March, 2016

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.
  • The last seabird summer? Not if we can help it!

    The last seabird summer? Not if we can help it!

    Alex Kinninmonth is Head of Marine Policy at RSPB Scotland.


    Tonight at 9pm I’ll be settling down to watch the BBC4 documentary “The Last Seabird Summer?

    In the first of two episodes, the writer Adam Nicolson follows the story of the seabirds on the Shiant Isles in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. This spectacular and remote group of islands are one of the most important seabird places in Europe and as the Nicolson family have been custodians of the Isles since the 1930s it’s a location that Adam knows intimately.

    Adam will tell the tale of an historic dependence on seabirds, and how they played a central role in the daily life and culture on remote islands like the Shiant Isles and St Kilda. Today a deep connection to seabirds is part of the character of many Scottish communities and they provide sustenance for the soul to thousands of visitors wishing to experience spectacular seabird cities, not to mention significant sums of money into local economies.  

    Yet we are currently witnessing a seabird crisis with populations of Arctic skuas, kittiwakes and other species in freefall. As Scotland is home to around a third of the breeding seabirds in the EU this is not only a Scottish problem but one of international significance. The cause of these declines is complex but we do know that for there to be any chance of recovery we have to provide safe places on terra firma where they can breed and also ensure our seas are healthy with an abundance of food.

    An example of what can be done to help seabirds on land is the Shiant Isles Recovery Project, a four-year project part funded by the EU LIFE+ programme, where the Nicolsons, RSPB Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage are working in partnership to make these islands a safe haven for more seabirds. While 10 per cent of UK puffins and 7 per cent of UK razorbills breed there every year they have the potential for more species were it not for the threat from a non-native population of black rats that are known to consume eggs and chicks on the islands.

    After a long and challenging winter it is hoped that the Shiant Isles will follow the recent success of St Agnes and Gugh in the Isles of Scilly and be officially declared rat-free. In time we hope the islands will see thriving populations of Manx shearwaters and storm petrels.  

    RSPB Scotland and others have been campaigning for some time for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to safeguard Scotland’s life beneath the waves, including seabirds and the prey they rely on. As we await further progress on protected sites at sea for seabirds one of Britain’s most remote inhabited islands has been developing its own exciting proposal that is subject to a public consultation launched today.

    The proposal will see Scotland’s first Demonstration and Research MPA created in the seas around Fair Isle. Unlike more familiar protected areas on land and sea Demonstration and Research MPAs are not designed around the conservation of specific species or habitats but are targeted at demonstrating and/or carrying out research on the sustainable use of marine resources in a particular area. Although Fair Isle is home to a great variety of bird species several of its seabird populations have experienced dramatic population declines since the 1990s.

    The Fair Isle Marine Environment & Tourism Initiative (FIMETI) has been doggedly developing the proposal over the last few years, which once created will provide a better understanding of the changes that have occurred in the seas so that appropriate management can be put in place. The MPA would also give the Fair Isle community an opportunity to pioneer collaborative management within Scottish seas - with a partnership of the community, commercial fishermen, research institutes and others all on board.  If successful it will serve as a beacon for change way beyond its dramatic sea cliffs.

    You can add your support for the MPA proposal by responding to the consultation here.

  • Slowing the flow of floodwater

    Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer with RSPB Scotland, brings us this blog on the storms that have hit Scotland over winter and the part global warming has to play in them.

    Slowing the flow of floodwater

    Lapwing (Andy Hay (rspb-images.com))

    This winter’s storms have felt a bit relentless. One after the other they have battered us, soaked us and dispirited us, leaving damage along the way. Flooding has affected Deeside, Dumfries & Galloway, the Borders and elsewhere. Experts predict that we are likely to be in for more and bigger storms in the future as global warming allows the atmosphere to hold more moisture.

    So with more flooding likely and more homes at risk what is the best way to respond? The news analysis and comment around this year’s floods has been refreshingly different to the traditional calls for more money, concrete walls and dredging to keep water contained and moved out to sea as quickly as possible. But people don’t want ever higher flood walls running through their town – it spoils the character of a place and doesn’t always work. There is a growing acceptance by politicians and the public that we need a different way of preparing for heavy rainfall events and preventing flooding.

    A BBC Landward special episode covered the issues in the aftermath of the flooding and also some of the solutions including Natural Flood Management (NFM) (from 14 minutes into the programme).

