Starling numbers ‘at 30-year low’

Starlings are famous for their winter displays, which are known as murmurations

The RSPB‘s annual wildlife survey has recorded the lowest number of starlings in UK gardens for 30 years.

Since the Big Garden Birdwatch began in 1979, the average number of starlings spotted by participants has dropped from 15 to just three.

Although the species was the number two “most spotted” bird, it was seen in fewer than half of UK gardens.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) confirmed that starlings were a “conservation concern”.

The RSPB and its partners are currently carrying out research to find out the reasons behind the decline.

As Dr Rob Robinson from the BTO explanied, studies so far point to a decline of traditional, established pastures as a major threat to the birds.

Intensively farmed land, he told BBC Nature, made it more difficult for the birds to find their favourite food – cranefly larvae that live in undisturbed soil.

“These days, farmers are tending to cultivate in short rotations,” he explained, “putting a field down to grass for three to five years and heavily fertilising it.

“Another factor… is harvesting efficiency. Thirty years ago, the farmer would leave 1% of grain on the field. But now the harvesting efficiency is 99.9%, which leaves very little for the birds.”

In England, conservation groups including the RSPB and the BTO are working with Natural England to provide advice for environmental stewardship schemes. These schemes provide funding for farmers in England to deliver effective environmental management on their land.

Another problem that has been highlighted is a change in modern building design; starlings often nest in cavities and crevices in old buildings.

“They’re very noisy and messy, so many people block up those spaces to prevent them nesting,” explained Dr Robinson.

He suggested that “a very positive thing” people could do to help the birds would be to put up nesting boxes.

The RSPB said that more people took part in this year’s survey than ever before, with almost 600,000 people counting more than nine million birds of 70 different species.

The charity said the survey was a very useful “snapshot” of the health of British birds.


Tourists keeping an eagle eye on Harris

A Golden Eagle is top of the must-see list for most visitors to Harris
“They all want to see an eagle, an otter, and a seal.”

Sitting in the office where she and her husband run an self-catering holiday business, Rhoda Campbell tells me every guest who comes to stay at their cottages at Scarista on the Harris coast has the same must-see list of priorities.

As he listens to our conversation Neil Campbell browses through the Sightings Book they encourage all their visitors to fill in.

One couple who stayed for just four days in December last year have recorded that they saw two Golden Eagles on their very first walk, on the first day of their holiday.

It’s just one of a growing number of eco-tourism businesses catering to people who visit the Outer Hebrides to enjoy their rugged beauty and amazing wild-life.

But there is a potential problem.

“One thing people consistently say is that there’s not enough to do”, Neil Campbell told me.

The building’s wood cladding and turf roof should blend it into the hillside
So the couple have welcomed an initiative by North Harris Trust – a community group which owns the North Harris and Seaforth estates – to open a Golden Eagle observatory, some seven miles or so north-west of Tarbert.

The site is in a spectacular glacial valley, at Glen Meavaig, with big cliffs and high hills on both sides.

Ranger Robin Reid told me it is in the heart of prime Golden Eagle territory.

“It’s open, relatively treeless, landscape with lots of hunting territory. Pretty undisturbed.”

“Not a lot of people in and around nest sites in this area, so there’s lots of secluded places for them to nest.”

“And also there hasn’t been a history of persecution (of raptors) here, like there has been in other parts of Scotland.”

The other big difference from mainland Scotland is the absence of predator mammals, such as foxes.

Wildlife ranger Robin Reid scans the skies, looking for eagles
That makes the Golden Eagles and Sea Eagles top of the tree – not that there are many trees in the Western Isles.

And it all helps to make Harris one of the best places in Europe to see the birds.

And when you do see them, I’m told, it’s an unforgettable experience.

Jeff Edwards moved to Leverburgh at the southern end of Harris eleven years ago.

He’s run Golden Eagle walks in the past. And he’s about to start them up again.

He says he has about a 70% success rate at finding birds to show to his customers. So he’s seen Golden Eagles dozens – perhaps hundreds – of times.

But, he told me, “I don’t think I’d ever get blasé about seeing them. The bird is such a magnificent animal.”

“The female has at least a 7ft wingspan. I can only describe the wings as looking like scaffolding boards, with fingers on the ends of them.”

Rhoda and Neil Campbell welcome eco-tourists to the Outer Hebrides
“It’s just an awesome sight, every time you see them. They are magnificent.”

But back in the North Harris hills, Robin Reid and I have been scanning the skies for nearly two hours. And we haven’t seen even the hint of an eagle. Not a glint of a golden brown feather against the moorland.

