August, 2017

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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.
  • Five ways to help wildlife in your garden

    When was the last time you spotted a hedgehog or a badger? What about a squirrel or a fox? And could you identify a great crested newt if one popped up in your garden?

    During our Big Garden Birdwatch this year, we asked everyone taking part to record the birds visiting their outdoor space during a one hour slot of their choice. But we also asked people to tell us about the ‘other wildlife’ they were seeing too.

    In Scotland, we got responses from around 15,000 people describing the finds from more than 9,700 gardens – a great effort! We learned that foxes are the most common ‘non-bird’ visitor, turning up in 64% of gardens, and great crested newts were the least common with only 2% recording one.

    Less than half had a mole (44%) or a stoat (24%) in their outdoor space and more than a quarter (27%) reported that they had never seen a hedgehog in their garden. The decline in sightings of these prickly creatures is worrying, particularly when you consider there was an estimated UK population of 30 million in the 1950s and now there are believed to be less than a million.

    Gardeners across the country are already doing a great deal to help give nature a home, but we’d love it if even more people could involved to hopefully boost the numbers of once familiar species like hedgehogs. To get you started, here are five ways you could help wildlife in your garden...

    Plant a bee banquet


    Growing flowers and shrubs that are full of nectar and pollen will feed bees year round. With many species of bumble and solitary bees in decline globally, small actions like this can make a huge difference.  Many plants that are available to purchase don’t produce nectar or pollen so you need make sure you pick wisely! Try Crocus and hellebore in winter; Aubretia or bugle in spring; borage, foxglove and herbs in summer; and dahlias or ivy in autumn. Try and select a sheltered, sunny area to plant your chosen flowers and shrubs in as they’ll do best in those conditions. It doesn’t have to be a large patch - you could even give it go using window boxes!

    Create nature corridors


    This is one of the simplest ways to give nature a home. By creating little nature highways and byways you’re helping wildlife to move freely between gardens, and it’s a great activity to involve the neighbours in too. Hedgehogs can walk a mile or more in a single night looking for food and a mate, but their path is often blocked by walls, fences and hedges. By cutting small holes and gaps around the perimeter of your garden, hogs can pop in for a visit before heading safely on their way again.

    Build a bug hotel


    Stack wooden pallets, logs, bark, bricks, pine cones, really any natural materials you have to hand, to create a safe hideaway for creatures galore. Although it’s called a bug hotel this sort of structure provides perfect hidey holes for hedgehogs, frogs, toads, dragonflies and newts as well. You’ll get different visitors depending on where you place your hotel, some like the sun while others prefer the shade. You can make an abode to fit any space as well from balconies to large gardens.

    Dig a pond


    Yes they can be a challenge to make, but you’ll be amazed how quickly wildlife finds your pond when it’s done. Choose a spot with as much sunlight as possible and that doesn’t pose a flood risk. You’ll soon be attracting dragonflies, damselflies, frogs and maybe even a newt! If you don’t have a particularly large garden, you can make a little pond by using something like an old washing up bowl. Submerge it into the ground or leave it out on top – it’s up to you!

    Start composting


    Compost heaps are a great way to turn waste material into natural compost that can be added back into your garden. To create compost quickly, remember to thinly shred the material you’re adding and alternate between green and brown layers. The green layer can be made up of things like grass clippings, weeds and vegetable peels, while the brown could consist of shredded paper or cardboard, dried grass, sticks and wood chippings. Compost heaps provide a satisfying feast for worms and woodlice, but also offer a safe space for toads and slow worms.

    Of course there are plenty of other ways you could give nature a home where you live, these are just a few examples. To learn more about how to do all the activities in this blog and to find even more ways to help wildlife, click here.

     

  • Disappearing raptors

    RSPB Scotland Head of Investigations, Ian Thomson, has this latest blog on the disappearance of birds of prey in Scotland.

