March, 2016

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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.
  • 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

  • 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.

  • Shiants episode five: challenges and rewards

    Shiants episode five: challenges and rewards

    Welcome to the fifth instalment of our work on the Shiant Isles Recovery Project from Thomas Churchyard. The project is an initiative to remove non-native black rats from the isles in order to provide safe breeding sites for Scotland’s globally important seabird colonies. It is part funded by the EU LIFE+ programme and is a partnership between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Nicolson family, who have been the custodians of the Shiant Isles for three generations.

    Since my last blog the team has continued working hard on the Shiant Isles black rat eradication, checking every bait stations throughout the three islands every two to three days. The operation runs until the end of March, so we are now in the most critical phase, ensuring that we find and eradicate any remaining rats. This has meant a serious ramping up of our monitoring work.  The team are currently at work across the islands using a variety of detection methods to search for those rats that may not have been attracted by the bait – ‘fussy rats’. These methods include tracking tunnels, trail cameras and chew blocks made of flavoured wax and soap. The hope is that this extremely intensive work will last about six weeks, and that no animals will be found despite it. If any animals are found at this time then we will need to put more resource into baiting those areas.

    All being well, we plan to finish this intense monitoring by the end of March and will then begin our camp breakdown, leaving the islands (almost) in the same state as they were when we arrived. It will then be another two years before a final check takes place in the winter of 2017/18 when we hope to follow the successful project on the Isles of Scilly and be able to call the Shiants rat free.


    John Tayton (WMIL) and Tom Churchyard (RSPB Scotland) prepare a rope access anchor before abseiling down to bait stations. Photo: Tara Proud

    Life on the islands isn’t straightforward and everyday living has its challenges. Although we have use of the small bothy on Eilean an Tighe which sleeps four we have installed temporary expandakabins for use as extra sleeping space and storage. On Eilean Mhuire we only have one of these cabins and without the use of a fire the temperature often drops close to freezing inside – it is a good job we have excellent sleeping bags. The Shiants are not on the national grid or mains water so we run a small generator every evening allowing us to keep radios, phones and torches charged as well as powering a small light. For water we fitted a tank and guttering to the bothy to collect the rain. Rain water is one thing we have never been close to running out of and apart from when big storms blow seawater into the tank it tastes delicious! Food arrives with each weekly change of the staff rota. It is a big responsibility to buy the right amount and type of food to feed the team for a week.If you get it wrong or if weather delays the next boat for a few days there is no popping down to the shops one evening to replenish supplies.

    Good waste management has been essential for both the health of the staff and to ensure that we do not provide any sources of food for rats. All rubbish is stored in sealable buckets, including human waste and removed from the islands every week to be taken to facilities on Lewis. The toilet itself is a tent containing a modified seat which uses one use bags (bog in a bag), these can then be tied and stored in biohazard buckets.

    The work has not been straightforward either.  As detailed in my last blog we have placed bait stations across all the areas of the islands. Given the complexity of the Shiant Isles, this hasn’t only meant wandering over mountain, moor, heath and coast. It has also required accessing beaches cut off from the rest of the island by vertical cliffs, grassy slopes overhanging the wild Minch, and ledges on cliff faces. This has been one of the greatest challenges for the team. All of these hard to get at areas have required the use of ropes access, and a small team of us trained in these techniques before the project started with Mountain Leaders. We are using a twin rope system, one for all our main descent and ascent with the second acting as a back-up in case of a fall. We work in pairs, one person on the ropes and one person at the top acting as the buddy. This is important for safety, but also means we can take turns on the strenuous rope work; after ascending a vertical 100m you need a rest! Health and safety requires us to carry a full set of safety equipment, as well as a backup system in case of an emergency. This means that checking a single station down a cliff requires two people, 300m of rope, three sets of climbing equipment, rigging equipment, bait and bait stations and, most importantly, plenty of biscuits and tea! This all needs to be carried to each climbing route, abseiled down and climbed back up. Add to the mix some winter weather and you have the perfect recipe for the best night’s sleep of your life!


    John Tayton (WMIL) descends Garbh Eilean North-West cliffs. Photo: Tara Proud

    However tiring the rope access may be it does come with the reward of visiting parts of the islands that no person has been to before, and the views of the steep cliffs and their huge basalt columns are just stunning when viewed up close.

    Our ability to get on the ropes is very weather dependent, and this winter has had its fair share of wind and rain. Although the new convention of naming storms hitting the UK has seemingly increased public and media interest it can give the impression that the weather is not that bad in between. Well I can tell you from experience that even weather without a name is more than capable of being very wet and gusting at 70mph! At times the whole team has been confined to the bothy and cabins waiting for this to pass, sitting in front of a warm fire, reading books and listening to the forecast hoping it will tell us things will improve.


    Storm Henry bringing big seas to the Shiants. Here you can see the bothy with the temporary expandakabins used as accommodation and storage. Photo: Jack Ibbotson (WMIL)

    As spring approaches we really hope things will be getting better on the Shiant Isles not only for us, but also for the wildlife that has endured the winter here and for the thousands of seabirds that will soon be returning to breed. If we have been successful then 2016 could be the first year in over 300 that the Shiant Isles is rat free.  What a welcome back that would be.

    The Shiant Isles Recovery Project is a partnership between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Nicolson Family, it is funded by EU LIFE+ Nature [LIFE13 NAT/UK/000209 – LIFE Shiants] and private donations. The eradication is being led by Wildlife Management International with the support of Engebrets and Sea Harris Ltd.