Admittedly the mist has been pretty high, the cloud pretty low, and the rain pretty persistent the whole time.

“The weather has been against us, and we’ve been unlucky”, Robin explained.

“On a good day, I’d be confident that we’d see them. But that’s the nature of wildlife watching. They’re wild birds, and they can be elusive.”

“If you went to a zoo, you’d have a guarantee that you’d see them. But you wouldn’t have the excitement of watching a wild bird.”

The hope is that tourists who want to share that excitement will start to think of Harris as one of the destinations of choice; that the observatory will enhance the experience they have in the Hebrides; and that the money they spend will help to sustain the island’s fragile human communities.

New funds to protect rare Loch Lomond grouse

Black Grouse

The black grouse population in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park is to benefit from funding aimed at boosting conservation.

The population has declined from approximately 50 lekking males in 1999 to around 15 in 2010.

A package worth £720,000 will aim to stabilise and increase the species number.

The measures include moorland management, targeted heath restoration and predator control.

The funding has come from from the Scotland Rural Development Programme and will cover an 8,000 hectare area between Callander and Lochearnhead.

Grant Moir, the national park’s director of conservation, welcomed the funding: “Significant effort and investment is required to halt and reverse the dramatic decline of this iconic bird in the national park.

“The funding now enables the land managers we have worked with to implement positive measures that will help black grouse to breed more successfully.”

The work this year will include grazing management, bracken spraying, scrub thinning, heather burning, tree planting and fence marking.

Environment minister Stewart Stevenson said: “I warmly welcome the efforts of the land managers in the national park who are collaborating on this project to secure the future of this population of black grouse around Callander and Lochearnhead.

“It shows that with funding from the Scotland Rural Development Programme, we can make significant efforts bringing together public and private sectors to enhance the habitats of our iconic Scottish species.”

Fall in the number of birds of prey being poisoned in Scotland

The number of incidents involving the poisoning of birds of prey fell by more than half in Scotland last year.

Poison map

In total, 10 poisoning incidents were recorded in 2011, resulting in 16 dead birds. This compares with 22 incidents and 28 deaths, in 2010.

The Scottish government said that the results represented “a welcome decline” but that it was “no cause for complacency”.

Seven buzzards, four red kites and a golden eagle were among the fatalities.

Environment Minister Stewart Stevenson said:

“This is the fourth year we have published these maps and I very much welcome the reduction in poisoning numbers.

“I hope this proves to be the beginning of a continuing reduction in such cases, leading to the end of this outdated, dangerous and cruel practice.”

He added:

Birds of prey are a key part of our ecosystems and a magnificent spectacle in our countryside. They are valued by locals and visitors alike.”


David Miller BBC Scotland environment correspondent – 

The golden eagle is one of Scotland’s best-loved species. But in 2010, four were found poisoned. Even a huge white tailed sea eagle fell victim to poisoned bait that year. In total, 28 birds of prey were illegally killed in this way.

There were 16 confirmed poisoning cases in 2011, but it is impossible to know if this marks the start of a long-term downward trend.

Poisoning is only one technique used to control birds of prey and it is difficult to detect. We do not know how many other birds were poisoned last year, their bodies undiscovered or hidden.

Scotland’s sporting estates believe their reputations are being unfairly damaged by the actions of a minority of gamekeepers and landowners who still break the law.

Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners, insists it is working hard to change attitudes. These figures, it says, are welcome news but provide no room for complacency.

Meanwhile, a new offence of vicarious liability means Scottish landowners and managers can now be held criminally responsible for the actions of their gamekeepers and contractors.

But when will we be able to say this centuries-old problem has finally been solved?

That day will only come when species like the hen harrier, the red kite, and even the iconic golden eagle, have the chance to return to large swathes of land which, for now, remain enemy territory.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management for RSPB Scotland, said:

“We hope that this is the start of a downward trend in illegal poisoning in Scotland.

“In time this should also be reflected in an increase in the populations and ranges of some of our most vulnerable species, including golden eagles, hen harriers and red kites.”

Douglas McAdam, chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates, said:

“These statistics reveal the lowest number of cases on record for confirmed illegal poisoning of birds of prey since we started producing these hot spot maps.

“This is very welcome and encouraging news and clearly demonstrates substantial progress in this area.”

The record high for bird poisoning deaths was 34 in 2006. The number in 2011 represents a fall of more than 50% and a 42% drop from 2010.

The fall has occurred at a time when the government said its laboratories at Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) were testing more intensively.

Supt Ewen West, of Tayside Police, who chairs the raptor persecution priority delivery group, believes the decrease was influenced by measures being taken to combat wildlife crime.

