Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management for RSPB Scotland, brings us this latest blog on the facts of satellite tagging birds.
The satellite and wing tagging of birds is established scientific practice, used in many countries across the world, primarily to study the movements, and survival of birds, and in turn to inform conservation programmes.
In the UK both satellite tagging and wing tagging are accredited by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) on behalf of the Country Conservation Agencies. This practice is highly regulated by the BTO. In Scotland, there are some of the most experienced practitioners, in relation to both the satellite and wing tagging of raptors, anywhere in the world. Most of the practitioners have more than 20 years of experience in using such techniques and routinely work together in small teams to share best practice and maintain high standards. Practitioners from Scotland have also shared experience and helped scientists in many other countries with best practice training and methods.
Satellite tagging methodology and hardware has developed greatly in recent years, with the tags becoming smaller and more lightweight allowing them to be fitted to birds with smaller body weights. The standard rule of thumb is that any satellite tags need to be less than 3% of the body weight of the bird concerned.
The tags use military grade GPS technology and are powered either by batteries or solar panels. They are generally fitted as a backpack harness, using lightweight and smooth Teflon ribbon straps, to prevent any later abrasion with the skin of the bird. Once fitted the tags transmit periodic signals to a satellite or to the mobile phone network allowing scientists to track the movements and survival of the birds via computer downloads.
Wing tagging involves the fitting of small plastic tags with colour and letter coding as unique identifiers to the wings of birds using stainless steel pins. Wing tagging is long established scientific practice and has been used in Scotland for at least 30 years and is now regarded as an important and safe bird monitoring tool.
Satellite tagging technology in particular has allowed scientists to study the migration of bird species including ospreys, cuckoos and nightingales to their wintering grounds in Africa. Information has been gathered which has shed completely new light on the movements of birds and identified specific geographical wintering areas in Africa and in Europe which are vital in the life cycle of these birds. No other presently available technical method allows such insight.
In Scotland, the satellite tagging and wing tagging of birds of prey has assisted with the official reintroduction programmes for both white-tailed eagles and red kites. This monitoring work has helped conservation practitioners better understand how these birds are becoming re-established in line with international best practice standards for reintroduction programmes. It has also helped us identify continuing threats to their populations.
In August 2016, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform in Scotland commissioned an independent study to investigate whether there were any patterns to the suspicious disappearance of satellite tagged raptors in Scotland. This followed reports by RSPB Scotland of eight satellite tagged golden eagles “disappearing off the radar” in the previous five years in the Monadhliaths area of Inverness-shire. In late August the review was extended to cover other satellite tagged raptor species, including hen harrier and red kites. It is expected that this review will report in late spring 2017.
Whilst the Scottish Government satellite tagging review is still underway, a considerable amount of misinformation has recently been posted on social media, including by a representative of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association – an organisation purporting to be a Partner Against Wildlife Crime Scotland, in what can only be construed as a rather crude attempt to try to undermine the contents of the imminent review.
These predicatble attempts on social media to create a “smokescreen” about what is both highly regulated and bona fide scientific activity, try to portray the experienced practitioners involved as “bird botherers” and suggests significant welfare concerns to the birds from satellite tags and wing tags. Images of satellite tagged birds are being lifted from individual social media accounts and poorly informed comments are being made to try and support a narrow obfuscation agenda.
Of course, none of the claims made in these posts are supported by any evidence, and it is also significant that none of these posts make any reference to the many satellite-tagged raptors found to have been illegally poisoned, shot or trapped.
This can be set in the wider context of the concerns that have been voiced for decades about the scale of raptor persecution in Scotland and the impacts of these crimes on our bird of prey populations. RSPB Scotland is now advocating a system of licensing for “driven” grouse shooting given the well documented history of illegal killing of birds of prey in that sector and the failure of self-regulation by the gamebird shooting industry to stamp out criminal practices.
These attempts to mislead might also suggest there is great concern in some quarters about what the outcome of the review might show, and what action the Cabinet Secretary might take as a response.
