New report reveals declines in Scotland’s seabirds and upland birds

Yvonne McMahon

Thursday 17 December 2020

Fulmar, North Hill RSPB reserve, Papa Westray, Orkney

The distribution and numbers of birds in Scotland are changing dramatically, with many species showing worrying declines according to a new report.

• Continuing decline of many seabird species, including fulmars, Arctic skuas and kittiwakes.

• Some upland breeding bird species have declined dramatically, including curlew and lapwing, both among the five most declining common and widespread birds in Scotland.

• Cuckoo numbers are increasing in Scotland despite declining in England.

The State of the UK’s Birds 2020 (SUKB) - the one-stop shop for all the latest results from bird surveys and monitoring studies – this year highlights the continuing poor fortunes of Scotland’s seabirds and upland wading birds.

The report reveals that Scotland’s seabirds continue to show mixed fortunes. The Seabird Monitoring Programme (SMP) reveals that Arctic skua numbers continue to decline and previously well-occupied colonies have either disappeared or been reduced to only a handful of pairs, threatening their long-term future as a breeding species in Scotland. Concerning long-term declines have been recorded in birds that feed on sandeels, including kittiwakes, shags and Arctic terns. The seabird indicator, which uses SMP data and covers 11 of the 24 seabird species in Scotland, shows these 11 have declined on average by 32% between 1986 and 2017.

In better seabird news the report highlights that gannet populations are doing well, with an increase in both numbers and range.  Marwick Head in Orkney is one of a number of new and expanding gannet colonies which have contributed to the good fortune of this iconic species.

Scotland’s upland birds are also struggling. Curlews and lapwings have seen particularly steep declines with both now among the five most declining common and widespread birds in Scotland. Lapwing breeding populations declined by 56% between 1995 and 2018, with the ten years between 2008 and 2018 seeing declines of 39%. Curlew numbers have seen a similar pattern of decline, with 59% fewer recorded between 1995 and 2008 and a 20% decline between 2008 and 2018.

Wintering wading birds have declined by 50% since 1975. Scotland hosts internationally important numbers of wintering curlews, redshanks, dunlins, golden plovers and lapwings, making conservation efforts here crucial for these species.

However, data have shown that since 1975, black-tailed godwit and sanderling numbers have increased in Scotland. The black-tailed godwits wintering in Scotland are of the Icelandic subspecies, and their increasing numbers may be a response to agricultural changes there and climatic change. Yet, the increases here are not significant enough to counterbalance the overall global decline of this species.

The report contains better news for some species. In Scotland, an increase in breeding tree pipit populations of 80% between 1995 and 2018 and willow warbler populations of 25% are in contrast to marked declines in Wales and England. Cuckoo numbers have also increased by 54% in Scotland over the same time period but have declined in England, very likely due to the loss of food resources in more intensively managed lowland environments there. 

David Douglas, RSPB Scotland Principal Conservation Scientist said: “It’s really concerning that some of the UK’s bird species that Scotland is vitally important for, such as curlews and Arctic skuas, have experienced such worrying long-term declines. This means conservation efforts here are absolutely vital to these birds. The impact of the nature and climate crisis can be seen in this report’s conclusions. Seabirds that rely on sandeels are struggling, whilst those with a broader diet such as gannets are doing better.

Further human impact is evident in the rising number of cuckoos in Scotland. Once more common in England, numbers there are in decline due to changes in land management and usage.”

Ben Darvill, BTO Scotland Development and Engagement Manager said: “Volunteers play an essential role in bird monitoring in the UK, by donating their time, energy and expertise. The data they collect are vital for conservation, tracking changes, policy development and informed decision-making. A huge thanks to everyone who has contributed to bird monitoring in Scotland over the years. We're hoping that 2021 will be more normal, after the disruption caused by Covid-19. If you'd like to know more about how you can help make a difference by participating in surveys, please visit the BTO website.

Andy Douse, NatureScot’s ornithology advisor said: “These are very worrying findings. Many know that we are facing a climate emergency but not as many know that there is also a global nature crisis. Many iconic birds in Scotland, as well as other species, are suffering as a result.

“We need a balance of nature for our survival. So we need to urgently reverse biodiversity loss if we are to protect our species and protect our living environment.

“We are already undertaking large scale habitat restoration projects across Scotland which will help these birds and help protect us from climate change. There are steps we can all take too – from your own garden to the thousands of people contributing to this vital survey programme.” 

Fiona Burns, lead author of the State of the UK’s Birds 2020 said: “The UK’s birds are telling us that nature is in retreat. The continuing losses seen across many species are not sustainable and more needs to be done to stop the declines and help populations revive and recover. These findings are in line with our earlier State of Nature 2019 report which found that 41% of all UK species are declining. More action is needed if we are to tackle the nature crisis.”

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