Wildlife friendly farming is an integral part of RSPB Scotland’s work. In this blog Jack Fleming, our area manager in the Argyll Islands, and David Maynard, our community information and tourism officer at Loch Gruinart, take us through how RSPB Scotland is farming for wildlife on Islay.
Farming for wildlife on Islay
Loch Gruinart - Dave Maynard
Farming for wildlife. That, in a nutshell, is what RSPB Scotland Loch Gruinart, our 1700ha reserve on Islay, is all about. And if it wasn’t for Aoradh, the RSPB Scotland owned farm, we wouldn’t have a reserve at Loch Gruinart at all. The farm was purchased in 1984 for the conservation of barnacle and white-fronted geese which arrive from Greenland every year in October.
Along with being an important habitat for these geese it’s now also managed for a range of wildlife from corncrakes, cuckoos, and breeding waders such as lapwing, redshanks, snipe, curlews, greenshanks and godwits who visit in the summer, to the resident population of chough and, not forgetting the hen harriers. It’s not just birds though! Rare marsh fritillary butterfly, bats, reptiles and plants also benefit.
On Aoradh, year-round seasonal farming requirements and diverse wildlife habitat management methods synchronise to create a fascinating combination of successful agricultural and conservation practices. Farming and wildlife conservation really do go ‘hand-in-hand’ here.
In order to suitably manage the farm for conservation, Aoradh has a spring calving suckler herd of 200 cross-bred Limousin/Aberdeen Angus/ Shorthorn cows and a flock of 200 North Country Cheviot sheep (primarily to control ragwort and dockens) on the grazing areas. The sale of the calves and lambs generates our income. It’s really important that Aoradh is run as a successful working farm especially for RSPB Scotland’s advocacy work. We must use the same techniques and equipment and face the same challenges as other farms in the area; our farm must function at the highest levels of livestock quality and welfare, matching other farmers on Islay which is renowned for the quality of livestock produced on the island; and we have to use standard techniques means that we can accurately assess the cost of delivering conservation. This allows RSPB Scotland to advise land managers and Government of the funding required to support this vital work. Ultimately the farm needs to make money so it costs as little as possible to deliver what is an immense amount of biodiversity.
Meat is the farm’s produce and revenue earner and is a by-product of our conservation methods. The benefit to RSPB Scotland is that although we are managing for red list wildlife species, we regularly top the local and occasionally national sales and shows, giving us more ways to engage with people about our work and enhancing our credibility as commercial land managers. This would not be achievable by stereotypical conservation methods and has also led to the adoption of what is basically a lowland herd in a highland setting.
Our livestock are our frontline conservationists, assisting us in determining land management requirements for many of the red list species we practice conservation for. They perform important tasks that today’s mechanisation cannot always successfully complete.
Chough benefit from sheep and cattle at our Loch Gruinart reserve
By close cropping, our sheep and cattle ensure a short grass sward, so that the resident population of rare chough can probe into the topsoil for food. The cattle constantly provide ubiquitous ‘cow pats’, micro-habitats for over-wintering dung beetle larvae and ‘leatherjackets’, the larval form of the crane fly, which form the chough’s diet of choice. Manure produced by our cattle is also used for the creation of corncrake corridors – strips of land set aside for the cultivation of ‘early cover’, good examples of which include flag irises and stinging nettles, hand sown in a substrate of ‘muck’.
Later on in the year, after the waders’ breeding season has come to an end, cattle are put into the wetland areas for targeted grazing and rush topping operations. Cows, after weaning, are also put onto available moorland to keep grazing in order which also promotes the growth and availability of devil’s-bit scabious, the plant upon which the caterpillars of the marsh fritillary butterfly feed.
I’m really proud of the work we do here at Loch Gruinart and Aoradh. It’s a great thing to be able to see year round the positive impact that our successful farming methods have on the wildlife and habitats here, and the role our farm has on influencing farming conservation policies across the country.
The Oa - Jack Fleming
At The Oa we own and farm 2,000 hectares of this rugged landscape. The high conservation value of The Oa Reserve, with its range of coastal and heathland habitats and its population of chough, has been recognised by designation as SSSI and SPA. These habitats and the biodiversity they support are characteristic of much of Islay and the Inner Hebrides and depend on active management utilising a low intensity, extensive farming system.
With 140 breeding cows and 600 ewes this is not a small operation. The cows are a mix of pure Highland, Simmental/Highland or Luing and Limousin cross. Each group of cattle is placed on selected areas to make best use of the breed characteristics and deliver the habitat management we need. The pure Highland cows, with their foraging abilities, thrive on the open hill ground; the Simmental crosses do well on the slightly less exposed glens and the Limousin cattle benefit from the better fields. The sheep are predominantly Scottish Blackface, renowned for their hardiness. By using the livestock in this way we maximise both the conservation benefit and the financial return for the Society.
The calves from the cows and lambs from the ewes, in common with almost all stock on Islay, are sold as “stores” that is; they are sold on to other farmers on the mainland to complete their growing. Islay is rightly regarded as an island that produces the highest quality of livestock and buyers come from all over the UK. Like our colleagues farming at Loch Gruinart, we fully play our part in this, taking local and national prizes for our cattle in particular. Through our dealing with specialists, our pure Highland bullocks may often grace the dining tables as far from Islay as south east England!