Whilst we are sure that the Scottish Government review will look at all relevant aspects of satellite tagging work, which we welcome, we fully expect Scottish practices in this technique, to stand up to scrutiny. Any recommendations arising from the review and intended to improve best practice will of course be accepted and incorporated in future methodology.
RSPB Scotland's Nature of Scotland Awards are officially open for entry! Nominate your wildlife heroes or submit your own project by clicking here.
Since the launch of the RSPB's Nature of Scotland Awards in 2012, almost 50 inspirational people and projects have been recognised for their outstanding achievements in Scottish nature conservation.
Each year, we launch a search for the country's unsung wildlife heroes - the passionate people who are working tirelessly to protect and enhance our natural world for the benefit of everyone in it.
It may be someone who's created a public park or garden in their local community, a project committed to protecting a threatened species or an enthusiastic political campaigner who's taking the fight for the environment to the Scottish Parliament.
We believe they all deserve their moment in the spotlight; to be recognised for their hard work, to share their discoveries with others and to hopefully inspire even more people to get involved with saving nature.
Entries for the 2017 Nature of Scotland Awards open today (Monday 13 March) and to celebrate, we thought we would look back at some of the stand out projects from the last five years. Details of how to enter this year and all of the award categories on offer can be found at the end of this blog.
Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels
There are fewer than 120,000 red squirrels living in Scotland – 75% of the UK’s total population. They are under threat from invasive non-native grey squirrels pushing them out of key habitats and also from the deadly squirrel pox virus. Under the banner ‘The Return of Aberdeen’s Red Squirrels’, Aberdeen City Council has been working together with the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels project to stop and reverse the decline of these mammals in the north-east. The initiative has been hugely successful and was awarded the RSPB Species Champion Award.
Mollusc of the Glen
Freshwater pearl mussels are globally endangered and a high proportion of the world’s remaining populations can be found in Scotland. The volunteer organisation Alba Ecology set up the ‘Mollusc of the Glen’ project to help conserve this species by undertaking new research into freshwater pearl mussels, raising awareness of the threats they face and also to engaging others in their protection. During the initiative, Alba Ecology discovered the only unexploited freshwater pearl mussel river in Scotland and the UK. As a result, the Environment Minister instructed Scottish Natural Heritage (the Scottish Government’s environmental advisory body) to review the protection afforded to pearl mussels in Scotland. Mollusc of the Glen picked up the RSPB Species Champion Award in 2014.
Fishing for Litter
Marine litter is a serious problem which kills hundreds of thousands of sea birds and mammals each year. The Fishing for Litter project was formed by a group of fishermen and harbour staff who volunteer their time to tackle the issue and at the time of winning the Marine Conservation Award in 2015, had facilitated the removal of over 800 tonnes of marine litter from the waters around Scotland’s coastline. The group also raises awareness of the problem of marine litter to try and prevent rubbish reaching this environment in the first place.
Cairngorms Peatland Restoration
The Cairngorms National Park contains some of the UK’s most important upland habitats; one fifth of the space is blanket bog, but over half of that is in a degraded state. The Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) has been working to restore damaged peatland across 367 ha of land using new methods that haven’t been trialled in Scotland before. Just six months in, the results were spectacular, with sphagnum plants once again growing on treated areas. CNPA successfully demonstrated that their new methods could benefit restoration work going on in other parts of Scotland and won the Innovation Award at the Nature of Scotland Awards.
The Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST) was established in 1995 by two divers who had witnessed the destructive effects of overfishing and dredging on marine life. It is now recognised as one of the UK’s leading marine organisations and was honoured with the Marine Conservation Award in 2014. COAST works to promote sustainable marine management, deliver education programmes and maintain strong links with universities to ensure independent scientific research.
In 2013, Castle Loch in Dumfries & Galloway came up for sale and the residents of Lochmaben and the surrounding areas rallied together under the banner of ‘Castle Loch Lochmaben Community Trust’ to purchase this historically and environmentally important site. The Trust’s ownership ensured the continued conservation of wildlife on the land and encouraged the whole community to get involved in saving nature. In their first year alone, 82 volunteers signed up to help develop Castle Loch and together gave 1,000 hours of their time. Castle Loch Lochmaben Community Trust took home the Community Initiative Award in 2015.
