July, 2016

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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.
  • Gamebird hunting: why we’re supporting calls ­for it to be regulated

    The Scottish Raptor Study Group has recently lodged a petition with the Scottish Parliament calling for a licensing system to be introduced for gamebird hunting in Scotland. We, at RSPB Scotland, fully support it and we’d like you to support it too. Read our blog to find out why we think it’s the right move and you can find the petition by clicking here.


    Scotland is home to some of the world’s most impressive and inspiring birds of prey, from the powerful golden eagle to the majestic hen harrier. We take a lot of pride in these raptors as a nation and people travel great distances to the rugged, rolling landscapes of Scotland just to see them. Golden eagles, red kites and sea eagles have managed to capture the hearts of many just by appearing on our television screens to give us a glimpse into their intriguing and often perilous lives. And that’s to say nothing of actually managing to catch sight of one of these magnificent birds in real life. Sadly though, these opportunities might not always exist.

    Birds of prey have suffered greatly in the UK from several centuries of illegal killing by humans, with some populations dwindling perilously close to the brink of local extinction and others being pushed right over. Between 1994 and 2014, at least 779 birds of prey were illegally killed in Scotland. This shocking figure includes 104 red kites, 37 golden eagles and 10 sea eagles which were poisoned, shot or caught in traps. Over 80% of these crimes occurred in areas where gamebird management was the main land use.

    The RSPB has documented the scale of the issue over more than 20 years as part of our vigorous and enduring campaign to stamp out wildlife crime. Our Investigations Team has provided expert assistance to the police, to gather the evidence needed to bring perpetrators to court.  We have also campaigned for effective deterrents to be brought in to prevent similar crimes in future.

    Working in this way has brought RSPB Scotland, our partners and supporters several notable successes over the years with improvements to some raptor populations. For example, buzzards are now rightly common again, and white-tailed eagles and red kites have been reintroduced to parts of their former range. But, perhaps more importantly, the conservation problem of the illegal killing of birds of prey has come to the wider public attention. And the public have responded. You have supported our calls for tougher action by our politicians and public authorities in huge numbers. For that we are very thankful, and as a result in Scotland, we now have some of the best wildlife protection legislation in Europe.

    However, these laws can be difficult to enforce, particularly in remote areas where witnesses to crimes are rare, and perpetrators can easily dispose of the evidence. This means the chances of these criminals being caught are pretty low, and it’s the birds that suffer. Some species are still faring badly in Scotland; hen harriers are perhaps the best example. This is a species which often finds itself in conflict with grouse moor managers, who are required to produce large numbers of red grouse for hunters to shoot. Hen harriers are known to occasionally take red grouse as food, meaning they are rarely tolerated on ”driven” grouse moors because they are seen as a threat to profitable stock. As a result, harriers have become absent from large parts of their former, and most suitable, habitat range in the eastern and central Highlands and Southern Uplands. Similarly, a significant weight of scientific evidence is illustrating that wildlife crime in areas associated with intensive gamebird shooting management is having a negative impact on our golden eagles, red kites and peregrines.

    It has also become increasingly clear that some grouse moor management and pheasant release practices have become more intensive, with detrimental consequences. We know, for example, that more burning is taking place on deep peatland areas, which are important in acting as carbon stores to mitigate the impacts of climate change. There are costs to the public here as well, from treating polluted public water supplies arising from the burning of peatlands in water catchment areas. Deer and mountain hares are being culled ostensibly to prevent grouse diseases, there has been an “industrialisation” of our upland bogs and heaths with the development of more hill tracks, and even the UK endemic subspecies of the willow grouse, the red grouse, is being medicated with veterinary drugs to improve its survival in advance of hunting.

    Since its advent in 1999, the Scottish Parliament has taken a keen and welcome interest in wildlife crime. Our first First Minister, Donald Dewar, described crimes against birds of prey as “a national disgrace”. Because of this, we have seen improvements to wildlife protection laws, including the introduction of “vicarious liability”, which places the responsibility firmly in the court of landowners, if they fail to demonstrate that systems are in place to prevent their employees from illegally killing raptors. Whilst we believe this measure may have helped in some places, it is clear that there are still a substantial number of sporting managers in Scotland who continue to disregard laws protecting birds of prey.  

    In Scotland and the UK, we have a largely voluntary system of gamebird hunting, administered by landowners, in contrast to practice in most other European countries where state authorities take a more active role in overseeing and monitoring gamebird and other hunting activities. Self-regulation by the gamebird shooting industry in the UK and Scotland has had a significant period of time to get its house in order. But it has patently failed and the killing of our protected raptors continues.

    For these reasons, the RSPB strongly believes that a step change in the law, to regulate gamebird shooting, is urgently required. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is currently undertaking a review on behalf of the Scottish Government to look at how gamebird hunting is administered in other European countries and this will be published in the autumn. Deer management systems in Scotland are moving firmly in the direction of recognising the public as well as the private interest, and we can see no reason why systems for the management of gamebirds should be any different. We have long-advocated a system of public licensing of gamebird hunting, with appropriate sanctions that would allow licences to be removed if any laws protecting our birds of prey are violated.

    It’s important to point out that those who actually manage their land legally and sustainably have nothing to fear from this type of regulation. It would only penalise those who break the law. The removal of a right to hunt gamebirds would also act as a serious and meaningful deterrent to prevent wildlife crime from happening in the first place.                          

    The Scottish Raptor Study Group has recently lodged a petition with the Scottish Parliament calling for a licensing system to be brought in for gamebird hunting in Scotland and we, at RSPB Scotland, fully support it. We believe introducing this type of system in Scotland can only be regarded as a positive move. It will only punish land managers who break the law as judged by the courts and will also act as a powerful deterrent to potential wildlife criminals in future. We would ask and encourage you to sign this petition too. Let the Scottish Government know this is an issue you care about and would like to see positive action on. You can find the petition and show your support by clicking here.

