Sea cliffs at Dunnet Head RSPB reserve, Caithness, near Thurso, Scotland

Scotland

This year, my last as Director, has been a fantastic one for RSPB Scotland, and I'm immensely proud of all we've achieved, explains RSPB Scotland Director, Stuart Housden.

Abernethy award

First of all, I'm delighted to announce that RSPB Scotland's Abernethy nature reserve has been voted the overall winner of Nature Reserve of the Year in the BBC Countryfile Magazine Awards 2017.

The reserve is beloved by visitors and is home to more than 5,000 species, including ospreys, crested tits and wildcats. We're incredibly proud that Abernethy has gained this recognition, and the award.

Abernethy RSPB reserve. Speyside, Scotland.
RSPB Abernethy nature reserve

Black grouse on the up

Wildlife conservation is often full of depressing stories, which is why I'm glad to report that at our Corrimony nature reserve, an upland site of 1,531 hectares (ha) in the Highlands, black grouse are doing well.

We acquired the site in 1997, with the intention of restoring native Caledonian pinewood especially for black grouse, and that's exactly what we've done.

Black grouse are a red-listed species, and habitat loss and overgrazing have led to shocking population declines nationally.

However, I'm proud to say that black grouse numbers at Corrimony have increased from 16 lekking (displaying) males when we acquired the site, to 35 lekking males today.

Black grouse Tetrao tetrix, adult male on lek. Corrimony RSPB reserve. Scotland.
Black grouse

Good news for golden eagles

And the good news also applies to our unofficial "national bird", with the results from the fourth national golden eagle survey showing that the population has increased to 508 pairs. That's a rise of 15% since 2003.

It also means that because the population has now surpassed 500 pairs, it meets targets to be classified as having "favourable conservation status in the UK".

Sadly, the recovery is not consistent across Scotland, and golden eagles are still absent in many parts of the eastern Highlands, with less than one third of the home ranges in this area occupied. The predominant land use in this area is driven grouse shooting and we have long suggested that there is a link between this type of land management and raptor persecution. 

We were therefore delighted when our work to tackle illegal raptor persecution was vindicated by the publication of a report commissioned by the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP. It showed that about a third of tagged golden eagles fledging from Scottish nests are being illegally killed, with a clear link between these crimes and land intensively managed for driven grouse shooting.

As a result, Ms Cunningham showed decisive leadership in setting up an independent inquiry into game bird shoot licensing, with additional immediate measures to target areas with a long and proven history of the criminal targeting of protected birds of prey. We commend her for such a progressive and significant response.

In more golden eagle news, we're working with our partners to help increase the numbers of these magnificent birds in the south of Scotland. In 2014, a study by Scottish Natural Heritage found that southern Scotland could support up to 16 pairs of golden eagles, but currently there are between just two and four pairs, and they have limited nesting success.

The South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project offers great opportunities to increase their numbers in this area and hopefully make golden eagles a regular sight in southern Scotland once again. We're delighted by the support for this important project from the Heritage Lottery fund (HLF) and to be working with Scottish Land and Estates, Buccleuch, the Langholm Initiative, Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission Scotland and Eskdale Solutions.

Golden eagles are one of Scotland's most iconic species and it's wonderful that this project will mean that more of these birds will be returning to their historical ranges.

Golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos adult male sitting in heather, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

A big step for little gulls

During the summer of 2016, we were delighted to confirm the news that little gulls nested at the Loch of Strathbeg.

As their name suggests, little gulls are the smallest species of gull in the world, and this was the first confirmed breeding in Scotland ever, and only the sixth breeding attempt in Britain since 1970.

Both chicks fledged successfully, and we're thrilled that this happened on one of our reserves.

Little gull, Loch of Strathbeg
Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus), male, winter plumage Cairngorms National Park, Highlands, Scotland

All nature

As you'll know, the RSPB is about more than just birds – our work benefits a range of different species. One such species is the chequered skipper. This delightful butterfly is one of Britain's smallest and fastest-flying butterflies.