    Stories about Scotland’s birds of prey, and the threats that they face, have featured in the media a great deal in recent months. A couple of weeks ago the results of the 2016 National Hen Harrier survey were published. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, these results did not bring good news, with a 9% decline in Scotland since the last survey in 2010, and that can be added to a 22% decline between 2004 and 2010.

    It’s news like this that persuaded me to join with the many hundreds of people who attended “Hen Harrier Day” events across the UK last weekend, to celebrate this fantastic bird, but also to protest against its continued persecution.

    Anyone who has worked with hen harriers in Scotland over the last 25 years will be acutely aware that the population in the east and south of the country is in freefall. Despite a huge acreage of suitable moorland habitat and an abundance of potential prey, places like Deeside, the Angus Glens, the Monadhliaths, and the Lammermuir Hills have rarely had successful breeding pairs during the last decade, despite a previous history of this. Sometimes birds are seen early in the spring in these areas, but they seem to “disappear” fairly quickly. As an example of just how critical the situation is, more pairs of hen harriers bred successfully on one RSPB reserve on Islay in 2017, than on the grouse moors of Aberdeenshire, Kincardineshire, Angus and the Scottish Borders put together. In fact, RSPB nature reserves hold 10% of Scotland’s breeding population of hen harriers, with 46 pairs in 2016.

    My first involvement in monitoring hen harriers was in north east Scotland in the early 1980’s. In those days, there were up to 24 pairs breeding in this area, but this population, like so many others has steadily declined over the last 20-30 years, with illegal killing by humans the main driver behind this depressing situation. Several witnessed shooting incidents over the years is clear evidence of this, reinforced now by a huge weight of scientific evidence, including the JNCC’s Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers, identifying that over much of Scotland, illegal killing and deliberate destruction of nests is the main population constraint.

    One of the 2017 cohort of satellite-tagged hen harriers, credit Brian Etheridge.

    The shootings of a hen harrier and a short-eared owl on the Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire in May this year are indicative of the continuous and widespread problem faced by our protected raptors. But, these crimes were unusual in that they were witnessed by members of the public, who then reported these incidents to RSPB Scotland and the police. In most instances, the crimes are unseen. Sometimes a dead bird is found, later confirmed as shot, trapped or poisoned, but unfortunately no-one ever seems able or willing to identify the perpetrator. On other occasions nests fail with clear signs of human interference or, as is often the case, birds seemingly settled and breeding simply vanish, with subsequent licensed nest checks finding cold eggs or dead, starved chicks.

    However, technology is increasingly providing evidence as to the fate of some of our birds of prey. The fitting of satellite tags is giving us incredible detail about the travels of these birds, where they are hunting, roosting or nesting. The data provided by these highly reliable bits of kit are also telling us where birds are dying, naturally through starvation, disease or predation, very occasionally as a result of collision with a wind turbine, but all too often as a result of illegal persecution.

    A couple of months ago, the Scottish Government published a review of satellite-tagged golden eagles. This meticulous piece of independent research, conducted by experienced scientists, showed that a third of tagged young golden eagles are either being illegally killed or are “disappearing” in circumstances that strongly suggest they have been illegally killed. The review closely associated the suspicious disappearances of these birds with land managed intensively for driven grouse shooting, particularly in four areas of the central and eastern highlands.

    But, it’s not just golden eagles. As technology has advanced, satellite-tags have been able to be manufactured smaller and smaller, allowing their fitting to an expanding range of other species. In recent years, a number have been fitted to Scottish red kites, and, as announced yesterday, increasingly to hen harriers, as part of the RSPB’s LIFE Hen Harrier project, and also through the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project.

    Annie, a hen harrier tagged as part of the Langholm Moor Demonstration project was found shot on a grouse moor in SW Scotland in April 2015.