    It is also worth noting that while Scottish Government petitions can be signed by anyone, only Scottish signatures will be taken into consideration.

  • Five facts you should know about red squirrels

    Red squirrels are Scotland’s native squirrel species, instantly recognisable by their distinctive ear tufts, rust coloured fur and bushy tails. The tail is particularly important as it’s used for balance, communication and as a cosy blanket. 

    In Scotland there are around 120,000 red squirrels in the wild and RSPB Scotland is part of a project, called Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS), to protect these mammals and enhance the habitats they live in. SSRS is led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Here are five fascinating facts we thought you’d enjoy about red squirrels.

    Red squirrels don’t hibernate

    Many people think that red squirrels do hunker down and hibernate when the cold weather starts setting in but really, they are just far less active in winter. This is because they are using a lot of energy just to stay warm. Red squirrels do store and bury food over winter though, to make sure they can sustain themselves until nuts, seeds and berries become more plentiful again in the spring time.

    Red squirrels like to keep their options open

    This is much more innocent than it might sound at first. Red squirrels keep more than one nest (known as a drey) on the go at any one time. They’re not hiding secret squirrel families though. The reason they do it is for more of a backup in case the first nest they've made gets stolen by another creature or is blown away in bad weather. Having more than one home base also makes it more difficult for predators to locate them.

    They like the finer things in food

    Red squirrels are quite clever and can even tell if a nut is rotten without opening it. They do this by weighing a potentially tasty morsel in their paws and shaking it; if the nut rattles this tells the squirrel that the kernel inside is likely to be small and shrivelled, so is not really worth eating.

    Reds have learned to ‘be more dog’

    By this we mean they use their tufty ears to express how they’re feeling, from happy or sad to nervous. It’s a bit like dogs use their heads, ears and of course tails to do!

    They have double-jointed ankles

    Squirrels are extremely well adapted to their woodland habitat in Scotland. They’re nimble, agile and can jump more than 2m. Reds can even travel headfirst down a tree at a pretty impressive pace, because of their double-jointed ankles. This adaptation allows them to turn their feet around and dig their claws into the tree bark, no matter what direction they’re travelling in. 

  • Why we challenged the Forth and Tay windfarms

    Why we challenged the Forth and Tay windfarms

    Here Lloyd Austin, Head of Conservation Policy at RSPB Scotland, takes us through why the organisation decided to legally challenge the Forth and Tay windfarms.  


    Scotland’s seas are filled with spectacular wildlife from basking sharks to orcas, fulmars to arctic terns. The waters and coastline around the country are home to globally important populations of seabirds including iconic breeding colonies of gannets, kittiwakes and puffins, at protected sites such as the Bass Rock, part of the Forth Islands Special Protection Area, or the RSPB Scotland reserve at Fowlsheugh (also a Special Protection Area).

    In October 2014, Scottish Ministers approved consents for four offshore windfarms in the Firths of Forth and Tay with a combined total of 335 turbines. RSPB Scotland had consistently raised concerns about these plans and formally objected to them, believing they posed too great a risk to the many thousands of resident and migratory seabirds found in these areas. Whilst the precise impacts of having large wind farms close to these colonies are uncertain, the Scottish Government’s own estimates were that more than a thousand gannets, and many hundreds of kittiwakes and puffins would be killed every year – an unprecedented scale of impact not just in Scotland but globally.

    RSPB Scotland legally challenged these consents in January 2015. We took the difficult decision to go to Court very much as a last resort, having worked hard for several years with Government and the developers hoping to find a way forward – recognising the opportunities that offshore wind provides to help tackle climate change.

    Last week, on 19th July, the Court of Session upheld our legal challenge with the Judge, Lord Stewart concluding that the consents were not lawful on a number of grounds. The Government may choose to appeal the Court’s decisions, and the consents could be reconsidered. However, at the moment, these particular windfarms as proposed cannot go ahead.

    There were several points we challenged, but in summary, the Judge agreed that key requirements of the environmental assessment processes were not met, including a failure to consult properly, and a failure to provide reasons why Scottish Ministers rejected the advice of their own statutory nature conservation advisors, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee when granting the consents.

    Although we welcome the judgment, we by no means relish it. 

    We need to move to low carbon energy rapidly to tackle climate change – itself a major threat to wildlife – and therefore it is never satisfying to have to oppose renewable energy proposals.

    However, we also strongly believe we must achieve this ‘energy revolution’ in harmony with nature. This means putting renewables in the right places, and rigorously assessing impacts. No development should be allowed to have a ‘free pass’.

    We welcome the Minister’s commitment to work with us and the developers to progress renewables in harmony with nature. By no means do the Forth and Tay projects represent the entire Scottish offshore wind industry. Projects are progressing in the Moray Firth and Aberdeen Bay, and proposals are coming forward to test floating wind turbines. This technology presents a major opportunity in the longer-term, as it could enable development in deeper waters, further away from sensitive wildlife.

    We also continue to support other forms of renewable energy, where Scotland has made good progress. In May this year, we published ‘The RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision’, which set out a pathway for meeting our climate targets in a nature-friendly way. It showed Scotland has the capacity to increase onshore wind by three times, and solar capacity by thirty times current levels without causing major concerns for our fantastic and world renowned wildlife and habitats. This illustrates the options available for major growth in renewables to help decarbonise our energy system.

    We know how important renewable energy is for Scotland and the UK as a whole, for both people and nature, and we will continue to support it. We will also continue to fight for wildlife as it faces increasing and more complex pressures. These two things can, and must, go hand in hand in a sustainable society.