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.
New discoveries are being made in nature all the time. Last year, scientists in California unearthed 133 new species including Dracula ants, a lantern shark and an armoured lizard endemic to Angola, to name a few. And even though we're only a few months into 2017, seven new frogs have already been discovered in India - four of them smaller than a thumbnail - and a new species of gibbon has been found living in the rainforests of south-west China. Biodiversity scientists estimate we are aware of less than 10% of the species inhabiting our planet, but it's amazing what can be found if only we are willing to look for it.
We are learning about life on Earth all the time because we are exploring new habitats, looking for unknown species of plants, mammals, birds and amphibians, and finding out as much as we can about them. But what about the people who are fighting to save nature? We should be looking for them too.
Scotland is full of wildlife heroes; people who are dedicated to conserving and enhancing the planet, for all of us to enjoy. Across the country, these champions of nature are protecting threatened species and habitats, building green spaces in local communities, campaigning for positive political change to benefit the environment and connecting more children to the natural world. However, you may not get to know who they are or find out about the vital work they're doing unless someone shines a light on it.
That's why, each year, RSPB Scotland launches a search for the brightest, most enthusiastic and hard-working unsung heroes of wildlife conservation through the Nature of Scotland Awards. We want to celebrate and share the inspirational work they're doing, while encouraging even more people to get involved with saving nature.
The awards opened for entry on March 13 and the RSPB is inviting applications from community groups, schools, individuals, politicians, businesses, teachers, conservationists, wildlife tourist attractions, the farming community and other organisations with a strong commitment to the environment. If you, or someone you know, is doing great things for nature then we want to hear about it!
In previous years our wildlife champions have included the creators of community gardens, schools that are championing nature in the classroom and in the school grounds, businesses that are backing conservation action and projects established to protect red squirrels, black grouse and white-tailed eagles.
For 2017, we are replacing the Politician of the Year Award with a new Political Advocate of the Year Award which is open to any individual who has had a significant impact on public policy to the benefit of nature. We are also bringing back the Marine Conservation Award which will recognise an outstanding contribution to the protection of Scotland's seas and the species that rely on them. In total there are nine categories available for entry: RSPB Species Champion, Marine Conservation, Political Advocate of the Year, Corporate, Youth and Education, Innovation, Community Initiative, Food and Farming, and Nature Tourism.
So, what are you waiting for? Nominate someone who is making an inspirational contribution to Scotland's precious wildlife and wild spaces today - or submit your own project and tell us what you're doing to save nature. Let's celebrate the achievements of our wildlife heroes together.
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. Get more information and submit your application at www.rspb.org.uk/natureofscotland
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.