Scottish Nature Notes

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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.
  • Scotland's mountain hares

    Mountain hares are Scotland's only native member of the Lagomorpha family and are known for their coats turning white during winter. Here James Silvey, RSPB Scotland's Species and Habitats Officer, takes a look at what needs to be done to ensure the long term future of these mammals here. 

    Scotland's mountain hares

    A mountain hare in its winter coat

    On the 26th January the long awaited SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage) commissioned piece of research detailing effective methods for monitoring mountain hares was published. This work, carried out by the James Hutton Institute in collaboration with both SNH and GWCT (Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust) provided a clear steer on how to monitor hares in open habitats either directly (counting the hares themselves at night by spotlight or thermal imager) or indirectly (counting hare dung pellets as a proxy for the hares themselves).

    This may at first appear to be an incidental piece of research but until now an agreed approach of how to monitor hares had not been established and therefore the crucial question of, “how are mountain hares faring in Scotland?” could not be answered.

    Mountain hares are a quarry species meaning it is legal to kill them during the open season (1st August – 28/29th February). The reasons for killing mountain hares are varied but mainly include sport shooting, protecting young trees from browsing hares and preventing the spread of disease-carrying ticks. RSPB Scotland takes a neutral view on the first, accepts that the second may sometimes be necessary but, in the case of the last one, conclude that there is no evidence that it serves any useful purpose.

    Despite this, every year on grouse moors across Scotland thousands of hares are killed in the misguided attempt to reduce tick numbers (ticks feed on mountain hares) and thus reduce the transmission of a disease known as louping ill, carried by ticks, to red grouse. The theory is that by reducing the number of mountain hares, red grouse numbers will increase resulting in more grouse to shoot at the end of the summer, nevertheless there is NO scientific evidence to justify this form of management.

    A mountain hare in its summer coat

    At present, and in the absence of a standardised monitoring method for mountain hares, grouse moor managers use intuition to estimate the numbers of hares on the moor in any given year and the same process for how many can be shot to reduce the population to a level that they believe will benefit the grouse by the removal of a tick host. The numbers that are actually killed across Scotland are unknown as there is no legal obligation for anyone to report these figures to statutory organisations such as SNH and as such we have no indication of how mountain hares are faring in Scotland, if the management is sustainable, or if the overall population is stable, increasing or declining.

    This is worrying in itself but it is even more concerning considering that mountain hares are actually afforded some form of legal protection in the form of the Habitats Directive where they are listed as an Annex V species. As such the Scottish Government must report to Europe on the status of mountain hares and maintain them in favourable condition.  In the last report to Europe the Scottish Government did just that, reporting that mountain hares were in favourable condition despite the fact nobody knew how many hares there were, the status of the population, or how many hares were killed annually.

    To address the important question of mountain hare status in Scotland and to safeguard the long term future of mountain hares RSPB Scotland would like to see;

    • A moratorium on the mass culling of mountain hares until such time as there is a credible picture of their population trends and status; at the moment there is simply no way of knowing the impact of such culls and it is reckless to allow them to continue
    • An independent enquiry is currently investigating how grouse moors can be managed sustainably and within the law. We advocate the introduction of a licensing system for "driven" grouse shooting, which would include appropriate safeguards for mountain hares
    • A national, annual monitoring programme for mountain hares to be rolled out across the species’ range in Scotland and the results of these surveys submitted annually to SNH.
    • Land managers who are undertaking mountain hare management to undertake surveys of the species before any management takes place. The results of these surveys as well as proposed numbers to be killed, and actual numbers killed should be submitted to SNH.
    • SNH should report on the national and local trends of mountain hares as soon as enough data has been gathered and then annually thereafter to make sure that mountain hares are in favourable condition across their range.
    • SNH should use the data collected from land managers that are controlling mountain hares to report on the effects that population scale control has on local and national populations.
    • SNH should be consulted on any form of hare management that occurs within a protected area for species that relies on mountain hare as a food source, i.e. golden eagles.

     Mountain hares are an important part of our upland natural heritage – let’s keep them that way.

  • Year of Young People: Plan-It Jam

    2018 is the Year of Young People in Scotland. Here Jasper Hamlet, our Youth and Families Officer, takes a look at some of the ways RSPB Scotland will be joining in with this including an exciting Plan-It Jam taking place next month.

    Year of Young People: Plan-It Jam

    Image: Paul Gault, Young Scot

    “The world now has the largest generation of young people in history. I place great hope in their power to shape our future…” These words were spoken by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon whilst speaking at an event 2015. Young people are important and at RSPB Scotland we know that too. 

