farms are built in the right places, in harmony with nature. Peatlands present the industry with both challenges and opportunities. They are a crucial home for nature, with beautiful characteristic Sphagnum mosses providing the ‘building blocks’ for species such as common lizards, dragonflies, hares, curlews and golden plover, to name but a few.

    Common Lizard on sphagnum moss

    They are also a massive carbon sink: peatlands in Scotland are thought to store 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon. Keeping this carbon locked up in the soil is critical: a loss of only 1% of it would equal our total annual domestic greenhouse gas emissions. For these reasons, blanket bog (the main peatland habitat type in Scotland), is often described as ‘Scotland’s rainforest’.

    Scottish Planning Policy recognises this, and sets out that deep peat and priority peatland habitat should be given ‘significant protection’ in the planning system. Industry-body Scottish Renewables have also recognised the need to avoid deep peat and pursue restoration opportunities in the ‘Wind Farms and Peatland Good Practice Principles’ (pictured below).

    To avoid harming wildlife and undermining the carbon benefits of green energy, developers therefore need to avoid sensitive peatlands. In some cases, however, if carefully managed, wind farms can deliver wildlife benefits in addition to clean energy, by restoring damaged peatlands.

    Planning conditions required SPR to implement a Habitat Management Plan on the site, over 1440ha, with the core aim of restoring blanket bog habitat on both the areas of damaged open mire and previously afforested peatland habitat. Removing plantations from deep peat is a good thing for both wildlife and the climate, and something that RSPB Scotland is also doing in places like our Forsinard reserve in partnership with Forestry Commission and SNH, to enable the natural flora and fauna to recover. 

    Our Forsinard reserve, where RSPB Scotland is removing forestry from peatland

    The day was hosted by SPR’s ecologists and Strath Caulaidh, the consultants who worked with SPR to develop restoration techniques. After a presentation and a quick cuppa in the site’s control building, we headed out in our hard hats. Walking across blanket bog is a little bit like walking over a sponge, and I began to fear that my wellies might not be up to the job. I also noticed I was the only one without waterproof trousers. Spot the office-based policy nerd.  

    Stump flipping 

    Peatland restoration techniques are far from an exact science, but SPR have monitored the site since before construction to gain an understanding of the site hydrology, and identify what is preventing natural recovery. ‘Traditional’ methods such as ditch blocking with dams can help on damaged open mire habitat, but on previously afforested sites further intervention is required. Innovative techniques such as ground smoothing (flipping the stumps and regen into the furrows and then tracking over the area with the aim of levelling the ridged ground left behind by the plantations) have been shown to work by controlling conifer regeneration and bringing the water table closer to the surface. 

    Watching a demonstration of this technique illustrated clearly just how wet blanket bog is, and the conditions that create the uniqueness of this habitat. Even standing some metres away from the digger as it moved across the soupy peat surface, it was a bit like standing on a bowl of jelly while someone wobbles the bowl. Working on a digger on peat is definitely not a job for the weak-stomached, perhaps unless you’ve got a stash of seasickness pills in the glove-box!

    Detailed monitoring is taking place to understand how these methods are affecting things like vegetation growth and site hydrology. Scottish Power should be commended for their commitment to achieving quality restoration at this site, and we look forward to seeing continued progress. These experiences also need to be shared and lessons learned by the industry as a whole.

    By avoiding sensitive peatlands, and maximising opportunities for restoration at wind farm sites, the industry can make a meaningful contribution to habitat restoration. But we need developers to set and maintain high standards, and we need decision-makers to ensure that we avoid losing any more of our precious deep peat resource.

    We need to ‘see peat...think rainforest.’