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The strange case of the disappearing duck

Last modified: 11 March 2016

Flock of common scoters sleeping

Image: Graham Catley

Of all the research projects carried out by RSPB Scotland, perhaps one of the most puzzling has been the case of a disappearing duck: the common scoter.

Common scoters are rare breeding birds that have been dwindling in numbers in the UK, but researchers could not pinpoint why. There are plenty of suitable habitats for this species in Scotland, but they are only found at a few locations in the Scottish Highlands, including the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland and at several lochs in Inverness-shire. 

Concern among conservationists that this species may become locally extinct prompted a three-year research project by the RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science. The team now believes that a solution to the birds’ recovery might be found by restoring the balance between fish and invertebrates in common scoter habitat, and in some cases, angling could be one way to help restore the scoter population.

Dr Mark Hancock, from the RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science said: “Of all the lochs we investigated during this work, scoters bred most often at those with the shallowest water and the most large, freshwater invertebrates. It soon became clear that there were more insects where there were fewer brown trout, so it looks like scoters are being limited by a lack of food in places where the fish are eating it all.” 

“We're now using these results to design new ways of helping scoters. For example, in areas of the north Highlands where angling activity has dropped off and fish numbers have increased, more trout angling is potentially one way to boost freshwater insect life. At hydro lochs, where water levels are to some extent under human control, we could also aim to maximise the area of shallow water.”

The common scoter project was supported by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and The Conservation Volunteers (TCV).

Dr Andy Douse of Scottish Natural Heritage, who is a co-author of the study, said: "Scotland is the only part of the UK to have breeding scoters, many of which nest in legally-protected nature conservation sites.  This study highlights promising management options for restoring populations of this declining species."

Hannah Robson of the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust, also a co-author, said: “Scoters are amazing birds: an arctic species finding a haven in remote Scottish lochs. This research points to the ways in which we might be able to save them as a fascinating part of our Scottish wildlife heritage.”

John McFarlane, of The Conservation Volunteers, said: “TCV is delighted to have been part of this exciting project.  Working with partners like RSPB Scotland and WWT allowed our Natural Talent Apprentice Hannah Robson to really fine-tune her taxonomy skills. All of which helps to inject new fresh blood into aquatic conservation.”


How you can help

Nature in the UK is in trouble and some of our more familiar garden species are amongst those suffering serious declines. We can all help by giving nature a home where we live.

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