October, 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.
  • A year of nature at Coul Links

    Coul Links is a rare duneland habitat on the Sutherland coast which is being threatened with destruction by plans to build a golf course. Here RSPB Scotland’s conservation officer Alison Searl recalls a year of nature at Coul Links and why we’re part of a coaltion of conservation organisations campaigning to save it. Details on how you can help by submitting objections are included at the end. 

    A year of nature at Coul Links

    Early on a late spring morning Coul Links is alive with bird song. Yellowhammer, chaffinches, whitethroats, willow warblers, song thrush, blackbirds, robins, wrens, dunnock, whinchat and tits are all busy in the scrub along the old shore line at the back of the links beneath the adjacent farm land.  The liquid song of a curlew can be heard as it soars overhead and snipe are drumming over the low lying marshy margins of the residual pools that have been left as the winter flooding of the dune slacks retreats.

    As I walk out across ancient grass covered sand dunes, meadow pipits flit out from under my feet, larks are hovering ahead filling the air with their song (as they have been since January) and there is the distinct accelerating pipping of a descending meadow pipit performing its parachuting display. An elusive grasshopper warbler throws it whir from a rushy area while a sedge warbler is buzzing about on a frenetic song flight. A group of teal take off from under my feet as I approach one of the pools that still retains its winter flood water and a reed bunting is calling from fence post.

    Round the corner, some shelduck are hanging out on another pool and the prehistoric form of a heron is poised ready strike at some unlucky frog. Pulling up on to heathery heath, a stonechat clacks at me and the resident buzzards are mewing overhead. Then I head down to the sandflats at the north of the site where terns have nested in recent years and oystercatchers and ringed plover are settling down to raise their families.

    Later in the summer and into autumn, the terns and osprey arrive, feeding over the Fleet and flocks of linnet and twite will be enjoying the harvest of wild seed provided by Coul Links. As winter approaches, Coul Links continues to provide a refuge for meadow pipits and larks, stone chat, reed bunting, linnets, twite and other finches, snipe, curlew, oystercatchers and other waders as well as teal, wigeon, mallard and shelduck. Meanwhile, the local kites, peregrine and buzzard all take advantage of the wide array of dining opportunities offered by Coul Links.

    Sadly this wildlife paradise is now under threat as it is proposed to construct a golf course across Coul Links replacing the rich undisturbed mosaic of dune habitats with neatly managed greens, fairways and paths. The fragmented remnants of natural habitat that will be persevered will no longer be able to support the rich plant and invertebrate diversity that the bird life depends on. Many of the bird species that currently use the links are intolerant of human disturbance and are likely to disappear during the construction of the golf course, never to return. 

    Scotland has been here before – only a decade ago permission was granted for the Trump International Golf Course in Aberdeenshire despite ours, and many others, objections due to the havoc it would wreck on the protected dunelands there. Unfortunately, the construction of the golf course has caused massive environmental damage. The same mistakes must not be made at Coul Links.

    RSPB Scotland is one of a coalition of conservation organisations, along with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Plantlife, Buglife Scotland, Butterfly Conservation Scotland and the Marine Conservation Society, campaigning to save this site for nature. Please help us by making an objection to the planning application that threatens to destroy Coul Links by emailing eplanning@highland.gov.uk quoting reference number 17/04601/FUL in the subject line. You can also submit comments on the Highland Council website here. The closing date for emails and comments is 22nd December. Visit our casework page for more information on how to make your voice heard, including contacting your local councillors if you are a resident of Highland Council. 

  • The Scottish Government ruling out fracking is a win for climate and wildlife – and for the precautionary principle

    Today the Scottish Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse announced to MSPs the Scottish Government's decision to ban fracking. Here RSPB Scotland's climate and energy senior policy officer Alexa Morrison outlines why we welcome this and what it means for wildlife and climate.

    The Scottish Government ruling out fracking is a win for climate and wildlife – and for the precautionary principle

    Last year, the SNP's manifesto for the Scottish election said there would be no unconventional gas extraction in Scotland "unless it can be proven beyond doubt that there is no risk to health, communities or the environment". This set a very high bar for any unconventional gas extraction to take place under the current Scottish Government, with strong concerns from communities and NGOs about risks to air and water quality, climate targets and wildlife to allay.

    Today, after a lengthy process of research and consultation, the Scottish Government has announced its intention to effectively ban fracking and unconventional gas extraction, enforced through the planning system. Last year, it published a series of commissioned reports on the potential impacts of fracking.  These were clear that the present regulatory regime is not sufficient, and failed to demonstrate that fracking could be done without harming wildlife or without risking our crucial climate targets.

    Given continued uncertainties about impacts – the announcement should be warmly welcomed as a win for the climate and for wildlife. We know that in order to avoid dangerous climate change, the vast majority of remaining fossil fuel reserves are ‘unburnable’. In 2016, the Committee on Climate Change also published a report concluding that fracking is not compatible with Scotland’s climate targets unless robust new regulation is introduced, for example to strictly limit methane leakage.

