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


Some magnificent new reserve purchases have allowed us to help more wonderful wildlife in Scotland. But the fight to protect and give nature a home goes on, explains RSPB Scotland Director, Stuart Housden.

100 pairs of white-tailed eagles

I will never forget the first time I saw a white-tailed eagle. That intake of breath as you see the biggest bird you’ve ever seen flying in the UK; a square-winged silhouette against the sky.

In 2015, 40 years after white-tailed eagles were reintroduced to Scotland, we celebrated a milestone: the 100th pair nesting in Scotland, which just happened to be at our nature reserve on Hoy, Orkney. It was the first time white-tailed eagles had nested in Orkney for 142 years and, even though the pair was not successful that year, it demonstrated the power of conservation when we get things right.

It’s not just the RSPB’s success. Bringing white-tailed eagles back to Scotland owes a great deal to the partners involved, as well as the support of Police Scotland, landowners, farmers, local community groups and organisations, and to Norway who gifted the young eagles.

It’s fantastic to see how these magnificent birds have captured the public’s imagination and that the sight of a white-tailed eagle soaring in the Scottish sky is no longer a thing of the past. Thanks to this conservation success, thousands of people each year are experiencing that 'wow' moment, that sharp intake of breath; their first white-tailed eagle. I hope in your travels around Scotland you can get to do the same.

Birds of prey still persecuted

Sadly, my love for white-tailed eagles and other birds of prey is not shared by everyone. In 2015, we published a 20-year review of illegal killing of birds of prey in Scotland (PDF download, 2.2 MB).

This confirmed that 779 protected raptors were illegally killed between 1994 and 2014, including 10 white-tailed eagles, 37 golden eagles and 104 red kites. These were just the bodies that were discovered and confirmed as involving criminal activity. No doubt there will have been more.

There is now scientific evidence of the impact of illegal killing on Scotland’s golden eagle, hen harrier, peregrine, and reintroduced red kite populations. The last national hen harrier survey, for example, showed the population had declined by 22% in Scotland between 2004 and 2010.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee Hen Harrier Framework 2011 concluded that illegal killing was having a significant impact on this species, particularly on land managed for driven grouse shooting in the southern uplands and eastern Highlands.

We welcome measures taken by the Scottish Government over the past 20 years to improve the laws protecting our birds of prey, and the recent improvements by Police Scotland and the Crown Office in tackling wildlife crime.

However, our data shows that illegal killing of raptors continues to be a widespread problem in significant parts of upland Scotland. These crimes impact the natural wealth of Scotland and undermine our international reputation, wildlife tourism and diversified rural businesses.

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, adult female perched on heather, Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve, Islay, June 2002
Hen harrier

Hope at Abernethy Forest

While the challenges for birds of prey that we faced 20 years ago still remain, we are making great progress in other areas of conservation to one of my favourite places – the smell of the ancient Caledonian pine trees, the sound of crested tits trilling and the sight of red squirrels scampering away from you up a tree.

Over centuries, the forest has been shrinking, so in 2015, we launched our tree nursery to nurture new saplings to help restore it. Thanks to the financial support of the Scottish Power Foundation and Walkers Shortbread, trees such as alder, aspen, birch and willow are now being grown at the nursery - from seeds found at Abernethy - and transplanted into the reserve to help create a richer habitat for wildlife.

Over the next 10 years, almost 100,000 trees will be planted with the help of local schoolchildren, volunteers and contractors. In 200 years’ time we hope to have almost doubled the size of the forest. This is giving nature a home on a grand scale.

Red squirrel with winter coat, on log in pinewood.
Red squirrel
A view of the loch at Abernethy

More land for nature

It’s not just our Abernethy nature reserve that is giving even more nature a home. We bought our first nature reserve in Clackmannanshire in 2015. Black Devon Wetlands were originally created when soil was excavated from the site to cap an adjacent area of landfill. It is already home to snipe, short-eared owls, teals and black-headed gulls and we’re working to improve the habitats and the visitor facilities.

Thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, we have now purchased Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the UK mainland, as one of our nature reserves.

We have been leasing and managing the site since 2008. Go there in the spring and you’ll be greeted by the cacophony of thousands of breeding seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and kittiwakes. The dramatic 300 feet-high cliffs offer stunning views over to Orkney on a clear day. We’re determined to ensure this headland remains a fantastic place for nature in the future.

Black Devon Wetlands
Black Devon Wetlands

Shiant Isles now rat-free?

Scotland’s seabirds have not fared well in recent years, one of the reasons why our Shiant Isles Recovery Project is so important. The Shiants are a group of islands in the Outer Hebrides, owned by the Nicolson family. Non-native black rats are thought to have arrived there from an 18th century shipwreck and their presence has been detrimental to the nesting seabirds.

Despite this, the islands are still one of the most important breeding colonies for seabirds in Europe - around 10% of UK puffins and 7% of UK razorbills breed there each year. How much better could they be without rats?

As well as receiving 50% of the funds from the EU LIFE+ fund and Scottish Natural Heritage, we launched an appeal to raise money to eradicate the rats and, thanks to many supporters, we were able to carry out the work last winter.

The team worked relentlessly for many months in such a remote place – the islands are not inhabited. We put down more than 1,000 baits, and needed to abseil off cliffs to reach the most remote spots. These baits were checked every three to four days – no mean feat when sometimes the team were facing Force 12, hurricane-strength winds.

