Farming is extremely important for nature in Scotland, with wildlife-friendly practices bringing huge benefits to the country’s landscapes and the species that use them. This blog, from Louise Cullen of the RSPB, details five birds that are already being helped by farming in Scotland. If you’d like to learn more about this type of work, come visit our stand at the Royal Highland Show this month, we’ll be there from 22-25 June.
Five birds being helped by farming
Did you know that farmland covers more than 70% of Scotland? 73% of the country to be precise – that’s equivalent to around 7.8 million rugby pitches! The sheer size of this habitat means it is extremely important for wildlife, with birds including lapwings, curlew and skylarks all making their home on farmland. At the same time as providing food for our tables, agriculture is creating the landscapes and wildlife we value in Scotland today, and plays a major role in keeping them in a healthy state. Here are five bird species that wildlife-friendly practices are already helping across the country.
Corncrakes used to be widespread across the UK but they are now largely confined to a few isolated pockets of Scotland, mainly on the islands and far north-west coast. In the 1990s their numbers had dwindled to a mere 400 calling males.
The pivotal point for the survival of this species came during the 20th century when research linked their decline to the mechanisation of mowing and the early mowing of grass crops. Corncrakes prefer to stay hidden among tall vegetation and are reluctant to flee into the open. It was found that up to 60% of flightless corncrake chicks were being lost each year, when they became trapped in the centre of fields by mowers that were working from the outside edges in.
However, by creating areas of cover along the outer edges of fields and reversing the pattern of mowing to work from the inside out, corncrake chicks could be flushed to safety during mowing rather than being killed. In 1992 a programme of payments to farmers to adopt ‘corncrake friendly mowing’ and to delay mowing until August, when the breeding season has passed and the chicks are older, was first implemented in Scotland by the RSPB. This has since been translated into government-run schemes.
After these conservation measures were introduced, corncrake populations bounced back thanks to the support of farmers and crofters. Our last Scottish survey in 2016 put their numbers at 1059 calling males – an increase of 165% since the 1990s.
Around half of the UK’s breeding curlews are found in Scotland, with most on moorland and hill farms. In recent decades their numbers have fallen by 64% due to habitat changes, however in areas such as the Cairngorms National Park, Caithness, and the Clyde Valley, farmers are working with conservationists to help this species recover and, hopefully, thrive.
Farmers are grazing and mowing their land sympathetically to provide nest sites for curlews and they’re also creating wet areas of land which provide an excellent food source, by attracting insects for these birds to eat. In one project area in the eastern Cairngorms, around 20 farmers are working with the RSPB to establish muddy feeding pools and tussocky fields to boost curlew breeding efforts and since 2011, the number of curlews at many of these farms has increased or remained stable – bucking the national trend.
RSPB Scotland does more than provide advice on birds and other wildlife to farmers and crofters, because we are part of that agricultural community too. We have a farm, called Aoradh, at Loch Gruinart where our livestock plays a huge role in giving nature a home.
Choughs need short, open grassland to feed, as they probe into the topsoil with their beaks to fish out a meal, and our sheep and cattle ensure they can do just that by closely cropping the grass while grazing. Cattle dung also attracts food for choughs, by providing micro-habitats for ‘leatherjackets’ – the larval form of the crane fly.
Choughs were once widespread around the UK’s western and southern rocky coasts however their range has reduced quite significantly over the last 200 years. They only survived where mixed farming continued and in recent times Islay, Colonsay and Jura have become the species’ main strongholds in Scotland.
East Scotland holds most of the country’s remaining corn buntings following several local extinctions of this stout little ‘bird of the barley’ over the last decade or so. Between 1989 and 2007 their overall numbers fell by 83% and we estimate that there are roughly 800 singing males left. However by providing the ‘big three’ farmers and estates in Aberdeenshire, Angus and Fife are turning the fortunes of corn buntings around.
More than 30 farms and the East Neuk Estates Group, which comprises six estates, are spearheading a recovery project committed to providing winter seed food, summer insect food and safe nesting sites for corn buntings. And the most recent surveys suggest this hard work is already paying off.
In Fife earlier this year, we had the highest increase in corn bunting numbers since records began and between 2015 and 2016 the number of territories occupied on participating farms by this bird increased by 18% to 73. They are also recolonising areas where they haven’t been seen in years.
Farmers and land managers are using a combination of agri-environment scheme options, voluntary action and upgraded greening measures to benefit this iconic farmland bird.
