Why we challenged the Forth and Tay windfarms
Here Lloyd Austin, Head of Conservation Policy at RSPB Scotland, takes us through why the organisation decided to legally challenge the Forth and Tay windfarms.
Scotland’s seas are filled with spectacular wildlife from basking sharks to orcas, fulmars to arctic terns. The waters and coastline around the country are home to globally important populations of seabirds including iconic breeding colonies of gannets, kittiwakes and puffins, at protected sites such as the Bass Rock, part of the Forth Islands Special Protection Area, or the RSPB Scotland reserve at Fowlsheugh (also a Special Protection Area).
In October 2014, Scottish Ministers approved consents for four offshore windfarms in the Firths of Forth and Tay with a combined total of 335 turbines. RSPB Scotland had consistently raised concerns about these plans and formally objected to them, believing they posed too great a risk to the many thousands of resident and migratory seabirds found in these areas. Whilst the precise impacts of having large wind farms close to these colonies are uncertain, the Scottish Government’s own estimates were that more than a thousand gannets, and many hundreds of kittiwakes and puffins would be killed every year – an unprecedented scale of impact not just in Scotland but globally.
RSPB Scotland legally challenged these consents in January 2015. We took the difficult decision to go to Court very much as a last resort, having worked hard for several years with Government and the developers hoping to find a way forward – recognising the opportunities that offshore wind provides to help tackle climate change.
Last week, on 19th July, the Court of Session upheld our legal challenge with the Judge, Lord Stewart concluding that the consents were not lawful on a number of grounds. The Government may choose to appeal the Court’s decisions, and the consents could be reconsidered. However, at the moment, these particular windfarms as proposed cannot go ahead.
There were several points we challenged, but in summary, the Judge agreed that key requirements of the environmental assessment processes were not met, including a failure to consult properly, and a failure to provide reasons why Scottish Ministers rejected the advice of their own statutory nature conservation advisors, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee when granting the consents.
Although we welcome the judgment, we by no means relish it.
We need to move to low carbon energy rapidly to tackle climate change – itself a major threat to wildlife – and therefore it is never satisfying to have to oppose renewable energy proposals.
However, we also strongly believe we must achieve this ‘energy revolution’ in harmony with nature. This means putting renewables in the right places, and rigorously assessing impacts. No development should be allowed to have a ‘free pass’.
We welcome the Minister’s commitment to work with us and the developers to progress renewables in harmony with nature. By no means do the Forth and Tay projects represent the entire Scottish offshore wind industry. Projects are progressing in the Moray Firth and Aberdeen Bay, and proposals are coming forward to test floating wind turbines. This technology presents a major opportunity in the longer-term, as it could enable development in deeper waters, further away from sensitive wildlife.
We also continue to support other forms of renewable energy, where Scotland has made good progress. In May this year, we published ‘The RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision’, which set out a pathway for meeting our climate targets in a nature-friendly way. It showed Scotland has the capacity to increase onshore wind by three times, and solar capacity by thirty times current levels without causing major concerns for our fantastic and world renowned wildlife and habitats. This illustrates the options available for major growth in renewables to help decarbonise our energy system.
We know how important renewable energy is for Scotland and the UK as a whole, for both people and nature, and we will continue to support it. We will also continue to fight for wildlife as it faces increasing and more complex pressures. These two things can, and must, go hand in hand in a sustainable society.
Shiants episode six: The next phase begins
Welcome to the sixth instalment of our work on the Shiant Isles Recovery Project from Alex Kekewich. The project is an initiative to remove non-native black rats from the isles in order to provide safe breeding sites for Scotland’s globally important seabird colonies. It is part funded by the EU LIFE+ programme and is a partnership between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Nicolson family, who have been the custodians of the Shiant Isles for three generations.
Since our last blog lots has happened on the Shiant Isles. The winter rat eradication team finished up their work and left the islands for a well earned rest at the end of March. With no signs of rats since Christmas time we are hopeful that we’ve been successful in turning the Shiants into rat free islands, though it will be two years before they can be officially declared rat free and we need to remain vigilant, especially with regard to biosecurity.
