May, 2018

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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.
  • Championing the Curlew in Scotland

    All this month we are highlighting the plight of curlews in the UK. As part of this we're taking a look at what Lewis Macdonald MSP, species champion for curlew in Scotland, has been doing to help the species. 

    Championing the Curlew in Scotland

    In Scotland our species champion for the curlew is Lewis Macdonald, Member of Scottish Parliament for North East Scotland Region. Since first signing up to the project in 2016 Lewis has been a great advocate for curlew conservation, speaking about the curlew at any opportunity in Scottish Parliament, in his local community and on social media.

    Last summer, Lewis joined us at a visit to Loch of Strathbeg in Aberdeenshire, an internationally important wetland site, to learn about (and join in with!) our habitat conservation work for curlews.

    Species champions in Scottish Parliament are invaluable assets for the species they represent, and we have been delighted to have someone as engaged as Lewis championing the curlew. Lewis’s enthusiasm going forwards will no doubt be instrumental for ensuring that the curlew remains high on the Scottish policy agenda, a species which has declined by 62% between 1994 and 2016.

    Ahead of Curlew Crisis month, we asked Lewis about his species champion role and why it’s so important to have politicians as advocates for species in the Scottish Parliament. Here’s what he had to say.

    What does being a species champion mean to you?

    Championing a species so well-known yet under threat as the curlew is something I really value. The curlew is a bird of both hill and shore, and so it is a strong symbol of the wealth of nature in North East Scotland and further afield. Our ability to sustain species like the curlew will be a good measure of our commitment to our natural environment in this age of climate change.

    Why do you think it’s important to have species champions in Parliament?

    Elected politicians are almost as diverse as the species we champion and, for a Parliament which wants to reflect the diversity of human society, supporting bio-diversity is a natural fit. The days when we could take our wildlife or our natural environments for granted are long gone, and no-one is better placed to identify what can be done to promote wild Scotland than MSPs.

    What have you done to support Curlew conservation and advocacy?

    I have spoken in debates, attended events and photo-opportunities, and visited places of importance to the success of the curlew in breeding in Scotland. I have promoted the curlew in press work, I have included conservation efforts in regional reports which I circulate to households in the North East, and I advertise my support for the curlew in my regional office in Aberdeen.

    What’s your favourite thing about the Curlew?

    I like a lot of things about the curlew, but I guess most of all I like its hardiness. A bird which can keep its poise in all kinds of conditions on Scotland’s moors and coasts has to be admired for its persistence. The new challenges it faces are largely a result of human activity, so now is the time to give the curlew the support it so deserves.

  • Echos of Kitticks

    Peadar O'Connell, our Marine Policy Officer, recalls an evening’s kayak paddle by Marwick Head in Orkney and the seabirds that make a home there.

    Echos of Kitticks

    We launch from the shell strewn sands, slipping over the recently submerged seaweed on a subsiding tide, whilst oystercatchers alarm indignantly, their peace temporarily shattered. As we skirt around the cliffs the gentle swell rebounds off the monolithic structures resulting in a two pronged attack, steady! It’s pretty calm but the Atlantic is never silent, never truly still, waves crash over nearby reefs and rocky outcrops creating unpredictable explosions of fuming white water. Best to avoid those I think...

    Beneath are 30 odd meters of marine ‘stuff’, too dark to see but it’s there, in dusky gloom a resplendent multitude of the strange, the beautiful and the outer worldly. As I float there I’m always expecting the unexpected… In my mind leviathans and sea monsters abound. The sea glistens, not a whitecap to be seen but a blazing diamond on each ripple, we are rich beyond words.

    The sea echoes in deep dark caves in the near distance, huge hollows carved out of soft red rocks by the ceaseless onslaught over a plethora of millennia. These amplified sounds of thunder, a constant reminder of wildness in the serenity of a calm sea. And above, against a backdrop of fading blues and burning pinks, the sky dances!

    The performers? Mallimacks, kitticks, baukies, aaks, skarts, tysties, tammie norries, whitemaas, baackies, sulas, bonxies and graceful scootie-allans - local Northern Isle names for fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, shags, black guillemots, puffins, herring gulls, great back-backed gulls, gannets, great skuas and Arctic skuas. Names that evoke images of the fantastical, that originate from a romanticised past. Humans like to name things, but names are artificial, I wonder does it make us feel more in control of the irrepressible, or maybe it helps us feel separate, superior? Sitting in this boat with the vast Atlantic behind me, and the skies alive around me I feel totally insignificant.

    To my left I can see the tall dark outline of the tower. A memorial to those who lost their lives on a British navy ship that steamed into a mine on a savage night in 1916. I’ve been to that memorial numerous times, it is right in the midldle of an RSPB Scotland reserve where I used to work. Many sailors ended up dying not from the blast but in the tumultuous seas. But now it’s calm.

    There is life on the cliffs here, but they used to throng. As recently as the start of the millennium, when the last seabird census of Britain and Ireland was carried out there were thousands more seabirds clinging to the precipitous ledges. Life at sea is hard and pressures are mounting, many seabird “cities” are now no more than fractured villages, motorways reduced to B-roads. The cliffs are such an incredible sight but they are incomplete, damaged.

    We often form a picture in our heads informed by our youth of how it should be, in ecology this is called ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ and often limits our ambitions for recovery, being less and less ambitious with our targets with every generation. It saddens me to think an 18 year old Orcadian seeing these cliff today will have formed a picture in their heads of how it should be… 90% less than what it was when they were born!

    We know many of the reasons for the decline in seabirds and we know what some of the solutions are. There are lots of pressures, all of which can be linked to human activities. Human induced climate change is already reshaping the seas around the UK, this could lead to catastrophic changes if ‘tipping points’ are reached like the slowing of the Gulf Stream. To reverse declines in seabirds our government needs to fulfil our legal obligations but, as a society, we also need to see the importance of prioritising the recovery of wild animals and plants. There are moral reasons but ultimately we know that our life on this planet depends entirely on the existence of other living things.

    Crashing waves and seabird calls fill the air, a cooling salty breeze snaps me out of my imaginings. As we head for home a mallimack glides past, the albatross of Scotland, I’ll call it Alba, it doesn’t care!

    I was asked recently what my best seabird experience was. I thought about it, I thought of the time I kayaked around Marwick Head on Orkney, the seabirds were mesmerising, but the cliffs, the sea, the sounds, smells and, even though I was in a group, the feeling of solitude, have all stayed with me, my little boat and I were a very small part of a glorious ecosystem that I still feel privileged to have been part of.

    The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) are looking for volunteers to carry out a breeding seabird census this year and next. If you think you can help please get in touch at or check out their website.

    Knowing how many seabirds are in Britain and Ireland is critical to identifying where we need to prioritise conservation, particularly as pressures increase but resources decrease, and this is only possible with your help. There are indications that there have been massive declines; since the last census that ran from 1998 to 2002, a 90% decline of kittiwakes in Marwick is just one example.

  • Help push for a strong Climate Change Act – our wildlife needs it

    Help push for a strong Climate Change Act – our wildlife needs it

    Last week the Scottish Government introduced the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill to the Scottish Parliament. The Bill sets new targets for emission reductions but it’s not enough to meet the threat faced by wildlife and people in Scotland and around the world.

    Our precious wildlife is suffering now from global warming and climate change. Our seabirds especially are struggling as seas warm, the marine environment changes and their food sources become scarce. RSPB Scotland is therefore working with our partners in the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland (SCCS) coalition to call on MSPs to set more ambitious targets in the new Bill. The Scottish Government have not listened to the huge number of voices, at home and internationally, calling for a stronger commitment so it’s imperative that we tell our MSPs who now hold the power to make changes to the legislation

    As the Bill progresses through the Scottish Parliament, stakeholders, the public and politicians will have the opportunity to input into discussions on what Scotland’s future on climate change action should be. Read on to find out more and how you can ensure your voice is heard!

    Scotland has long prided itself on being a forward-looking nation. Ambition on climate change has been no exception with world leading targets set in the 2009 Climate Change Act. The new Climate Change Bill was a real opportunity to keep Scotland on the map as a leader on climate targets and action. Unfortunately the Scottish Government’s Bill is hugely disappointing as it only commits Scotland to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90% by 2050. This decision ignores the calls of more than 19,000 people who asked Government to go further and commit to a 100% reduction by 2050. At RSPB Scotland we supported this along with a wide variety of organisations and experts.

    This is not a call to have no emissions whatsoever, but a target to have net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. This means a balance between emissions sources and absorption.

    A 100% reduction in emissions would give us more certainty that we are meeting our commitments under the Paris Agreement. This international treaty seeks to limit warming to 1.5oC. To do so, it calls on developed countries to reach zero emissions, in line with the principles of climate justice that those most responsible for, and that may have benefitted from the causes of, climate change should have more of accountability in limiting global warming.

    A net-zero target is a tough ambition, but it is what is required to tackle such a huge threat. As a global community we must steer clear of dangerous levels of global warming - once we reach the 2oC mark, the world will face seriously detrimental effects:

    -          30% of animals and plant species will be at “increasingly high risk of extinction”

    -          The sea level will rise by 50cm resulting in extensive flooding

    -          Freshwater sources could decline by 20%

    -          Crop yields will decrease significantly

    -          Droughts and heatwaves will intensify

    These are just a few of the major changes we could face, and therefore we need to be truly aspirational when it comes to committing to doing our fair share.

    MSPs now have opportunity to improve the Bill during its progress through Parliament and set the targets needed. SCCS have set up an e-Action to ask your MSPs to push for changes - complete the e-Action here.

    If you’d like to get more involved in your region, SCCS are running a series of Climate Action workshops throughout June. Find further details and how to sign up here.

    Make your voice heard for #OorFuture