Once found across much of Britain it is now restricted to the West Highlands, where the sight of it is eagerly sought by butterfly enthusiasts. 

In recent years conservationists have made a determined effort to find out more about this special butterfly and surveys have been carried out, which have revealed the chequered skipper in several new locations.

Among the sites is RSPB Scotland's Glenborrodale nature reserve, which is already known to host a number of rare butterfly species.

Beavers are back

From butterflies to beavers now, and in late 2016 Roseanna Cunningham MSP announced that Scotland's beavers are here to stay.

Beavers, which are currently living wild in areas like Tayside, will be reclassified as a native species and be given full protected status under European laws in 2017.

We've been advocating for the reintroduction of beavers to Scotland since 2014, when the official trial project in Argyll came to an end, so we were very pleased to hear the news.

In the coming months we will be campaigning for the timely introduction of legal protection for beavers.

European beaver eating on bankside meadow

Funding for red squirrels

Another of Scotland's iconic species received a boost when the Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels – Developing Community Action project was awarded a £2.46 million grant from HLF.

The exciting five-year project hopes to recruit 800 volunteers to work in three areas of Scotland. Their aims will be to stop the spread of invasive grey squirrels, remove greys from the Aberdeenshire area and protect vulnerable populations of red squirrels in southern Scotland.

We've been supporting the work of the Scottish Wildlife Trust to save red squirrels since 2015 and will continue that support through this exciting new phase of the project.

Red squirrel with winter coat, on log in pinewood.
Red squirrel

Saving rare insects

Over in the Cairngorms National Park, a new project was launched in spring 2017 to save six of Scotland's rarest insects. The shining guest ant, dark bordered beauty moth, small scabious mining bee, northern silver-stiletto fly, pine hoverfly and Kentish glory moth have all been identified as needing urgent action.

Many of them have their last strongholds within the national park. Over the next three years, we'll be working with the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation and Scottish Natural Heritage to improve the conservation fortunes of these six insects.

As part of the Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms project, we'll recruit volunteers to help with surveying work to establish the size and distribution of the species' populations, and implement practical management on the ground to help them thrive.

This project is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. Another rare insect to benefit from RSPB conservation work is the great yellow bumblebee. Once seen throughout the UK, this bee can now only be found on the north coast of Scotland, and on some Scottish islands.

2017 marked the second year of co-ordinated surveys, showing that great yellow bumblebees had had a good year on a number of reserves in Orkney. We plan to repeat the survey next year to help us build a better picture of the status of great yellow bumblebees on Orkney, so that we can plan what we can do to help them. 

Great yellow bumblebee
Great yellow bumblebee

Protecting Orkney's wildlife

Stoats, which are not native to Orkney, were first sighted on the Orkney Mainland in 2010.

It is likely they were introduced by accident, but these accomplished predators pose a serious threat to Orkney's wildlife, particularly ground-nesting birds. Early attempts to remove them were not successful, and by 2013 stoats were present across the Orkney Mainland and connected isles – an area over three times larger than the biggest successful eradication in the world to date.

Undeterred, we joined forces with Scottish Natural Heritage to eradicate the stoats and protect Orkney's precious native wildlife. We funded a feasibility study, which revealed that eradication would be possible, and have since developed a costed project that could rid the islands of stoats within five years. 

We are currently working to secure funds and community support for what will be the most ambitious stoat eradication project ever undertaken.

St John's Head (within RSPB Hoy reserve) viewed across Hoy sound.

Farming for nature on Islay

Over to Islay now, where the area of farmed land under our direct control on the island stands at 4,000ha. We believe passionately that agriculture and conservation can go hand in hand, and we use low-intensity High Nature Value farming to benefit wildlife, including corncrakes and hen harriers.

The farms at Loch Gruinart and The Oa are under our full control, meaning that we can both maximise them for wildlife, and seek to ensure that they are as profitable as possible.