    If you didn’t already know, 2018 is the Year of Young People in Scotland. Part of the Scottish government’s initiative of themed years, this year is aimed at inspiring Scotland through its young people, recognising the contribution young people make to our communities and celebrating their achievements in all areas of society.

    An exciting year for someone who is involved in our youth work at RSPB Scotland! This year is a perfect opportunity to shout about the fantastic work RSPB Scotland does with young people across the country but also challenge the way we work with them and capitalise on the galvanisation of Scottish youth and other organisations to change the way we work with young people, inspire them to create a world richer in nature and act creatively to develop new ways of thinking around involving young people within our work. So what are we doing?

    We are kicking off our involvement in YOYP18 with a partnership between RSPB Scotland and Young Scot, to create a youth jam event – “Plan-It Jam”.  We are inviting 30-40 young people from across Scotland to share their ideas, thoughts and solutions on how we can create support for nature – Using the powerful tool of co-design, this full day of discussion and brainstorming will provide us with a snapshot of how Scottish youth engage with nature, and will feed into the refreshed RSPB Youth Strategy to help to keep our thinking on track and in tune with young people. We are prepared for some frank conversations about what they really think about nature, and in return we will challenge them to come up with new ideas and innovative solutions with the overall aim of improving how we communicate and work more effectively with young people. We know we won’t get all the answers but we hope this event will act as a springboard, launching us into increased and better informed involvement with 16 – 25 year olds in Scotland.

    Our event is open to young people aged 16-25, details about it can be found here. If this sounds like something you or someone you know would be interested in being part of do apply!

    Elsewhere across the country we are already undertaking fantastic projects with young people and we want to make sure that the efforts of young people in conservation is recognised. From developing pollinator highways with a school group (the Queen Bees) in Glasgow to working alongside pupils in Skye to develop family, self-led activities on the island, showing the positive contribution that young people, volunteers and communities can play in saving nature will be essential. We’re also looking forward to celebrating the contribution of young people in saving nature at the Nature of Scotland Awards 2018.

    This is only the start. So please spread the word, share your stories, engage with our social media and join our events across the year. For those of you who wish to know more or have ideas and contributions you would like highlighted please contact me on jasper.hamlet@rspb.org.uk

    More information can also be found here http://yoyp2018.scot/ and we are using the year’s hashtag, #YOYP2018, on social media.

  • Show The Love: climate change and seabirds

    Climate change is happening now and affecting the things we love. As part of Show The Love week we are looking at how nature, in particular seas and seabirds around Scotland’s coasts, is being affected. In the first blog Peadar O’Connell looked at exactly what climate change is and why it is such a threat to our much loved wildlife. The second blog focused at what impact it is having on our seas. In this final blog Peadar addresses the impacts of climate change on seabirds.

    Show The Love: climate change and seabirds

    The sounds are fading from our coasts and cliffs; climate change is having frightening impacts on seabirds around the globe. 

    Seabirds are the most threatened group of birds in the world. In the past couple of years two more Scottish seabirds (puffin and kittiwake) have joined the long-tailed duck, velvet scoter and Leach’s storm petrel on a list of species that are at a “high risk of global extinction”. To put that into perspective this list also contains panda bears and snow leopards. There are also six species of UK seabirds on the national Red list with puffins, kittiwakes and shags recently added. Since 1986, the breeding numbers of the 12 regularly monitored species of seabirds in Scotland declined by 50% (in just 30 years!) and there have been huge declines in individual species like kittiwakes (72%), shags (68%) and Arctic skuas (76%). The results of these declines is easy to see, the cliffs are growing quiet. There are many reasons why this is happening with seabirds facing many different pressures but maybe the most insidious of all is climate change.

    The prehistoric looking shags, suffering huge declines due to increasingly violent winter storms.

    Today, climate change is affecting seabirds principally in two ways that we know of. Indirectly by changing the availability of prey for seabirds and directly by causing more severe storms in both the summer breeding season and in the winter. As mentioned in the previous blogs (here and here) in this series, climate change is implicated in more extreme weather events; this includes stronger storms and more rainfall. This is bad news for seabirds, which often live on the edge of the possible even during the good times. This increases the risk to birds nesting on cliff edges and along the coast where their nests can be washed away. More regular winter storms are thought to be the main driver of the decline in shags. Severe weather also makes finding and catching food more difficult and can cause chicks to die of exposure.

    Kittiwakes are globally threatened. In Scotland they suffer from changes to their food supply as well as the risk of their nests being washed away during summer storms.

