Conservation Adviser for RSPB Scotland, Dan Brown, tells us about the status of the curlew in the UK and the work that needs to be done to safeguard the future of this bird.
Working across the flyway to save birds like the curlew
Migratory birds undertake truly awe-inspiring journeys. The long-haul flights of many species sees entire populations travel thousands of miles - epic journeys that span countries, oceans and continents. They visit different habitats in different countries at different times of the year. And in doing so, they showcase the interconnectedness of our living planet; wildlife that is shared with peoples and cultures at other ends of the world.
In our part of the world, birds migrate along one of the three major African-Eurasian flyways. There is one special Scottish bird, the red-necked phalarope, that prefers a more Latino-inspired winter, but the rest travel across Europe, Africa and the Middle East; from northern breeding grounds to southern wintering grounds, then back again the following year.
Hundreds of years ago, species would undertake these annual cycles year in, year out, until they died of natural causes – like old age, starvation, or predation. Nowadays, surviving the annual cycle is a much more gruelling affair. On top of natural causes, add a whole raft of man-made hazards - like illegal hunting, collisions with power lines, or loss of coastal habitats to development. We call these possible sources of habitat loss and mortality ‘threats’.
Some threats have more of an impact than others. Some pose threats for particular species only. Some threats are only present in certain countries or regions. But they all add up, and often, it is the combination of threats across the flyway that drives population declines. And so to stop population declines, we must act to reduce the impact of threats across the flyway. That requires international cooperation – so that all countries understand the threats, their impacts and conservation solutions. And this is what an international conservation agreement called the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement - or AEWA - is for.
Earlier this month I attended an AEWA conference. In attendance were governments from across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, alongside numerous NGOs. The meeting was to discuss, debate and agree on pressing issues facing migratory birds – such as how to reduce poisoning of waterbirds from lead ammunition and how to reduce the impact of marine fisheries on seabirds.
In addition, international conservation plans for several species were on the agenda, from the prehistoric-looking shoebill to the stunning grey-crowned Crane, as well as a bird of particular relevance to Scotland and the res of the UK: the curlew.
Our recent work has made us realise just how important the UK is for the curlew: we may host 28 per cent of the global breeding population – we are a global stronghold for the bird. Yet our population is declining rapidly (by 46 per cent between 1995 and 2013) and the Eurasian curlew, to give it its full name, was classified as globally near threatened with extinction by the IUCN in 2007.
In terms of global conservation status, this puts it on a par with the Jaguar. And worryingly, many other shorebirds that the UK supports in good numbers, including lapwing and oystercatcher, have just joined that list.
It seems only right that, where possible, countries that are most important for a globally declining species should lead the global conservation effort. And that is exactly what the RSPB is doing.
Together with the UK’s statutory agencies, we have written a paper highlighting why the curlew is our top priority bird species from a global conservation perspective. We have also kick-started a programme of work to help save curlews in the UK. And lastly, recognising the need to work with other countries across the flyway, we produced an international conservation plan, which was adopted at the AEWA meeting earlier this month.
At home, we need to ramp up efforts to safeguard our important breeding population. We need to identify really important breeding areas and protect them from threats, such as poorly-sited wind farms and forestry plantations.
Conservation and farming communities need to work together. We need to target agri-environment funding - to support sensitive farming practices in important breeding areas. We are already making excellent progress on this front, through farmland wader conservation projects in Strathspey and the Clyde Valley. However, we need similar projects in other important breeding areas.
This is just the start. We look forward to working with partners in the UK and across the AEWA region to save Europe’s largest wader. In doing so, we’ll ensure the curlew’s bubbling song continues to be heard across northern Europe during the spring and summer; that it is afforded safe passage during spring and autumn migration; and that coastal regions of Europe, Africa and the Middle East can continue to provide a home for flocks of curlew during the winter.
Five facts you should know about beavers
Most of us probably think about beavers as rather plump creatures with big flat tails and a penchant for gnawing wood and building dams; but how much do you really know about them? Reintroducing some species to Scotland has certainly been a hot topic this year and the beaver is one we’re particularly interested in.
RSPB Scotland is supporting further reintroductions of beavers here following the conclusion of the Scottish Beaver Trial, run by our friends at the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland in Knapdale Forest.
The Scottish Government is due to make a decision on whether beavers will stay or go at the end of this year. That means we could end up seeing more of these fascinating creatures around the country in future, so here are five facts we think you ought to have tucked away:
Beavers are not exactly svelte...
Beavers are the second largest species of rodent in the entire world, pipped to the post only by the capybara which comes from South America. Beavers weigh upwards of 20kg – which is comparable to the weight of a roe deer. That already seems a fair size to us, but the extinct relative of the Eurasian beaver, the North American giant beaver, was as big as a bear! They could weigh as much as 200kg.
Beavers can hold their breath for 15 minutes!
