I always look forward to reading the State of the UK’s birds, which is a great example of Government agencies and NGO collaboration. The efforts of thousands of volunteers and professional scientists is carefully presented in 40 pages to give an overview of how birds and (as birds are often proxies for the Natural environment) our natural habitats are faring.
This year’s report is as eye opening as ever, with its cover picture of a Southern rock hopper penguin (yes it’s a British bird and it occurs on a UK overseas territory), to the list of surveys current and planned (p. 36/7), it’s full of facts, things to celebrate and things to worry about. Quite rightly its release earlier in the week attracted much publicity and once again shows how serious evidence can have an impact. The question I suppose is can it influence politicians and decision makers to do the right thing? Having the evidence to underpin your case certainly helps, but bitter experience shows that alone it is often not enough – but let’s not be downcast.
From a Scottish perspective there is certainly some good news. Birds like Great spotted woodpeckers, goldfinch, great tits and whitethroats are on the up. We also know that thanks to the hard work of RSPB Scotland and many farmers and crofters, rare species like corncrakes are doing pretty well. The black grouse too has recovered from its low point 5 or 6 years ago thanks to efforts by landowners, forestry and conservation bodies.
Great spotted woodpecker by Tom Marshall
But this good news is somewhat overshadowed by the bad. Willow tits are in deep trouble down over 60% in 15 years and they have disappeared from much of their range in Scotland. The Arctic skua which nests on Orkney and Shetland has crashed and is now less than 1,500 pairs. Repeated food shortages have disrupted the breeding success of this lovely piratical seabird.
Arctic skua chick by Andy Hay
Seabirds in particular are now in serious trouble. The species most affected are those which feed on sandeels – particularly surface feeders like Arctic terns and kittiwake. Species such as Gannets which take discards and plunge dive for bigger fish continue to do well. It is the terns and kittiwakes where the problems occur. Indeed RSPB Scotland staff are reporting the loss of whole colonies of kittiwakes on Orkney and only tiny numbers of chicks in formerly thriving Arctic tern colonies on Shetland. The fall in breeding productivity and survival of these birds has been related to declines in sandeels – probably linked to changes in the zooplankton caused by warming seas.
Arctic tern by Chris Gomersall
One of the more curious facts from the report is on page 21, where an estimate of the biomass of all wild birds in the UK is given. This shows starkly that non native birds like Canada geese and pheasants make up approximately a quarter of the total bird biomass in the UK, despite forming only 3% of the bird population! One wonders what impacts this must have on the ecosystems into which they have been introduced – and how much commoner foxes and other generalist predators must be as a result! A quite thought provoking statistic.
Lastly on the seabird theme I am shocked by the serious declines in long -tailed ducks and velvet scoters. These birds nest around Finland and in the Baltic – they have crashed in numbers. I love visiting the sea wall at Musselburgh to watch them displaying in late winter on the sheltered waters of the Firth of Forth. This is a great wildlife spectacle which we cannot let go – for they are such wonderful birds and off the coast of Edinburgh is one of the best places in the UK to see them.
Long-tailed duck by Danny Green
We need to protect these Scottish wintering grounds through establishing Marine Protected Areas for them, and work internationally to save these species on their Baltic breeding grounds. Support our campaign to establish Scottish MPAs here.