    A less obvious impact of climate change is the impacts of increasing temperature and acidification on the marine food web. What is becoming very clear is that some species of seabirds including puffins and kittiwakes are struggling to find enough food to feed their chicks in certain parts of Scotland. This can be more or less severe in different years, for example there have been years of nearly complete breeding failure in the Northern Isles leading to fewer birds in the following years. But what’s causing this? It seems that changes in the ocean temperatures around the UK are affecting the primary prey of some of these seabirds, the sandeel. Sandeels are small silvery fish that, as their name suggests, spend a lot of their time buried in the sand in waters up to about 100m deep. Seabirds on the east and north coast of Scotland especially seem to rely heavily on these fish to feed their young chicks. Sandeels have declined, at least in parts of Scotland, and have become more difficult for the seabirds to find. Check out RSPB’s Project Puffin website for some fascinating citizen science research into the diet of puffins carried out last summer, plus some photos of puffins.

    A puffin with a bill full of sandeels from the Isle of May, some populations, such as those in the Northern Isles, are struggling to find enough food to feed their chicks.

    Sandeels bury themselves in the sand over most of the winter and do not feed. They survive on their fat stores by slowing their metabolism, similar to bats or hedgehogs in winter. However, the temperature increases due to climate change is affecting their ability to retain a slow metabolism over this period. A higher metabolism means they use up their fat reserves more quickly and don’t have the energy to breed or perhaps even survive to the summer. On top of this the food sandeels prefer to eat (a nutritious cold water plankton called Calanus finmarchicus) is being replaced by less nutritious species as the temperatures rise, and if that wasn’t bad enough the plankton that is taking over has a different life history so it is not abundant enough at the right time of year for the sandeels to feed on. So, we have changes in the environment leading to changes in the plankton that affects the sandeel that impacts on the seabirds and that is before we even look at the other pressures affecting seabirds, sandeels, plankton and their habitats.

    The impacts of climate change are obviously not restricted to Scotland. Seabirds all around the north Atlantic are in decline; puffins in Iceland have all but disappeared from previous strongholds due to a lack of food. In the Antarctic things are just as bad; penguins are heavily dependent on cold conditions and as temperatures rise there have been huge declines in some species (10 of the 18 species are at risk of extinction) as they struggle to find food and suitable breeding locations. Low-lying islands, the last refuges for millions of seabirds, are sinking beneath rising sea levels and storms, particularly in the Pacific and Indian oceans. The list, unfortunately, goes on.

    Terns are at particular risk of their nesting sites being flooded by rising sea levels. Arctic terns are also heavily dependent on sandeels to feed their chicks and have undergone huge declines in Orkney and Shetland.

    So, what can be done to help seabirds? Along with others we have been working to give seabirds the best possible chance to adapt to the changes that are already occurring but this is extremely challenging as seabird protection requires government commitments, proper resourcing and diverse stakeholder participation.

    Primarily seabirds need three things to help make them more resilient to climate change: safe places to breed, safe places to feed and the ability to survive into adulthood. Island restoration and the eradication of invasive predatory species (like mice and rats) introduced by man onto islands can increase the resilience of seabird colonies giving them a far stronger opportunity to cope with other changes and hardships. Biosecurity measures are vital to keep these invasive predators off the islands in the first place. Marine protected areas provide safe havens so long as they are managed effectively and resourced appropriately so that monitoring and enforcement can take place. These areas can protect both breeding and feeding areas for seabirds.

    An ecosystem approach to both fisheries and marine planning ensures economic gain isn’t prioritised over sustainable and healthy environments, which underpins all marine activities. For example, we must ensure fishing for small fish like sandeel doesn’t increase the pressure on the birds, sea mammals and larger fish that rely on them. When planning developments like renewable energy infrastructure, which is vital to achieving a low-carbon economy, we must ensure turbines are placed in suitable areas so that seabird populations and other marine life are not put at risk – this is all possible. The only way we can save our seabirds, marine life and ultimately ourselves is to do something about climate change before it is too late, and that means now!

    Although it is easy to start to feel like climate change is too big to deal with, it is not – we have the technology at our disposal, but we need to change our behaviour. We also need to convince our governments to act, and fast. Otherwise, we will be entering a world that is unrecognisable to those of us alive today, and the scale of biodiversity loss will be immense.

    If we do not make tough demands of our governments they will not deliver the necessary actions, so it is critical that we all become informed, involved and act to address this threat. A first step is to Show the Love by making, wearing and sharing a green heart. There are lots of other things to do here to show family, friends and your elected representatives that you care.

    Later this year, in Scotland, the Scottish Government will be introducing a new Climate Bill to the Holyrood Parliament. We, and our seabirds, need the new emissions targets in this Bill to be ambitious and world-leading, and for it to include strong new action to reduce those emissions to zero by mid-century. Please look out for our Climate Bill campaign work later this year and our partner Stop Climate Chaos Scotland’s website – and keep showing the love for all you hold dear that you don’t want to lose because of climate change.