Farmland wading birds, a charismatic group that includes lapwings as well as snipe and oystercatchers, benefit from active farming. To capitalise on this for the benefit of these species, RSPB Scotland has joined forces with farmers and a range of farming organisations including NFU Scotland, the Scottish Crofting Federation and SAC Consulting to deliver a number of projects focused on wader friendly farming .
These projects aim to promote the use of cost neutral techniques that benefit wading birds like lapwings in everyday practice, as well as highlight potential options within governmental schemes. Lapwings are found across Scotland but surveys show their numbers are declining.
This is where Scotland’s farming community comes in! Through these projects they are helping lapwings and other wading birds by grazing wet grasslands to provide suitable habitat, maintaining and reinstating damp areas within fields used by farmland waders and avoiding active nests while cultivating the ground; relatively simple steps that have an incredibly important impact on our wildlife.
RSPB Scotland actively works with hundreds of farmers, crofters and landowners across the country to benefit wildlife, whether they are small scale crofts or large estates. We also campaign for agricultural policies that support those who farm in environmentally responsible ways and we own and tend farmland ourselves such as on Islay at Loch Gruinart and The Oa.
RSPB Scotland will be at the Royal Highland Show again this year. If you enjoyed this blog, come find our marquee in the showground to learn more about how farming is helping Scotland’s wildlife, our own work with Scottish farmers and crofters and take away tips on how you can help give nature a home too.
The Royal Highland Show takes place at Ingliston, just outside Edinburgh city centre, between Thursday 22 and Sunday 25 June 2017.
All this week as part of Volunteers’ Week 2017 we’ve been celebrating our amazing 2,200 RSPB Scotland volunteers. Our volunteers are integral to our conservation work here in Scotland and it’s been great to shine the spotlight on them and say a huge THANK YOU for all that they do.
For our final blog of the week we bring you five fascinating facts about our extraordinary volunteers and how you can get involved!
Five facts you need to know about RSPB Scotland volunteering
1. We have volunteers of all ages - our most senior volunteer is 88 years old and has volunteered for us for 40 years, while our youngest volunteer began volunteering at aged eight and is now 10. Whatever age you are you can get involved.
2. 41 years and counting - our longest serving volunteer has been donating their time to us for an outstanding 41 years and is still volunteering for us. Wow!
3. Volunteering hot spot - our Lochwinnoch reserve, just outside Glasgow, has over 100 active volunteers. Find out where your nearest reserve is here.
4. Unique access - some of our volunteering placements take you to places few people get to visit such as the uninhabited islands of Ailsa Craig and Horse Island, both important sites for seabirds.
5. A whole range of opportunities - there are many ways that you can get involved with RSPB Scotland and they aren’t all based outdoors at our reserves. Other volunteers include artists in residency, library co-ordinator, film maker, lambing assistant, and an app development advisor. Each and every volunteer is crucial to our work - many, many thanks to everyone who supports us by donating their time!
If you’ve been inspired by Volunteers’ Week and would like to get involved with RSPB Scotland volunteering check out our website here.
Catch up on our special series of Volunteers’ Week blogs here:
Celebrating our volunteers
Foraging Fun at Loch Lomond
My volunteer experience
What is it like being a residential volunteer?
The Shetland RSPB Youth Volunteers
My time at RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond
Pauline Gray is a volunteer at RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond and as part of Volunteers’ Week 2017 has shared her experience with us of what’s she’s been involved in since starting with us.
I would love to share with you my time being a Volunteer at RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond. I have been volunteering for almost two years now and it has been the most amazing experience. I have had a passion for nature since being a young child where I spent as much time as I could being outdoors exploring! It was all about finding new things and learning more about it that was exciting for me and I still feel the same today.
Being involved with RSPB Scotland is giving me the chance to continue to learn new things but also being able to share what I know with other people and it's a great feeling. Since being a volunteer I have had the opportunity to be very involved with the team at RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond and one of my main roles is a Learning Assistant which involves going to schools or having schools coming to us. It is so rewarding when a child tells you that they have had an amazing time on the reserve!
I also do fundraising, events, cruises and guided walks and meet and greet the public at our Nature Hub. I talk with people about our reserve and wildlife, helping them to identify a bird by song or listening to their wildlife experiences is always a great day as a volunteer.
Our Nature Reserve is such a special place to me and I love promoting what we do here for all its wildlife for future generations. It's a stunning place to work and be involved with! I have been encouraged so much by the staff and enjoy working with a great team of volunteers. It has been a great experience that I hope to continue with for a long time.
We've opportunities across Scotland to get involved with volunteering for us whether you have an hour to spare now and then or are looking at a residential stay. Find out more here.
Catch up on our blogs celebrating Volunteers' Week 2017 so far: