The Shiant Isles: a safe haven for Scotland’s seabirds
All this week we are celebrating our most special places for nature by bringing you a series of exciting blogs about Scotland’s amazing protected areas. Today Charlie Main, Shiant Isles Seabird Recovery Project Manager, tells us about the Shiant Isles - a remote haven for Scotland’s seabirds - and the hugely successful rat eradication project that has secured the future of these wonderful birds.
Credit: John Tayton
Protected Areas Week is a great moment to highlight some of the conservation successes that have recently been seen at the beautiful and remote Shiant Isles, northwest Scotland. These islands are designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and provide essential breeding habitat for hundreds of thousands of seabirds, including an estimated 63,000 pairs of puffins. That makes these islands the second largest puffin colony in the UK after St Kilda.
Once the seabirds have all arrived at the islands in late spring, the breeding colonies become a cacophony of incredible sound. Thousands of birds wheeling overhead with the rest tending to their eggs and chicks, or rafting on the water nearby. It is nature in full glory.
RSPB Scotland has led a successful, four-year partnership project with the Nicolson family (who own the islands) and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the aims being to safeguard seabird breeding habitat in the protected areas from predation by invasive species, to actively attract petrels to nest there and to enhance UK-wide training and expertise in biosecurity and eradications for conservation purposes. Biosecurity is the series of measures put in place to keep sites free of invasive species like rats, stoats or mink once these predators have been removed. It includes awareness raising, careful packing of food and gear going out to islands and regular monitoring to provide early detection of any fresh invasions.
Credit: Will Rose - Greenpeace
Funding for the project was initially sought from the EU, with match funding made up by SNH and private donations to the RSPB. Almost half of the project’s million pound budget was allocated to eradicating a population of invasive, non-native black rats Rattus rattus from the whole island group of the Shiants. Wildlife Management International Ltd – a New Zealand based company with an impressive record of global success on such projects – were contracted to lead the operation.
The main eradication campaign was undertaken over the winter of 2015-16, but it was only in March 2018 that we were finally able to officially declare the islands rat free. This exciting and proud announcement followed two years of regular monitoring for rats at the islands culminating in a month-long thorough search for any remaining rats in February 2018.
Scotland is home to over a third of Europe’s nesting seabirds, but many big threats, including ground predation by invasive species, habitat encroachment, pollution, fisheries and climate change have caused 30-year population declines and are all pushing seabirds onto remote outposts like the Shiant Isles. Work is needed to address all of these threats and protected areas play a key role in this, providing seabirds with breeding habitat, and access to productive feeding areas so they can successfully rear their chicks.
With the main eradication campaign done, we set about a second phase of the project, to attract petrels to the islands. The nearest protected area for storm petrels is Priest Island, which lies about 25 miles north of the Shiants. The nearest protected site for Manx shearwater is the Isle of Rum, around 90 miles to the south. From 2016 we deployed sound-lure equipment at the Shiants, playing the calls of European storm petrel and Manx shearwater out to sea at night between May and August. In June 2017 we recorded for the first time adult storm petrels – calling from within potential breeding habitat high on the rocky slopes of Garbh Eilean, the largest of the Shiant Isles. We could not be certain that this was a breeding attempt, but the signs were very encouraging and we are going back in this season to continue this work.
How will the islands stay rat free? This remains the last big challenge of the project, and for the islands’ owners and visitors in the future once the project ends. We have begun a programme of awareness and training on the biosecurity practices relevant to island owners, reserve managers and stakeholders in conservation. The training is aimed at giving the right people the tools and knowledge to be able to keep island havens like the Shiants rat free.
Only one rat returning to the Shiants would be enough to found a new population of seabird predators, if a pregnant female. That may seem unlikely, with the Shiants lying around four miles off the nearest land and therefore too far for a rat to swim, but any of the many vessels visiting the islands or passing close by could unintentionally transport a rat there.
It has been a great relief to successfully get over the first hurdle and declare the islands rat free, but the long struggle to keep them that way has only just begun. We can do this. By working together, we’ll ensure that protected areas like the Shiants will remain safe places for future generations of seabirds to breed.
Protecting special sites to save the curlew
All this week we are celebrating our most special places for nature by bringing you a series of exciting blogs about Scotland’s amazing protected areas. Today we hear from Isobel Mercer, RSPB Scotland Policy Officer, about why we need for more nature sites to protect the wonderful curlew.
Curlew, credit: Andy Hay
As well as being Protected Areas Week it is also Curlew Crisis Month, giving us the perfect opportunity to talk about why we need more special sites to protect the wonderful curlew.
The Eurasian curlew is one of our most easily recognisable and best loved wading bird species in the UK, but it is in serious trouble – we have lost half of our breeding curlews since 1990.
Protected areas are extremely important for curlews, which have suffered from habitat loss as activities like agriculture, forestry and development have increased in areas that are suitable for them to live and breed. Curlews rely on coastal wetlands and wet grasslands and moorlands; sites created to protect curlews can conserve these habitats, allowing populations to be maintained or recover. This leads to more successful breeding rates over time.
Breeding curlews are already protected by a number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in the UK. It is vital that these sites are well-managed for the curlews that they protect, and that work is undertaken to better connect these sites with other protected areas.
This is a great start but we need to do more. There are currently no Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for breeding curlews in Scotland. SPAs, which are recognised as being internationally important and are protected under European law. They offer the strongest level of protection from development and other land-use change. The species and habitats in SPAs can only be harmed in very specific and rare circumstances, and even then any damage must be properly compensated for. As a European migratory species, curlews qualify to be protected by this type of nature site. However, although some SPAs have been classified for non-breeding curlews the lack of SPAs for breeding curlews is a serious oversight given that the UK is home to more than a quarter of all the world’s breeding curlews.
Curlew, credit: Eleanor Bentall
A review of the UK SPA network was carried out in 2016, and found significant gaps for a number of species, including breeding curlew. The Scottish Government needs to uphold its international responsibility to protect these wonderful birds by identifying hotspots for breeding curlews in Scotland and classifying them as SPAs. We mustn’t lose the beautiful bubbling call of the curlew from our countryside.
Click here to learn more about the plight of the curlew, and what we can do to save them.
You can help curlews by donating to our Curlew Just Giving page. All the money will go directly to fund habitat management work, specifically designed to meet the needs of curlew.
The call of the corncrake and the magic of the machair
All this week we are celebrating our most special places for nature by bringing you a series of exciting blogs about Scotland’s amazing protected areas. Today we hear from Jamie Boyle, Site Manager at our Balranald Reserve, about the wonderful relationship between corncrakes and traditional farming techniques within this unique protected site.
It’s early morning in May and the rattling calls of the first arriving corncrakes and a multitude of displaying waders can be heard over the wet fields of Balranald Nature Reserve. The reserve is situated on the west of the island of North Uist and is unusual for an RSPB reserve, because we do not manage the site ourselves.
Instead, the crofters manage this heavily protected area and under their management the wildlife thrives. This site is a wonderful demonstration that protected areas and other land uses do not have to be mutually exclusive and that, in the right circumstances and with admirable partnership working, they can go hand in hand in a beautiful symbiotic relationship that works for people and for nature.
The whole of the reserve receives a triple-level of protection, for being important at national, European and international scales. The site is particularly special for its breeding corncrakes and species of wading bird along with the botanical interest of the machair and the fantastic wetlands. Machair is a unique type of globally rare coastal grassland that is famous for its transformation into a jewelled carpet of wildflowers during the summer months – in fact almost 70% of the world’s machair is found in the Outer Hebrides.
Corncrake singing in nettles by Cliff Reddick
The reserve is split into about forty crofts, and each croft is made up of parcels of land that are scattered throughout the reserve. The low input farming practiced within these crofts is still fairly traditional and consists of cattle and sheep farming. The machinery is modern but practices stay the same. This is demonstrated in the management of the arable crops on the machair. Areas are cultivated on a four year rotation with two years of crops followed by two years fallow with almost no herbicides or pesticides used. Fertilizers are mostly artificial although some crofters still use seaweed, in keeping with tradition. Artificial fertilizers have enabled the crofters to cultivate larger areas and keep higher numbers of stock. The crops here are harvested as winter feed for the cattle.
An attractive mosaic is formed by this unique combination of arable and grass crops which are mixed in with the fallow areas and wetlands. Corncrakes move between the grass and arable areas, although they rarely nest in the corn, adults and their young use the area to hide and feed in.
Clover and vetches first year fallow by Jamie Boyle
A haze of activity is being undertaken on the machair as crofters finish their cultivations. Tractors are moving up and down ploughing, harrowing, sowing and rolling. By mid-May all cultivation work will be completed and all the animals will be moved off the machair to other parts of the croft or the hill grazings. This leaves the crops to grow on the machair and allows all the uncultivated areas and fallows to start their flower blooming season. Under carefully managed township rules, no animals will be allowed back until all the crops have been harvested. This gives the area a long summer break from grazing and allows the incredible wildflower spectacle to flourish for over four months. The prolonged growing season also gives the corncrakes a fighting chance of raising two all-important broods, before leaving on their journey back to their African winter home.