Beavers spend a large amount of time in water and it’s where they feel at their safest too. They forage in water, carry materials for maintaining their homes through it, and it’s where beavers retreat to when they feel threatened. If they believe they are really at risk, they can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes! Beavers are able swimmers, and their eyes, nose and ears are all positioned atop their heads so they can have full use of their senses when swimming around. Beavers can also constrict their nostrils and close their specialised ear flaps to prevent water getting in when diving.
They have a better social life than some people
Beavers are very social creatures. They live together in little family groups consisting of an adult pair and their kits from the current and previous breeding years. Beavers can spend a lot of time grooming each others’ fur and even have a specially adapted double claw on their hind feet which act as a fine comb. Even as young beavers they love the company of others, and kits will spend a lot of their time wrestling, feeding together and mock fighting over sticks (how sweet is that).
Beavers have a secret weapon hidden in their teeth
Although beavers are capable of felling large trees they actually prefer to munch on smaller saplings. Beavers have specially adapted teeth for dealing with their tough diet, using their incisors to cut, and their molars to grind. Beaver teeth grow continuously, the same as other rodents. And the hard layer of orange outer enamel has iron built into its chemical structure – this gives the teeth their rusty colour but is also what keeps them so strong and healthy.
And they don’t just build dams
Beavers are phenomenal architects, creating brilliant homes known as lodges to live in. Lodges are pretty intricate, with a series of burrows and chambers to protect the family from predators and the elements. Sometimes they look deceptively small as most of the lodge is hidden beneath the surface of the water or within the banks of a river; beavers prefer to exit their home directly into the water because, as we know, it’s safer. Beavers don’t always live in lodges all year round though. Because they’re excellent burrowers they can quickly create what are known as ‘day rests’. During the warmer months they have been known to fashion and sleep in these simple short burrows or ‘day beds’ – I don’t know about you, but we like their style!
Rea Cris, Parliamentary Officer with RSPB Scotland, tells us why she'll be joining Scotland's Climate March on November 28 in Edinburgh.
Why I’m Marching
Is the swallow a British bird that winters in Africa or an African bird that summers in Britain? An elegant conundrum that serves a more important purpose of highlighting that everything in nature is interconnected.
The swallow is adapted to take advantage of our long daylight hours, to rear one or more broods of young and feed them on the wealth of flying insects around during ‘our’ summer. It then returns to Africa, crossing the Sahara and the expanding Sahel, to catch flies around pastoralists’ camps in South Africa. So many steps, so many ways a changing climate could affect ‘our’ swallows.
For many, climate change is an abstract concept that happens elsewhere, to someone else. Yet we all inhabit the same singular world which works similarly to a giant intricate machine, when something is put under pressure or breaks in one area, it affects neighbouring parts or causes malfunctions in the whole system. The impacts of climate change on the world are similar. What does this have to do with birds? Climate change is having an impact on our wildlife and it is only expected to get worse. Scientists have estimated that for every 1°C rise in global temperatures 10 per cent of the world’s species will become extinct.
Birds, along with the majority of wildlife do not think in terms of borders or boundaries. The envy of the bird is that they can go where they please and winter in warmer parts of the world. Migratory birds cover a huge mileage to reach breeding or feeding grounds yet these various places are either directly impacted by climate change or human activity contributing to climate change.
Take the spoon-billed sandpiper, a gorgeous unique wading bird threatened by extinction. It is about the size of a house sparrow with a small spoon-shaped beak, that filters microorganisms from muddy estuaries, it undergoes a migration of nearly 5,000 miles (8,000km).
Its breeding grounds are in Siberia but its wintering grounds are in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Along the way it rests and feeds in tidal habitats along the coast of south-east Asia, but increasingly it has to fly for longer and further to find rest because coastal development has destroyed its habitat. Exhausted, stretched to its limit, this tiny bird is already rare and disappearing. What hope is there when climate change puts further pressure on this migrant? When sea level rise covers its remaining coastal feeding grounds, when water gets scarce in droughts, when more frequent and unseasonal storms blow it off course?
Which country is responsible for these birds? My answer is what we are all responsible, just as we are all responsible for the world’s wildlife as well as wider climate justice for those most affected. A cruel irony is that climate change is already affecting countries and people in the global south who have done the least to contribute to the historic carbon emissions our industries have produced.
In December 2015, the United Nations will hold a climate summit in Paris, where it is expected that political leaders from across the world will agree to commitments in order to avoid the worst affects of climate change, safeguard wildlife and provide money for developing countries to help them adapt. The weekend before these negotiations are due to begin is a weekend of global action, where people will take to the streets to call for the Paris summit to reach serious and ambitious commitments to tackle the problem, and so will we here in Edinburgh.
Everyone has their own reason to march: green jobs, a low-carbon future, climate justice, and yes wildlife. I’ll be marching for all wildlife not only that found here in Scotland but across the world as well, because there are no borders when it comes to wildlife. We all have it in common in its multiple and exquisite variations and we would all be devastated if it was relegated to picture books as a faint memory.
Mark November 28 in your calendar for Scotland’s Climate March; come and march for what you care about, for nature’s future, for our future.