    NFM is all about working with nature and natural processes – it’s about slowing the flow of water rather than getting water away as quickly as possible. NFM is not a new thing but it is now receiving more focus and in Scotland the legislation in the Flood Risk Management Act promotes NFM so now Government agencies and Local Authorities are planning to include more of these techniques around the country. Some of our own work on reserves provides NFM benefits – our Insh Marshes reserve on the Spey has been estimated to save millions of pounds in extra flood defence and maintenance costs for Aviemore. 

    Insh Marshes (Andy Hay (rspb-images.com))

    NFM is only part of the solution to flooding though, we will still need some concrete and river embankments in the right places, but NFM considers actions throughout the whole catchment. A BBC website nicely summed up the issues after Storm Frank but also includes a nice graphic illustrating the spread of NFM techniques currently in place in Northumberland’s Belford catchment.

    Many NFM techniques create or restore habitats and therefore provide homes for nature as well as preventing flooding. Some of them do not create habitats but rather they mimic nature or allow natural processes to happen again. Examples of NFM include restoring peatland habitats in the uplands, like our work at our Airds Moss reserve in Ayrshire; constructing mini-dams with logs in upland burns; re-meandering rivers; allowing rivers to spill out temporarily onto farmland in floodplains; digging more ponds; planting trees; and putting more wetlands back into the countryside. We even need to allow beavers to do their thing, as a study this week showed they can actually help prevent flooding.

    Some of the ways humans have adapted rural land, and now use it, is exacerbating flooding, e.g. straightening rivers, building houses on floodplains, keeping too many sheep on moorlands. We need to get back to working with nature rather than against it – we need to restore rivers, wetlands, floodplains and moorland in many cases. It will require changes to how farmers use and manage land, how the countryside looks, how we subsidise farmers, and even where some people live. We need to invest in nature and its natural processes knowing it can help us slow the flow and prevent flooding in a more chaotic climate.

  • Five facts you should know about bumblebees

    Five facts you should know about bumblebees

    Bumblebees are on the wing in Scotland from March until October. They’re usually one of the first insects to appear in spring, reminding us that warmer weather is on the way – hopefully! 

    Bumblebees are sizeable, bright creatures that live in large colonies and actually serve a unique and very useful purpose in our gardens and across the wider countryside. Here are five facts we thought you should know about them.

    There are more of them than you thought

    There are 24 species of bumblebee in the UK and 19 of those are found in Scotland. Two of the most common species are buff-tail and northern white-tail bumblebees which are black, yellow and white in colour, but common carder bees are also quite easy to identify because they’re bright orange. A new species – called the tree bumblebee – was discovered in Scotland in 2013 and has been recorded as far north as Perth so far. It’s the only one which is coloured with black, brown and white.

    Bumblebees don’t die after stinging you

    All female bumblebees are capable of stinging us. However, they don’t die after the deed as many people think. This actually only happens to honeybees because they have a barbed sting which cannot be pulled back out of the skin.

    They are wonderfully messy

    You're probably already aware that bumblebees are important for pollination, but did you know that’s partly because they’re so messy? They’re also pretty scruffy and hairy which means they pick up more pollen when they move from plant to plant collecting nectar. Bumblebees do something called ‘buzz pollination’ where they essentially power down their wings but increase the use of their wing muscles - the result is that they vibrate really quickly. This shakes off a lot of the pollen that they’re carrying on their bodies, which is particularly good for plants like tomatoes.

    Some bumblebees are parasitic

    Cuckoo bumblebees are quite unusual in that they are parasitic. Instead of building up their own empire in the form of a nest and colony, they simply steal the nests of other species. To do this, they sneak inside a suitable nest and hide for a few days to take on its scent. Then they kill the queen, take over her role, and go about producing more cuckoo bumblebees to do the same thing elsewhere. Cuckoos are able to do this because they have developed to be bigger and stronger than other species, and often have a more harmful sting as a result.

    Honeybees aren’t the only ones making honey...                           

    Bumblebees make it too! They don’t build it into cells or honeycombs though – instead they produce a form of honey which they store in small rimmed pots created from wax. They also keep pollen in the pots for the young bees.

    If you’d like to help give bumblebees a home where you live, check out: www.rspb.org.uk/makeahomeforwildlife