    As with golden eagles some of these birds have died naturally and have been found as expected, with their tags intact. Sadly, however, several have been found illegally killed, the victims of poisoning or, like hen harrier “Annie”, shooting. Increasingly, however, it is becoming clear that a number of these birds are “disappearing” in identical circumstances to those of the golden eagles documented in the Scottish Government review: satellite-tags that were functioning normally, providing excellent location data over a long period, and with a good charge on their internal battery, suddenly, inexplicably, stopped. Follow-up searches find no trace of the birds, and the tags are never heard of again.

    While Scotland’s golden eagles tend to live among our highest mountains, particularly in the eastern part of their range, red kites and harriers tend to be a bit “lower down the hill”. With this in mind, we thought it would be interesting to map where satellite-tagged harriers and kites are being illegally killed or are disappearing, to see if this showed the similar very stark pattern as that published in the review for tagged golden eagles.

    It is clear from this map that, like golden eagles, the distribution of illegally killed or suspiciously disappeared satellite-tagged red kites and hen harriers is far from random, and shows clear clusters in some upland areas. As with the “hotspots” for eagles, these clusters are almost entirely coincident with land dominated by driven grouse shooting management, again including areas like the northern Monadhliaths and the Angus Glens. But, harriers and kites have clearly being targeted in other regions – notably, but not exclusively, upper Strathspey, Strathnairn and the Lowther Hills of S Lanarkshire.

    A pretty compelling picture, and it’s worth remembering that these tagged birds represent a tiny fraction of the population. How many non-tagged birds are being killed, unseen and never found? In the future, as more birds are tagged, we will get an increasingly clear indication of the extent and impact of persecution on these birds’ populations.

    We welcomed the announcements made by the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, on 31st May, intimating the establishment of an independent panel to look at the environmental impact of grouse moor management and to recommend options for regulation of this industry.

    Some intensively managed driven grouse moors are still seemingly using business models drawn up in the 19th century, a time when attitudes to protected birds of prey and the wider environment were somewhat less enlightened than they are now. All that has apparently changed in the subsequent hundred years is that the killing of predators has become more efficient, with increasing use of thermal imagery or night-vision equipment, and, the widespread use of medication for grouse has led to an end of the natural population cycles of that bird, with an ability, if the weather is favourable, to achieve a high “shootable surplus” year after year

    It’s obvious that whatever the Scottish Government panel recommends, it will be too late for all the birds shown as illegally killed or “disappeared” on the map. We just hope that the immediate review of “all available legal measures” also announced by the Cabinet Secretary in her response to the tagging review, leads to robust sanctions being employed rapidly to target estates proven to be involved in wildlife crime. It’s clear that self-regulation of the driven grouse shooting industry has completely failed to prevent the killing of protected raptors, and over the longer term, it needs a robust system of licensing whereby the right to shoot is dependent on adherence to the law.

    Time is rapidly running out if we are to secure a future for this species in eastern and southern Scotland.

  • Golden eagle tagging: learning the fate of our raptors

    Stuart Benn, from RSPB Scotland, brings us this latest blog on golden eagle tagging, investigating how and if we can identify what has happened to birds of prey using technology. 


    The recent publication of the report into the fate of satellite tagged golden eagles in Scotland makes shocking reading and highlights just how big a problem illegal persecution continues to be in some areas. 

    In short, some tagged birds are still alive, some died of natural causes, some were illegally killed and the bodies retrieved, some tags were retrieved having become detached from the bird, a very small number were considered to have a tag malfunction but the lion’s share ‘went off the radar’ in suspicious circumstances.  Clearly, being able to assign tag fates to the correct category is key in determining what happened to them – but how can you tell?

    To answer this, it’s worth a quick summary of the tagging process.   

    Golden eagle chicks grow fast and go from being tiny balls of fluff to adult-sized and large enough to be fitted with satellite tags in eight weeks.  The tags are put on the chick’s back and attached by a harness with the straps being joined at the front but with a weak link put in. The reason for this is that even though the tag has a battery and solar panels to keep it charged it eventually runs out after a few years. All being well, the bird will live for much longer than this so rather than have the eagle carry a tag that is no longer working, the attachment is designed to eventually fail and fall off.

