The distribution and number of birds in Scotland is changing dramatically. Many species are showing worrying declines, according to a new report.
Continuous decline in many seabird species, including fulmars, arctic skuas, and kittiwakes. Some highland breeding bird species have declined dramatically, including curlew and lapwing, both among the five most common declining common and widespread birds in Scotland. Cuckoo numbers are increasing in Scotland, although they are decreasing in England.
The British Bird 2020 (SUKB) – the central point of contact for the latest results from bird surveys and surveillance studies – underlines the persistently bad fate of the Scottish seabirds and waders in the highlands this year.
The report shows that Scotland’s seabirds continue to have mixed fates. The Seabird Monitoring Program (SMP) shows that the number of Arctic Skua continues to decline and previously well-populated colonies have either disappeared or have been reduced to just a handful of pairs, threatening their long-term future as a breeding species in Scotland. Long-term declines have been seen in birds that feed on sand eels, including kittiwake, shaggy and arctic tern. The seabird indicator, which uses SMP data and covers 11 of the 24 seabird species in Scotland, shows that these 11 declined by an average of 32% between 1986 and 2017.
Arctic Skua, Copyright Glyn Sellors, from the Surfbirds Galleries
In better news about seabirds, the report highlights that gannet populations are doing well, with both numbers and range increasing. Marwick Head in Orkney is one of several new and expanding gannet colonies that have contributed to the happiness of this iconic species.
Scotland’s highland birds also fight. Curlews and lapwing have seen particularly sharp declines, with both being among the top five declining common and widespread birds in Scotland. The breeding populations of lapwing declined by 56% between 1995 and 2018, while the decade between 2008 and 2018 saw a 39% decrease. The curlew numbers have similarly decreased: 59% fewer were recorded between 1995 and 2008 and 20% fewer between 2008 and 2018.
The number of wintering waders has decreased by 50% since 1975. Scotland is home to an internationally significant number of winter curlews, redshanks, dunlins, golden plovers and lapwing, so conservation efforts for these species are vital.
However, data has shown that blacktail snipes and sanderlings have increased in Scotland since 1975. The blacktail goddesses wintering in Scotland are part of the Icelandic subspecies, and their increasing numbers may be a response to agricultural and climatic changes. However, the increases here are not significant enough to offset the overall global decline of this species.
The report has better news for some species. In Scotland, breeding tree pipit populations increased by 80% between 1995 and 2018 and willow warblers increased by 25%, as opposed to significant decreases in Wales and England. Cuckoo numbers have also increased 54% in Scotland over the same period, but have decreased in England, most likely due to the loss of food in the more heavily managed lowland areas there.
David Douglas, RSPB Scotland Principal Conservation Scientist, said: “It is truly worrying that some of the bird species in Britain that Scotland is vital to, such as curlews and arctic skuas, have seen such worrying declines over the long term. This means that conservation efforts are absolutely important for these birds here. The effects of the natural and climate crisis can be seen in the conclusions of this report. Seabirds that rely on sand eels have problems while those with a broader diet like gannets do better.
Another human impact is evident in the increasing numbers of cuckoos in Scotland. In England the numbers are falling again due to changes in land management and use. “
Ben Darvill, Development and Engagement Manager, BTO Scotland said: “Volunteers play an important role in bird watching in the UK by donating their time, energy and expertise. The data they collect is critical to maintaining, tracking change, policy development, and making informed decisions. A big thank you to everyone who has contributed to bird watching in Scotland over the years. We hope 2021 will become more normal after the disorder caused by Covid-19. If you would like to learn more about how you can make a difference by taking surveys, please visit the BTO website.
Andy Douse, NatureScot’s ornithology advisor, said: “These are very worrying results. Many know that we are facing a climate emergency, but not so many know that there is also a global natural crisis. Many famous birds in Scotland as well as other species suffer from it.
“We need a balance of nature for our survival. So we urgently need to reverse the loss of biodiversity if we want to protect our species and our living environment.
“We are already carrying out extensive habitat restoration projects across Scotland to help these birds and protect us from climate change. We can all take steps, too – from your own garden to the thousands of people contributing to this important survey program. “
Fiona Burns, UK State Birds 2020 lead author, said: “The British birds tell us that nature is on the decline. The ongoing losses of many species are unsustainable and more needs to be done to stop the decline and revive and recover populations. These results are in line with our previous 2019 State of Nature Report which found 41% of all UK species are in decline. Further measures are needed to deal with the natural crisis. “