There are nine Nature of Scotland Award categories available for entry in 2017: RSPB Species Champion, Marine Conservation, Political Advocate of the Year, Corporate, Youth and Education, Innovation, Community Initiative, Food and Farming, and Nature Tourism.
The Nature of Scotland Awards shortlist will be unveiled at a Parliamentary Reception in September and the winners will be announced at a special Presentation Dinner in November. The closing date for entries is Monday 12 June. Get more information and submit your application by clicking here.
Four Holyrood Committees that have been analysing the Scottish Government's draft Climate Change Plan have today published their recommendations for the final plan. Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer at RSPB Scotland and Rebecca Bell, Senior Policy Officer at RSPB Scotland, bring us this latest blog looking into those recommendations and outlining what RSPB Scotland would like to see happen next.
Last month we asked you to Show the Love for nature and special places by contacting MSPs and asking them to support Scotland’s wildlife through a stronger Climate Change Plan. Thanks to all of you who did that because today saw the recommendations by four Holyrood committees about how to improve the draft Climate Change Plan.
The draft plan, laid out the Scottish Government’s policies to meet Scotland’s climate change targets to 2032. We found that it does set out a positive vision of a low carbon future, but is weak on the detail of how it will be realised, and the committees seem to have agreed with us. Here are some highlights where committees agree with our recommendations on actions that we feel passionately can benefit the climate and wildlife.
Like us, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee (ECCLR) were ‘delighted’ to see Government’s commitment and new ambitious target for restoring peatland habitats. This is close to our heart at RSPB Scotland as we aim to bring life back to degraded peatlands at our Forsinard Flows, Airds Moss and other reserves, for the benefit of the climate and fantastic wildlife like curlews and hen harriers.
The ECCLR Committee echoed our calls for compulsory soil testing by farmers, saying that it is a ‘vital stepping stone to changing behaviours’. Testing soil acidity level (or pH) gives information to farmers about the amount of lime they should apply to land and helps them calculate the correct amount of costly fertiliser to use. Excess fertiliser spreading is wasteful and easily turns into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than CO2. Not testing soil for pH is like a builder not using a spirit level, a doctor not having a thermometer, a barber wearing a blindfold – it’s the basics.
Technology and behaviour change
The plan relies heavily on new technology becoming widespread in Scotland before 2032. Some of them haven’t even been proven, like Carbon Capture and Storage, or are in their infancy, like electric vehicles. Committees, like us, pointed this out and the need to seek alternative back up approaches – especially a greater focus on finding ways to help us all change our behaviours and find the right ways to trigger low-carbon lifestyle choices. An interesting snippet from the ECCLR Committee’s report is that the “Climate Conversations” held with members of the public in the run-up to the plan’s publication found that people are very keen on improving public transport. Making public transport better is a key way to change people’s travel choices. The affects of climate change on children and wildlife was also a common concern in the Climate Conversations.
We want to see renewable energy in Scotland that is planned and installed in harmony with nature. Our Energy Vision sets out how renewables can be sited in a way that doesn’t harm our special habitats and species. The Local Government and Communities Committee agreed with us that there needs to be a clearer role for the planning system in meeting our climate change targets. We think that that should mean that the most suitable sites should be identified for renewables, rather than waiting for developers to propose where they should go.
Next for the plan
On the whole, we are pleased with the reports that the Holyrood committees have written. There will now be a debate in Parliament after which Government will go away and consider the changes it needs to make. For us, that means more vital work to keep up the pressure on Government and to make sure the final Climate Change Plan complements all the other climate related plans and strategies it is working on: planning reform, energy strategy, fracking, district heating, energy efficiency. We will be influencing these over the next couple of months, continuing to make the case for a low-carbon Scotland in harmony with nature.
You can read the evidence that we submitted here: ECCLR, EJFW, REC, LGC