    Two other points are worth noting. Firstly, fitting tags is a very skilled process and anyone doing this has to undergo rigorous training. Secondly, tagging clearly requires a supply of eagle chicks from nests where they are doing well and many landowners (including some grouse shooting estates) have been extremely helpful in facilitating tagging.

    Two week old golden eaglets. Credit: Laurie Campbell (rspb-images.com).

    So, once the chick has fledged and then left the area it was born in, it flies around Scotland for several years until it is old enough to set up territory. This part of a young eagle’s life used to be shrouded in mystery but now, with satellite tags, we can follow them every step of the way with their movements being automatically sent to your computer.

    I’ve kept an eye on all the RSPB’s golden eagle tagging data since 2012 and you soon pick up what normal activity looks like – the information arrives at set times and includes data on the battery voltage, temperature and whether the tag is moving. From all of this, you can find out not only where the bird is but whether it’s still alive.

    For much of the time, everything is fine but every so often the information arouses concern. On four occasions, birds stopped moving and I was able to direct the police and the RSPB Investigations section to the exact spot. Twice, the birds were found to have died from natural causes but on the other two they had been illegally killed.

    However, more recently, a different pattern has emerged - the tag is working perfectly and then suddenly stops, never to be heard from again, and almost always from one of a restricted number of areas dominated by driven grouse shooting.  Searches of the last known position may show signs that an eagle has been there but there’s no bird and there’s no tag. 

    So, when one of our tags suddenly stopped transmitting in one of those areas a couple of weeks ago, my suspicions were immediately raised and, after notifying the police, they agreed that I should visit the last known location.  However, the weather wasn’t suitable for me to go and search immediately and I had to wait a few days but, in that time and unusually, I did get some low quality info from the tag – nothing that was specific to location but it did make me think that the tag was still intact and trying to transmit, I was intrigued.

    The last good position I’d received was in a remote area and it took me over two hours to climb up into the hills and traverse some very wet peat bogs before I got to the general location and could start the search.  It turned out to be a shallow gully cutting through open moorland but with a few wee rock outcrops – a classic place for an eagle to roost.

    I homed in on the last known location – some rocks – and immediately spotted plenty of eagle feathers so a bird had definitely been here. Another wee scout about and there it was lying face down on a north-facing ledge – the tag, no bird just the tag!

    Golden eagle satellite tag in situ. Credit: Stuart Benn.

    I scrambled down to it and, mindful that it could be a crime scene (though I’d noted that there were no vehicle tracks leading to the site so this was probably unlikely), I checked the tag visually and I could see that the weak link had come apart naturally, exactly as planned. So, the bird had roosted there, the tag had transmitted this position but overnight the weak link had broken, the tag had fallen off the bird just as it is meant to do, the eagle had flown off, I’d gone to that location and there was the tag!

    There are some interesting conclusions to draw from this experience. Firstly, the mechanism designed to stop a bird carrying a tag after it may have stopped transmitting works perfectly. Secondly, even a tag that is face down with very limited charge still tries to transmit and gives some indication that it is still intact (the tag isn’t entirely face down as the antenna keeps it propped up but the solar panels are not getting any direct light). Thirdly, satellite tags are astonishingly accurate – if you get a good last known location and there’s something there to find then you’ll find it.

    The weak link of the tag had broken, and the tag had fallen off the bird just as it is meant to do. Credit: Stuart Benn. 

    All this is in direct contrast to that other situation where tags are working perfectly well then suddenly stop transmitting never to be heard from again.  In these cases, the report concludes that ‘The final fixes of the ‘stopped no malfunction’ tags were significantly associated with persecution incidents. Their sudden demise was evidently due in large part to people killing the tagged birds (and the sudden disposal of the bird and its tag subsequently).’

    Satellite tags are expensive so we’ll be able to get this one refurbished over the winter and put on another golden eagle in 2018 so, all told, this was a great result and it was a happy boy that made that two hour walk back to the car.