Stuart Housden's blog

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Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Stuart Housden's blog

Director of RSPB Scotland. Blogging on conservation topics & many of our projects.There will be an emphasis on Scotland,but the rest of the UK & work with BirdLife International will get mentions too.You can also follow me on Twitter @StuartHousden
  • Why I’m Marching

    When I join the thousands of people on the Meadows in Edinburgh this Saturday, we will all be marching to press the case for firm global action on the climate of our shared world. I hope to be joined by my daughter and her one month old son, my grandson. It‘s for his future we will be banding together. But I want him to grow up in a world that has space for wildlife too.

    In Scotland we are lucky that we still have a treasure trove of wildlife riches, but we cannot take it for granted. Development, intensification of farming, and yes, climate change are already having a deep impact. Take the golden plover, a wading bird that breeds in remote upland regions of the UK on heather moorland, peatland and blanket bog. It’s a species that you very often hear long before you see, its plaintive call carrying far across the moorland. If you are lucky enough to see one in full breeding plumage it looks like a black coloured bird wearing a rather fetching white trimmed golden coat complete with a hood. Despite this superb plumage the golden plover is remarkably well camouflaged. Scotland has many of them nesting in our hills and on our blanket peatlands - but they are at risk.

    Research carried out by scientists at the RSPB shows how the golden plover is threatened by the impacts of climate change in Scotland and the rest of the UK. Golden plovers feed largely on insects during the breeding season, and an important prey item, particularly for chicks, are craneflies, or daddy longlegs as they are sometimes known. Craneflies emerge in large numbers at around the same time as the plover chicks hatch - a neat adaptation that has evolved over tens of thousands of years. Our research showed that warm, dry Augusts in the previous year reduced the number of craneflies that emerged from the soil during the breeding season. This, in turn, had a negative impact on the number of adult golden plovers, most likely because it reduced the food supply available for golden plover chicks, meaning fewer of them survived to adulthood. 

    Warm, dry Augusts are expected to become more commonplace in some areas of Scotland as climate change continues.  The research demonstrated that this could result in the decline, and even extinction, of golden plovers in some areas, particularly those occurring towards the southern edge of the species’ range. Whilst this is very worrying, other RSPB research suggests a potential solution which would help the golden plover and other upland birds in the face of these drier, warmer conditions.  Restoring peatland habitats through techniques that we have trialled and shown to work, for example at RSPB Scotland Forsinard Flows reserve in Caithness and Sutherland, can increase the resilience of these upland birds to climate change. Blocking moorland ditches raises the water levels in the rich peaty soils and makes them less exposed to the effects of drought conditions in summer. Good for craneflies, and good for golden plovers. And good for the climate as the bogs stop leaking GHG gases.

    As I wrote in my previous blog post peatland restoration is good for wildlife, the climate and for people. The good news is that Nicola Sturgeon agrees with me. This week, at the Natural Capital Forum in Edinburgh, she said that peatland restoration is ‘one of the best investments we can make as a society'. If, as a society, we don’t invest in these upland landscapes and put money towards peatland restoration we will lose the beautiful wildlife we love, like the golden plover. That’s why I will be marching this coming Saturday at Scotland’s Climate March. We want to save our world for people like my grandson, and nature.


  • Forsinard – good news for wildlife, carbon and people

    Forsinard – good news for wildlife, carbon and people

    Recently I visited RSPB Scotland’s Forsinard Flows Reserve in the far north of Scotland and saw at first hand the difference we’re making for wildlife, local people and our efforts to combat climate change.

    As I stood at the top of the fantastic new observation tower and chatted to visitors, I got a real sense of the scale of what is being achieved here – so big that you can see it from space!

    RSPB Scotland has been active in this area since the 1980s when it became clear that the priceless blanket bogs were being ploughed and planted at an eye watering rate – not because it was a good place to grow trees but as a means for investors to pay less tax.  I remain proud of the campaign RSPB Scotland waged to close this tax avoidance loophole and thus prevent further destruction of the peatlands, and indeed I was intimately involved in it at the time. The campaign that ensued to close this loophole was lengthy but ultimately successful, as was the declaration of over 400,000Ha of land as SSSI, and EU Natura sites. Although, unfortunately, getting rid of the worst of the trees established on the flattest, deepest peat areas which held the most carbon, and the most birds is taking considerably longer, and comes at a hefty cost. 

    This was always an ambitious programme of work but the size of that ambition and the progress towards achieving it has now grown as we embark with our partners on Flows to the Future, a huge project to restore the bogs and bring their benefits to a wide audience.  Forsinard is big (it’s the largest RSPB Reserve in the country) but FttF operates at a different scale altogether and we will now be working with our neighbouring landowners, with local communities, with schools and, through the virtual world, those who are unable to visit this special place in person. All of this ambition would be beyond us, if it was not for the HLF who have supported some 45% of the costs of this £10 Million project.

    Scotland has the largest expanses of blanket bogs anywhere in the world and the most important of those are in Caithness and Sutherland with Forsinard right at their heart. Wildlife thrives here – carnivorous plants like sundews and butterworts, golden plovers, stately black- and red-throated divers, and the rather inaptly named common scoter (which is now a very rare breeding bird) all make them really special places.

    But taking care of peatbogs is also great news for the local economy and communities.  For example, the EU LIFE project that ran from 2001-2006 to restore these habitats paid over £1m to 25 different local contractors.  Flows to the Future itself is predicted to invest something like £6m directly into the local economy and provide some 12 new jobs.  For an economically marginal area with few alternatives these are truly significant sums and none of it would have happened were it not for the RSPB and others with an interest in bog restoration making it happen. 