He said:

“This reduction in poisoning incidents is in my view reflective of the ongoing work in relation to the prevention and investigation of such criminality.”

Scotland’s annual wildlife crime conference takes place on Wednesday at the Scottish Police College in Fife.

Highland wildlife park mourns death of its rare Amur tiger

A RARE Amur tiger at the Highland Wildlife Park has passed away at the age of 16.
Sasha was put to sleep yesterday morning (13th March) after keepers at the park noticed “odd changes” in her behaviour.
The animal was also said to be unable to compete with her three-year-old daughters, Natalia and Dominika.
Highland Wildlife Park’s Facebook page stated: “Originally thought to be due to old age, as Amur tigers in the wild seldom make it past 12-years-old, it became clear over recent weeks that her health and wellbeing was starting to deteriorate.
“Sadly, the continuing changes in the social hierarchy of our Amur tiger group and other recent observations strongly indicated probable health or senility issues with Sasha.
“After consultation with her keepers and the vets responsible for her care, it was decided the most appropriate course of action was to put her to sleep.”
Sasha arrived at the park, in Kingussie, near Aviemore, along with her long-term mate Yuri from Edinburgh Zoo on September 25 2008.
She lived with Natalia and Dominika after Yuri was put down in 2010, aged 17.
It is understood there are only around 500 Amur tigers, previously known as Siberian tigers, still living in the wild.
Together, Yuri and Sasha produced a total of nine cubs.
A post-mortem examination will be carried out, which the park hopes will explain the changes in Sasha’s behaviour, as well as providing information which could further the understanding of health issues suffered by older tigers.
Douglas Richardson, animal collection manager at the Highland Wildlife Park, said: “Sasha had always been a trim cat, but a few weeks ago she appeared to lose condition quite rapidly and became listless.
“With a little extra food and rest she seemed to recover. However a few days ago, one of the youngsters stole her joint of meat and Sasha seemed bewildered by the meat’s ‘disappearance’ from directly in front of her.
“Her eye-sight also appeared to be deteriorating, especially in lower light levels, and the younger tigers were becoming increasingly dominant over Sasha.”

Proposal to cull River Tay wild beavers rejected

Check out the video here

Beavers living wild around the River Tay will be monitored for the next three years before a decision will be made on the future of the animals in Scotland.

Environment Minister Stewart Stevenson said the timing ties in with an official beaver trial in Knapdale, Argyll, which draws to a close in 2015.

The decision follows a report from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) which had outlined three options for beavers in Tayside, including killing them.

Around 100 of the animals are thought to be living wild in the area, including some which escaped from private collections or were deliberately released.

The monitoring group will include the Tay District Salmon Fishery Board, local landowners and conservation groups including Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

Mr Stevenson said: “There is potential for an important and unwelcome precedent to be set, so we must consider environmental and other impacts when we make decisions.

“After careful consideration of all the various factors, my view is that the best way forward is to allow the beavers to remain in place for the duration of the official trial beaver reintroduction in Knapdale in Argyll.

“We will take a decision on the future of beavers in Scotland, both those in Knapdale and on Tayside, at the end of the trial period in 2015.”

The monitoring group will be led by SNH’s David Bale, who said: “The information about Tayside beavers, along with comprehensive research from the Scottish Beaver Trial at Knapdale and other sources, should give the minister a full range of information to make his decision in 2015.

“We plan to have the group up and running as soon as possible.”

Simon Milne, Scottish Wildlife Trust chief executive, said: “The Scottish Wildlife Trust remains opposed to the illegal release of wild animals into the Scottish countryside.

“However, tolerating and studying the unlicensed beavers on the Tay until the end of the official Scottish Beaver Trial in Argyll will enable the government to make a more informed decision on the future of all beavers in Scotland.”

North Third Fishery Closed For The 2012 Season

View from North Third Cliffs

Due to proposed works to the dam wall North Third Trout Fishery, will not be able to open for the 2012 season.

Scottish Water need to carry out major repair and upgrading work to the dam wall. This will apparently involve reducing the water level to such an extent that it will be simply impossible for the fishery to function.

Fishery bosses said they appreciate that for many anglers this is very short notice, as the fishery was due to open on March 15 2012.

“However, we have been desperately trying to find some way round this problem. Scottish Water has also not yet been able to confirm the actual start date of the work, the full amount of draw down and how long work will continue during 2012,” – said a spokesperson.

They would like to apologise for the inconvenience and disappointment.

It is intended to re-open the fishery for the 2013 season.

 Official North Third Trout Fishery Site