Here, Alex, a research assistant in the team who arrived in April to spend the summer on the Shiants, gives us an update on how the project is progressing.
Surveying vegetation (John Tayton)
After the eradication of the black rats carried out over the winter the summer team are now continuing into the next phase of the project by spending four months, April through to August, surveying the islands’ birds, plants and invertebrates to see what effect removing the rats has had on the local wildlife. We have now been working on the Shiants for two months, reaching the half way point for our time here. Our team consists of Johnny our senior research assistant and veteran of the winter project on the Shiants and two research assistants, Ian and myself. This is my first surveying contract and so is a great opportunity for me to learn a range of new skills and experience as well as a spend time in a wonderful location surrounded by spectacular wildlife.
The Shiants consist of three islands, two of which we are carrying out daily surveys on and the third which can only be accessed by boat. Joe and Charles Engebret who do an amazing job of ferrying us to and from the island (as well as delivering any fresh fish or emergency chocolate) also deposit us on Mary Island to carry out monthly land bird surveys. These boat trips are always exciting and provide a great chance to observe the seabirds and cetaceans from close up, though in heavy weather or rough seas it is better to keep your head down!
Descending the slopes (John Tayton)
Our workload is varied and each day has something different in store for us, whether it’s getting to grips with rope work for descending slopes to check how the breeding guillemots are doing, clambering over boulders to find puffin burrows, dodging an aerial bombardment from the bonxies or getting to grips with the local flora in the islands’ bogs and heathland. It’ss great to witness the breeding season progress, watching the shags bring in all sorts of debris washed up on the shoreline to line their nests with or the pied wagtails, wrens and wheatears investigating the cracks and crevices of the old dry stone walls of the black houses.More recently we’ve watched the seabirds returning to land with a beak full of sand eels, or heard the alarm calls of the oystercatchers along the coastline as their newly hatched chicks take shelter, relying on their camouflage amongt the lichen encrusted boulders.
Razorbill chick (John Tayton)
We have also had fantastic views of some of the Hebrides’ other wildlife including Rissos dolphins, gannets and both golden and white tailed eagles which are regularly seen soaring above the bay, until the nesting great skuas drive them away. Fortunately the resident pair of peregrines seem to escape the skuas’ assaults and can regularly be seen riding the winds or perched on the sea cliffs. We also find regular leftovers from their hunts on the shore line, with so many auks and fulmars nearby; there is no risk of them going hungry!
Storm petrels filmed on the Shiant Isles - an important step for the project
A real highlight for us has been the installation of nest boxes and sound systems to try and attract storm petrels and Manx shearwaters to the Shiants, species that are known to be nesting on other islands in the Minch but up until now had been unable to colonise the Shiants due to the predation from rats. However, with the rats gone and new accommodation provided we are hopeful that they may become permanent residents.
Excitingly, only three weeks after we started trying to attract these birds back we were lucky enough to witness storm petrels flying just over our heads and walking around the boulders! Although we have found no evidence they are nesting just yet these are very positive signs for the future
The Shiant Isles Recovery Project is a partnership between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Nicolson Family, it is funded by EU LIFE+ Nature [LIFE13 NAT/UK/000209 – LIFE Shiants] and private donations. The eradication is being led by Wildlife Management International with the support of Engebrets and Sea Harris Ltd.
The Scottish Government has recently put forward 10 marine sites to be official designated as protected areas for the seabirds that use them. A public consultation is open now, to get your views about whether they need to be protected. We will be responding and asking that they are all designated as soon as possible and you can support our call to action here. Read our blog to find out why we think this is the right move.
Scotland’s Seas are full of seabirds. Every spring some five million seabirds arrive at our coastlines, cliffs and islands to breed. 487,010 gannets make their way from a winter spent down the coast of Africa and the Mediterranean, a million puffins cross the Atlantic, and 250,000 Manx shearwaters return from Brazil’s tropical waters.
Places like St Kilda, the Fair Isle, Bass Rock and the cliffs of St Abbs fill up with a suite of stunning seabirds, each filling a unique niche on the noisy, stinking colonies. Whilst guillemots turn the cliffs Dalmatian as they queue up on precocious ledges, puffins favour some safety underground and form huge warrens, while gannets settle on anything they can find and defend it fiercely.
