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.
  • A winning visit

    A winning visit

    Last year RSPB Scotland teamed up with Cairngorms Nature in a competition to find the Cairngorms Young Nature Presenter 2016. Fourteen year old James Miller won the public vote to be named the winner with his film on badgers. His prize was a five day Speyside Wildlife Holiday for him and his family, as well as spending a day while there with nature presenter Iolo Williams. Here's James's report of his trip.

    James and his family with Iolo Williams, and Duncan MacDonald from Speyside Wildlife.

    Hello, I’m James Miller, I’m fourteen and I was lucky enough to be the winner of last year’s Cairngorms Young Nature Presenter Competition. Almost exactly one year ago, I was in my room devouring the RSPB’s teenage magazine when I stumbled across this: ‘COMPETITION: MAKE A WILDLIFE DOCUMENTARY!’ This sounded right up my street, so I read further. The idea was to create a one and a half minute long documentary, in which you talked about a species of wildlife of your choice and said why you wanted to present Cairngorms Nature.

    And then I saw what the prize was and that got me really excited. Not only did you get to spend five days in the Cairngorms in Scotland, having guided tours around the National Park courtesy of Speyside Wildlife, but you also got to meet Iolo Williams, the Springwatch presenter! So I spent the last bit of my summer holidays planning, filming and editing a documentary on badgers - I’m really lucky as they visit my garden regularly, so I can get pretty close to them. I had to re-film most scenes a few times to get them perfect, but at last it was ready, so I added it to the competition page on the RSPB website, and crossed my fingers. And one day I was checking my emails at school and up popped a message:‘Congratulations!  Your entry has made the final shortlist for the Cairngorms Nature Young Presenter Competition 2016.’ The ten shortlisted entries were being opened up to a public vote – nerve-wracking! But somehow, I won! The competition organisers phoned me in early December to let me know, and put me in touch with the wonderful people at Speyside Wildlife, who explained everything about the holiday, and got me really looking forward to the trip.

    Iolo and James

    And the trip itself, when the time came, was AMAZING! We were lucky with the weather – sunny days and snowfall turned the already scenic views into spectacular snowscapes. I met some great people, and this was probably my favourite aspect of the trip. First of all there was our guide, Duncan MacDonald, who was very nice as well as very knowledgeable - he made the whole trip really enjoyable for us. We spent one day with Iolo Williams, which was absolutely brilliant. He’s really enthusiastic and has a great sense of humour that made him a real pleasure to spend the day with. He gave me lots of advice on presenting in general, on what people are looking for in a presenter, how he got into the presenting career, and what the job is like. I also got advice on presenting from Miranda Krestovnikoff - the president of the RSPB, as well as a presenter on a number of TV programs such as Coast and The One Show. She was really interesting, and a great person to be around - pleasant, good humoured, and passionate about wildlife. We were also joined by RSPB Scotland's Stuart Benn and he was genuinely fantastic. They were all such great people and really made the experience special for me.

    While we were there I saw some truly unforgettable wildlife! In total we identified nearly 100 species, and among these were some rare and very striking creatures. On one day, we saw FOUR golden eagles thanks to the collected knowledge and ‘eagle eyes’ of Duncan our guide, Iolo Williams, who accompanied us, and in particular Stuart Benn, who has particularly good knowledge and enthusiasm for  golden eagles. We were very lucky to see this many as they are pretty elusive. There was some aggressive interaction between the four we saw. One eagle repeatedly swooped at another until the second flew away. We were also treated to an eagle’s display flight – it plunged downwards at speed before spreading its wings at the last moment and slowly ascending again. It repeated this routine several times in front of us before disappearing behind the mountains.  At one point we had three in the same field of view through the scope! They were truly impressive birds.

    Miranda and James

    We also saw some crested tits by Loch Garten. It was the first time I had ever seen these creatures in the wild.  They kept on returning to two bird feeders, giving very close up views and allowing you to clearly see the iconic crests that give them their name. Finally, possibly the animal that is most famously associated with Scottish wildlife: the red squirrel. We had two fleeting glimpses of them, and even in these brief encounters I could tell why Scotland, and Britain as a whole, cherishes this stunning creature so much.  It has a very strong character, and very striking colours to match it.

    Now, unfortunately, this trip of a lifetime has ended, and I’m already getting a little nostalgic for the Cairngorms – it’s such an amazing place, somewhere I definitely want to visit again. The experience, however, is still going. I have got more out of this than simply the memories, which is great. Speyside Wildlife has invited me to give a talk this summer at their stall in the Birdfair this year, which is really nice of them; I’m really looking forward to it. I’m also helping judge the Cairngorms Nature Presenter Competition this year, which is an honour, and I have to thank Charlotte Milburn of the Cairngorms National Park Authority for giving me this opportunity, as well as everything else she has done for me and the competition. And whilst I’m at thanking people, I would like to thank everyone involved in organising the competition and everyone I met in the Cairngorms for making it such an amazing time – I am very grateful.

  • 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.

  • 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.