All this agricultural activity absolutely underpins the conservation interests on The Oa. As Dave has mentioned, of particular importance is the connection between cattle grazing and chough, with the cattle providing the correct sward heights for the chough to forage amongst and the dung pats that are the source of the dung beetles and larvae that form such a crucial part of the chough diet. Areas of land are managed for breeding waders and wintering geese and our pockets of arable management have seen flocks of 1,200 wintering twites – probably the largest such flock in the UK! Work is in hand to increase the area we manage for corncrake and we are hopeful that we can increase their population in this part of the island. Without the farming we could not hope to deliver the diversity which makes The Oa such a special place for wildlife and humans alike.
Find out more about our food and farming work across the UK here.
Open Farm Sunday is coming up on 11th June. Why not visit your local farms taking part and discover the farmland wildlife that lives near you? More information can be found on the Open Farm Sunday website.
Dippers are fantastic little birds to spot and you don’t have to head out into the countryside to manage it either. These plump, plucky birds are a great example of ‘urban wildlife’ as they can often be seen along waterways in towns and cities. I’ve spotted a couple of them now on the Water of Leith in Edinburgh, bobbing up and down on rocks poking out of the river. Dippers have a distinctive white throat and breast which contrasts with the dark plumage of their bodies, and Scotland provides a home for around 15,000 pairs. Here are five facts we thought you’d enjoy about them.
Dippers can walk underwater
The dipper family is exceptional for its ability to hunt underwater. They feed on small aquatic invertebrates and fish, which they catch by walking along the bottom of fast flowing rivers and streams. By stretching out their wings against the current, dippers manage to push themselves downwards and stay submerged; they also hold on to stones with their feet to prevent them being swept off.
Their name makes perfect sense
Dippers were given their name because of their bobbing movements, up and down, while perched – and especially so when they’re excited. Dippers have been known to make up to around 60 of these ‘dips’ per minute. A local name for the species used to be ‘water ousel’ - ‘ousel’ being an old word for blackbird.
Specialisation is key
Dippers have a range of physical adaptations that make them well suited to life on the water. These include well-developed wing muscles that help push against the currents, eyes that function underwater, blood that stores large amounts of oxygen to draw from when they are submerged and specialised flaps over their nostrils to prevent water rushing in.
They’re birds of many talents
Despite lacking webbed feet, dippers can actually swim very well. To get from the bank of a stream or river into the water they will dive from a rock and bob to the surface, or simply walk straight in.
Dippers are big in Norway
Dippers are the national birds of Norway, so crowned in the year 2000. They are more commonly known as white-throated dippers there – the name helps distinguish this particular species of dipper from any other.
If you enjoyed this fact filled blog, have a look at some of our other ones:
Five facts you need to know about puffins
Five facts you need to know about ptarmigans
Five facts you need to know about bumblebees
The Scottish Government's consultation on its energy strategy closes on Tuesday 30th May. Here Rebecca Bell, RSPB Scotland's senior policy officer, set out our position on it and how you can also let the Government know your thoughts.
Getting our energy system right for wildlife
Sometimes our work to save nature means dealing with immediate threats to wildlife – such as the Shiant Isles Seabird Recovery Project, aimed at providing safe breeding sites for some of our globally important seabirds – and sometime it involves trying to find solutions to long term, complex problems, such as the decline in farmland birds, including lapwings and skylarks.
Sometimes it’s a combination of the two – where the solution to the long-term problem (climate change – which is causing problems for a huge number of species, including causing seabirds to starve) has the potential to do great harm to wildlife in the short term (such as the windfarms in Tarifa, southern Spain, which kill over a hundred birds of prey each year).
Fortunately, the key word there is potential: we know that harm to wildlife is not an inevitable result of developing renewable energy – if it is well planned, well sited and well monitored, we can have a green energy system, meet our climate change targets, reduce the long-term threat to wildlife globally and avoid harming sensitive species.
That’s why our work on energy is so vital, and why we are responding in detail to the Scottish Government’s consultation on its energy strategy – because the decisions made about what kind of energy system we want, how it’s funded and how its planned will all affect what happens on the ground (and in the air).
We want to see high levels of renewable energy, developed in harmony with nature. This means that we need the government to identify the best sites for energy (preferably using the approach we developed in our 2050 Energy Vision), and then direct developers towards them. We also need investment in understanding our environment, so that we can use the best possible knowledge to build wind farms, and other renewable developments, in places that won’t harm the species we love.
We’re pleased that the Scottish Government has produced an energy strategy, that it sets a target for 50% of our energy use to come from renewable sources (ambitious but achievable, according to our research) and that it says that the energy strategy will work “in harmony with the natural environment” – although we need a lot more detail on how all this will actually happen.
And energy is not just about renewable electricity – it’s about how we heat our homes, how we travel and how we power our lives.
Currently heat and transport are very dependent on fossil fuels, so we need to find ways to use less in the first place, and alternative fuels to replace oil and gas, petrol and diesel. Crucial to this is land use planning – making sure developers build homes that are energy efficient, that have heating systems that are efficient and make best use of resources – such as heat pumps and district heating. And making sure that homes are built where it’s easy to take public transport, or walk, or cycle to where we need to go.
These decisions need to be made at the top – by government – and so they need to know that organisations such as RSPB Scotland, and their members, want these things to happen. So if you get chance this weekend, which not send in your own response to the consultation? You can respond online here. The Scottish Government is also looking for view on onshore wind and unconventional oil and gas extraction, also known as fracking.