Amongst this vast seabird invasion we also see the arrival of seaducks and divers. Huge rafts of eiders form in the Firth of Forth for courtship and mating, looning divers set up nest on sealochs and fish through the long dusky evenings in places like Hascosay Sound. Even through the winter some of these birds still fill up our coasts; Coll and Tiree are an important refuge for eiders sheltering through the colder months and our coastlines also welcome stunning long-tailed ducks and velvet scoters from their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra.
These birds characterise Scotland’s seas, they play a central role in our marine environment, and our seas are internationally important for them. A third of the seabirds breeding in Europe do so right here. The Bass Rock is the world’s largest gannet colony and Rum is the world’s largest Manx shearwater colony.
Sixty percent of the world’s great skua (called Bonxies in Shetland) breed here on our islands. We have a responsibility to protect them, not only because we have such a huge proportion of the world’s seabirds, but also because these birds are not uniquely ours, they come from all around to breed and raise chicks – an Arctic tern breeding on Rousay in Orkney will finish breeding, fly south to South Africa, pass the Cape of Good Hope and head out into the Southern Ocean. These are the world’s birds, but they are our bairns.
Unfortunately many of our seabird species are declining, and have been for the past few decades. Since about 2000, we have seen a sharp decline in the numbers of seabirds breeding along our coasts. Kittiwakes are often used as the prime example, principally because they are the easiest to count and have fared badly, but similar trends can be seen in guillemots, the terns, razorbills and puffins.
The number of kittiwakes breeding in Scotland has fallen by 61% since 2000. In places like Orkney this has been particularly bad with populations breeding at Marwick Head falling by 90% – 5,000 breeding pairs dropping to 500. The reasons for these declines are complex but appear to be related to the warming oceans which is affecting the plankton communities, this in turn affects the fish communities and results in kittiwake parents not being able to feed their chicks. Kittiwakes are particularly vulnerable to this problem because they cannot dive or swim so rely on there being lots of surface shoaling fish, like sandeels.
Clearly work to mitigate further warming is needed, and RSPB Scotland is investing a great deal into making progress with green energy and transport to combat climate change. However, in the short term, and in the local waters most important for these birds, something else is needed. Luckily not all species are so fussy, others are more versatile and better able to travel long distances. Species like the gannet for example have therefore been able to find other food and continue to breed successfully in Scotland. However, that is not to suggest that they are always safe at sea.
RSPB Scotland has been working to make our seas safe and productive for seabirds for some time now. Over the past few years we have been working with the Scottish Government and its advisors to identify and protect the most important parts of our seas. Back in 2014, the Scottish Government made progress in designating a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to improve the health of our seas, but largely excluded seabirds from the process, overlooking species like eiders, puffins and shags.
In response we put forward seven sites which we knew were some of the most important places for seabirds in Europe and pushed the government to formally recognise the need for their protection. Earlier this year Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) brought forward evidence for 15 areas. Unfortunately two of our proposals dropped out, but a further 10 were added. Amongst them were the seas around St Kilda, holding several thousand fulmars, puffins and gannets, and the Firth of Forth, holding more than 20,000 eiders and 25,000 wintering guillemots.
Finally, earlier this month, the Scottish Government took a welcome leap forward and proposed 10 of those sites for official designation. A public consultation is now open to get your views about whether they need to be protected. This is a really welcome move, and it shows significant leadership from the Scottish Government in taking responsibility for this amazing part of our natural history seriously. The species included in the 10 sites are nearly all the seaducks, the divers and the grebes. So now it’s over to you. SNH are running this public consultation to find out what you think about these sites. We will be responding and asking that they are all designated promptly. You can support our call to action here.
Unfortunately the other five sites, out of the original 15, have all been postponed. The birds that would be protected at these remaining locations include puffins, guillemots, razorbills and gannets. Given these true seabirds are the species most in trouble we are concerned about them being overlooked. Chicks fledging the colonies this year will be heading out into the unprotected seas. That’s why, as part of the consultation, we’ll also be asking that these remaining five sites join the other ten in being considered for official designation soon.