    We also know from experience that winding up a fossil fuel industry is far from easy – the collapse of open cast coal in Scotland in 2013 highlighted this, with the sudden closure of multiple mines leaving a trail of destruction of unrestored sites and job losses. It is difficult to see how it is possible to open up a ‘new frontier’ of fossil fuels in 2017, and manage it so it is wound down painlessly – with the knowledge that our economy needs to be zero carbon well within the next few decades. We urgently need an exit strategy from our fossil fuel dependence, and this clear statement that fracking will not happen in Scotland is a big step towards a low carbon future.

    Three years ago, the RSPB published its ‘Fit to Frack’ report on the risks of fracking to wildlife in the UK, showing that fracking could lead to significant habitat loss and fragmentation if not strictly regulated. Each well requires 2-3 hectares, site operations are noisy, require thousands of heavy goods vehicle journeys, and can cause light pollution: all of which could disturb sensitive species. The use of chemicals and significant amounts of water could also put local watercourses at risk of pollution or over-abstraction.

    Because of this uncertainty, we are pleased to see the Scottish Government respecting the precautionary principle, which means that threats to health or the environment are taken into account, even in the absence of full scientific certainty. It is a vital part of our armoury in the fight to protect nature, and crucial that it remains at the centre of environmental decision making. The precautionary principle is one of the key foundations of environmental law and is embedded in EU treaties and the UN Rio Declaration. The RSPB is very concerned however that, at present, this fundamental principle is not “carried over” into domestic law by the Withdrawal Bill, which needs to be urgently addressed.

    With moratoriums in place in Wales and Northern Ireland, England is the only UK country where this industry can now progress. The RSPB in England is continuing to call for regulations to be improved to safeguard both wildlife and the climate. Nonetheless, wells are already being drilled under an insufficient regulatory regime. As an energy strategy, there are much cleaner, renewable energy alternatives to fracking that can deliver meaningful emissions cuts, and we know from our ‘RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision’ that through careful spatial planning a high renewable energy future can be achieved at low risk to wildlife.

    We hope the UK government will take note of this decision by the Scottish Government, and reassess its strategy to move towards a low carbon future, in harmony with nature.

    You can read our response to the Scottish Government's announcement here

  • Forth & Tay Judicial Review: what we believe is at stake?

    RSPB Scotland's head of planning and development Aedán Smith sets out what we believe is at stake with regard to the Judicial Review into the Forth and Tay offshore windfarms.

    Forth & Tay Judicial Review: what we believe is at stake?

    As previously reported RSPB Scotland has applied to the Supreme Court for permission to appeal the Inner House, Court of Session Opinion on our Judicial Review of the decisions by Scottish Ministers to consent four offshore wind projects in the Firth of Forth in 2014. In light of recent press articles and adverts I wanted to reflect on how and why we have reached this unfortunate milestone. 

    As noted before (see here and here) we have been involved in these Firth of Forth offshore wind projects right from their inception during the mid to late 2000s, driven by our desire to see renewables deployed in harmony with nature. At every step along the applications process we have been clear that the Firth of Forth region is a fantastically rich and important place for our seabirds and accordingly these sensitivities must be accounted for when deciding the future of the large commercial scale offshore wind farms.  It is clear that the 2014 consent decisions fell short of considering these sensitivities – in some instances dramatically so. 

    We were not only profoundly disappointed with the Inner House Opinion in May but more importantly extremely concerned about the precedents that this Opinion could set. Not just for protected seabird colonies in the Firth of Forth, but for how it could substantially reduce the protection afforded to our most special and protected places for wildlife elsewhere in Scotland and across the rest of the UK.

    We thought hard about these precedents and what major risks they present, before seeking permission to appeal the Inner House Opinion. In the future, decision-makers may rely on the Inner House’s findings, which could:

    -          erode the level of protection offered to our most special sites and species;

    -          undermine the objectives and purpose of environmental impact assessments and the opportunity for public engagement in this process; and

    -          reduce the importance of expert advice provided by Government’s own appointed regulatory experts, the statutory nature conservation advisors.

    Given these risks we were once again in a position where we felt we had no alternative but to seek permission to continue the legal proceedings. 

    In our efforts to secure the long term survival of Scotland’s protected seabirds that breed and forage on its east coast, we have exposed these fundamental shortfalls that put at risk the sustainable progress of not only offshore renewables but also other potentially damaging development whether at sea or on land.

    Separate to the legal proceedings and the consent decisions taken in 2014, each of the Firth of Forth developers are taking advantage of advances in turbine technology. All three are progressing with new design proposals comprising larger, fewer turbines, which will help reduce the potential impacts. RSPB Scotland is working constructively with each developer, Marine Scotland (the licensing authority) and Scottish Natural Heritage on these new proposals and we await the imminent applications. As in 2014, our objectives remain the same – to see renewables developed in harmony with nature. Our support for renewables, including offshore wind, remains undiminished, however projects must be well sited and designed to avoid exacerbating an existing environmental problem, long term seabird declines, whilst trying to solve another, climate change emissions.