By using the same breeds of animals and the same basic farming techniques as farmers elsewhere in Scotland, we are able to keep what we do relevant. We've had a presence on Islay for a third of a century, so we're now very much part of the community.

Our herds of cattle and sheep are sold through local markets to buyers who come from all over the UK. We also regularly exhibit our animals at local and national shows – and occasionally leave with the top prizes!

Highland cattle being fed

Safeguarding protected areas

We've maintained our very good record of managing protected areas designated by law, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

At the end of the 2016/17 financial year, 95.8% of features on our reserves, mainly rare species and habitats, were reported in "favourable" condition by Scottish Natural Heritage.

RSPB Scotland manages 682 features on protected areas in Scotland, more than anyone else – but it's clear we've got a bit of work to do, so we've identified ways we can improve on all our remaining unfavourable features.

These include management improvements, such as introducing or increasing grazing, removing scrub and cutting fen. We will also continue our research into why some species are declining, such as breeding common scoters at our Forsinard Flows reserve.

Elsewhere, the fight to protect wildlife outside of our reserve network continues, and there has been no let-up in our planning and casework workload.

We are working hard to ensure a proposal to build 1,500 homes in the Cairngorms National Park doesn't impact on precious capercaillie; to stop an inappropriate golf course development on a protected area of valuable coastal dune habitat at Coul Links in East Sutherland; to reduce the impacts of the project to dual the A9, especially through the Strathspey corridor; to prevent the Strathy South wind farm in the Flow Country; and to stop four offshore wind farms in the Firths of Forth and Tay, which we are progressing by means of a legal Judicial Review challenge.

In more positive news, our partnership in the ambitious Cairngorms Connect project continues to excite and energise us. It extends over 60,000ha of forest, floodplain, moorland and high mountains with multiple partners all sharing the aims and objectives of improving and enhancing habitat, especially expanding the native Caledonian woodland.

Ultimately, our vision is for the forest to become the very best example of an oceanic boreal forest in north-west Europe by 2216. Our management is already helping to make this ambitious vision a reality and we hope this will continue as we move forward.

RSPB Forsinard Flows; view from visitor trail, including snow-capped Ben Griam, Highland, Scotland

Nature of Scotland awards

It is clear that nature faces many threats, but also that across Scotland people and organisations are taking action.

The Nature of Scotland Awards exist to celebrate excellence, innovation and outstanding achievement in Scottish nature conservation and there were a record number of applications in 2016, across eight categories.

Around 300 guests attended the black tie presentation dinner to discover the projects, organisations and people who were successful in picking up a prestigious award. 

One of the lucky winners was Craig Macadam. He was presented with the RSPB Species Champion Award for his work to champion the conservation of invertebrates and his development of Buglife Scotland from a single part-time post to an established conservation organisation with five members of staff.

And finally...

I'd like to end with a story of how Scottish wildlife has inspired 2,000 London children.

In the summer of 2016, RSPB staff and volunteers from the Shetland Ringing Group retrieved a geolocator from a rare, male red-necked phalarope on the island of Fetlar. 

We already knew that these tiny birds spend the winter at sea, but had expected to find that the small Shetland population wintered at the nearest known site in the Arabian Sea. So we were amazed to find that this extraordinary bird had actually spent the winter of 2012/2013 in the Pacific Ocean between the Galapagos Islands, mainland Ecuador and Peru.

London-based composers Kate Stilitz and Jilly Jarman were so inspired by this phalarope's 14,000-mile journey that they wrote a song cycle called One Small Bird about it. 2,000 local children, as well as a group of young musicians from Peru, performed it at the Royal Albert Hall in London in June 2016 as part of the Haringey Schools' Music Festival.

Ten-year-old Aisha, a pupil at Tiverton Primary in Tottenham, said:

"It [the phalarope's epic journey] makes me think that no matter what your size, if you have courage you can do anything you want."

I hope that this powerful sentiment will serve as motivation for all our fantastic staff, volunteers, supporters and partners.

Together, we can save nature.

Red-necked Phalarope wading in water, breeding plumage.