Gradually, the take-up of the bait reduced and just before Christmas 2015 we saw what we hope was the last rat. We will need to keep monitoring for another two to three years to be sure, but we are hopeful that the islands are now rat-free and the seabirds can thrive again.

Puffin at The Shiant Isles
Shiant Isles

Decision on Forth and Tay legal challenge

It was quite disappointing for us when, in October 2014, Scottish Ministers granted consent for four offshore windfarms in the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Tay.

Of course, renewables in the right place, including offshore wind farms, are critical to help combat climate change. But this area is vital for seabirds – it’s where we’ve been running our popular boat trips and it’s a fantastic place to see puffins, kittiwakes and razorbills.

We issued a challenge to the consent, as we were concerned about the impacts that a windfarm in that location would have, particularly on migratory bird species such as puffins.

Happily for us, and for wildlife, the judge in the Court of Session ruled that the decisions made by the Scottish ministers, to grant consent for the marine electricity generating projects were ‘unlawful’, after RSPB Scotland challenged the decisions by way of four separate petitions. We are now awaiting a decision by the Scottish Government on whether they will pursue an appeal.

The judge ruled that the Scottish Ministers had acted unlawfully as they had failed to consult on environmental information on the project, and therefore had come to their decision unlawfully. We’ll always take action against unlawful developments, as well as developments that harm wildlife, so we’re really pleased about this result, which sends a strong message that we’ll always speak up for wildlife.

Birds, Puffin, close up with sandeels

Nature of Scotland Awards

The Nature of Scotland Awards are designed to recognise and celebrate excellent, innovation and outstanding achievement in Scottish nature conservation.

I’m going to focus on the Lifetime Achievement Award winners, as I think they deserve a special mention.

First up are Philip and Myrtle Ashmole, who are best known for being the leading lights behind the Carrifran Wildwood project of the Borders Forest Trust. This visionary ecological restoration initiative, eight miles north-east of Moffat, is transforming a heavily-grazed upland glen into a carefully-restored patchwork of wooded wild land. Myrtle and Philip have been supporters of the RSPB since the 1950s.

The other winners are Mike and Val Peacock, who between them have a lifetime of wardening, monitoring, habitat creation and management on the spectacular edges of the UK. Mike’s wetland creation at Loch Gruinart is now the largest roost site for Greenland white-fronted geese in the UK, and together, Mike and Val represent an unstoppable force for nature.

Lifetime Achievement Award: - Philip and Myrtle Ashmole
Philip and Myrtle Ashmole
Lifetime achievement award - Mike and Val Peacock
Mike and Val Peacock
Coral sand beach and dunes at Balranald RSPB reserve, North Uist, Scotland, June 1997

In brief

Big Nature Festival 

Scotland’s Big Nature Festival returned in 2015 for a fourth successful year. Located at Levenhall Links, it was two days of festival activities for all. Visitors of all ages attended to join in an exciting celebration of Scotland’s wonderful wildlife. More than 6,000 people attended the successful event, organised by RSPB Scotland. 

Dolphinwatch makes a splash 

Record numbers of people visited Aberdeen’s third annual RSPB Dolphinwatch this year, to witness the iconic spectacle of the bottlenose dolphin. Aberdeen is rapidly becoming famous as the best place to see dolphins in the UK. The 2015 watch received 5,038 visits - a real jump up from 1,668 in 2014 - and the Dolphinwatch received visitors from Germany, Spain, Sweden, Mexico, Canada and Malaysia, as well as all over the UK. 

50 years at Balranald 

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of our Balranald reserve, on North Uist. In 1966, RSPB Scotland, and local crofters and landowners, acquired the reserve, which is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Western Isles. The reserve was originally set up due to the presence of rare red-necked phalaropes, which bred sporadically at Balranald until 1984 and then disappeared. Imagine our excitement, then, when another pair returned there to breed in 2015! We’re excited to see what the next 50 years holds for Balranald. 

Greening Glasgow 

I'm really excited about a project that's underway to make parts of Glasgow a resplendent shade of green. 'Dear Green Future' is a partnership between RSPB Scotland and Glasgow University Wildlife Garden Group. Led by the young people and students themselves, and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund Young Roots Programme, the project seeks to transform areas into green spaces that are perfect for wildlife, run community events and a cultural research project. The project has been running since August 2015 and it’s making great progress so far. 

And finally... 

Working in conservation can sometimes be unforgiving, so I’d like to leave you with a happy story. The Independent on Sunday produces a ‘Happy List’ every year, a collection of 100 inspirational heroes whose kindness, ingenuity and bravery make the UK a better place to live. RSPB supporter Brian Nolan made the list. He is famous in his local area for spending several days a year dressed as a blue tit, to raise money for the RSPB through pin badge sales. 

Brian has been an RSPB volunteer since 2006, and has raised a staggering £32,000 this year alone by selling pin badges. He also organises monthly talks and acts as an ambassador for protecting wildlife. This year, he won the RSPB President’s Award.

None of the amazing work we do at RSPB Scotland could take place without our staff, volunteers and supporters. Thank you very much, and here’s to another successful year of giving nature a home. 

Volunteer Brian Nolan dressed as a blue tit
Volunteer Brian Nolan dressed as a blue tit