    And last but not least there are the climate change benefits of restoring peatbogs given that they hold 10 times more carbon than in all the forests in the UK put together.

    This giant store of carbon in Scotland makes a big difference to our efforts in tackling climate change in two ways. First, if the habitat is damaged, the surface layer of moss is exposed and degraded. If that happens, the peat dries and shrinks, carbon is continually lost to the atmosphere and Scotland’s greenhouse gas footprint gets bigger. That is what is happening in many of our peat land areas.

    The second reason is more positive. In theory, a healthy intact peatbog should ‘suck’ carbon from the atmosphere and lock it away within the growing bog. This is akin to trees which as they grow take CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in wood and vegetation. It could be described as natural carbon capture and storage. But, with pressures such as warmer temperatures, varying rainfall patterns, air pollution etc, we need to know if that theory is correct and if peatbogs today are accumulating carbon in this way and at what rate. If we can show that healthy peatbogs in Scotland have a positive greenhouse gas footprint, it will back up calls for more peatland restoration now and in the future.

    Now, new research has just been published in a scientific journal which puts figures on how good Scotland’s bogs are at sucking in carbon[1] - technically known as sequestration. The bog studied was a near-pristine area at our Forsinard Flows reserve in the far north of mainland Scotland. The researchers from CEH[2] erected a flux tower on the bog and used sensors 3 metres up the tower to measure the gases moving in and out of the bog as it grew and respired over a 6 year period.

    The results show that the peatbog studied consistently removes carbon from the atmosphere at a rate of 99g of carbon per square metre, every year. This equates to each square metre of bog accumulating 2.5mm of peat each year. That may be hard to picture but, with peatlands covering 17,270km2 in Scotland (22% of our land area) there is potential for an enormous amount of carbon to be permanently removed ever year from the atmosphere by healthy and functioning peatbog habitats.

    This research provides further strong evidence that healthy peatlands are good for the climate – both by securing stored carbon and permanently removing it from the atmosphere. But with 40% of monitored peatbogs being in an unhealthy condition this potential is not being realised.

    So, for wildlife, carbon and economic reasons, the Government must reinvigorate its commitment to peatland restoration and find money make it happen. We know how to restore peatbog habitats, we have been doing it for years at Forsinard, we just need the resources to do more.That is why we warmly welcome the Scottish Governments National Peatland Plan.

    Nature is part of the solution to climate change and economic development but only if we look after it. Nature is our only proven method for large-scale carbon capture and storage – so let’s help nature to help us, and in so doing conserve the sundews, the mosses, the strange insects and wonderful birds that abound in this watery, peaty world.

    [2] P. E. Levy, and A. Gray - Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Penicuik

  • A case of conservation

    A case of conservation

    I enjoy a glass of wine and love the landscapes where wine is produced. But it takes imagination to combine this with raising funds for the migratory birds – ‘our’ birds – that pass through the Iberian Peninsula, en route to their winter quarters in West Africa and beyond.

    Inspired by the conservation of our migratory birds Cockburn’s of Leith are donating 20% from cases of selected wines to our Birds Without Borders programme.

    Many of our long distance migratory birds are in trouble and there has been a sharp decline in breeding populations of long-distance, trans-Saharan migrant birds since the 1970s. We need to find out why we are seeing such significant declines and to work with our partners along the flyways to help reverse them. Our Birds Without Borders programme aims to do just that.

    This new opportunity with Cockburn’s of Leith will raise much-needed funds to raise awareness of the need for the RSPB and other BirdLife International partners to work together, to integrate conservation for long-distance migrants by developing initiatives that will protect, conserve, improve, restore and create habitats across the range of these birds.


    Species like the wood warbler, which can still be found in our western Atlantic oak forests in Dumfries and Galloway, Argyll, Perthshire and elsewhere, are in serious trouble. We now know that after the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean and Sahara, ‘our’ birds winter in the tropical forests of West Africa, forests that are being felled for firewood or cattle pasture. The RSPB is working in West Africa trying to halt this loss.

    So it is great news that Cockburn’s of Leith are offering help in a practical way – by selecting wines vineyards and wines whose commitment to conservation is strong, these quality wines at affordable prices aid the conservation of our migrant birds such as the warblers, cuckoos and flycatchers who spend the brief summer with us, before embarking on hazardous journeys to Africa.

    And to make it fun Cockburn’s of Leith have selected wines featuring birds on the label – bringing birdwatching to your table, no binoculars required!

    The wines available are:

    • Highveld Merlot Shiraz, Western Cape SA: £6.96
    • Highveld Chenin Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape SA: £6.96
    • Storks' Tower Sauvignon Verdejo, Castilla y León, Spain: £7.96
    • Storks' Tower Tempranillo Shiraz, Castilla y León, Spain: £7.96
    • Storks' Tower Tempranillo Shiraz Rosado, Castilla y León, Spain: £7.96

    These fine wines are produced in vineyards that are committed to the protection of the natural environment as part of their winemaking process, with policies in place to conserve and improve biodiversity.

    So why not raise a glass to conservation this Christmas! From the Cape of South Africa, to the plains of Spain you can help the conservation of migratory birds.

    If you would like to try a selection of the 5 different wines on offer, your choice of bottles can be put together in a mixed case. To find out more and to place an order, phone Kate Smith on 0131 317 4100 or email to request an order form.