Scotland: a wildlife haven?

The wildlife and scenery of Scotland is breath-taking, the mountains, beaches, lochs and woodland are home to an array of wildlife seen nowhere else in the UK. A stroll along a Scottish beach will likely include the sight of curlews, oystercatchers, seals, otters and if you’re lucky cetaceans! Alongside it’s two national parks, Scotland has 43 nature reserves. But even here in this apparent haven for nature, species are still struggling. After centuries of felling and grazing, a landscape that was once dominated by woodland is now largely carpeted in heather and farmland. The Scottish landscape has changed dramatically and high numbers of red deer keep tree numbers low despite a number of tree planting projects. Changing landscapes is only part of the story, introduction of invasive species and illegal poaching are adding to the woes of Scotland’s wildlife.

Golden Eagle

Photo credit: @hyneseyes

With a wingspan of 2.1m and weighing up to 5.3kg, the golden eagle is Scotland’s top predator. A truly awesome bird of prey that can be seen soaring high in the sky in remote glens in the north and west of Scotland. They build giant nests or ‘eyries’ that are often used by successive generations to rear their own young and by the same pair which mate for life. 

Golden Eagles are Amber listed under the Birds of Conservation Concern review and are protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. Despite their protection, a number of lines of evidence indicate that illegal persecution of Eagles is the most severe threat to Scottish populations. Around a third of the 131 young eagles tracked over 12 years disappeared in suspicious circumstances. These poachings are principally associated with grouse moor management as eagles will predate game birds. The RSPB is satellite tagging golden eagles to help monitor and protect them. In May 2020 the tag of a male golden eagle that went missing in 2016 was found wrapped in lead on the bank on the River Braan in Perthshire. At least eight satellite-tagged golden eagles have vanished from this area in recent years. The discovery of the lead-wrapped tag is a heart-breaking confirmation of illegal killing and of the lengths that criminals will go to evade justice.

Photo Credit: RSPB

RSPB Report on Raptor persecution 2020

https://t.co/jlKZlD6Ofm?amp=1

Report Commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage “Analysis of the fates of satellite tracked golden eagles in Scotland”

Red Squirrels

Red Squirrels are one of Scotland’s most loved animals, but since the introduction of North American squirrels (grey squirrels), red squirrel populations have seriously declined. Grey squirrels were introduced during the Victorian era as ornamental creatures for grand gardens. Grey squirrels outcompete their red cousins for food and living space, making it hard for red squirrels to breed successfully. Within 15 years of grey squirrels moving into an area red squirrels can be completely replaced. A further blow to the red squirrel population came in the form of squirrelpox that grey squirrels brought over and to which the red squirrels have no immunity. Organisations like Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels are working hard to protect remaining populations.

https://scottishsquirrels.org.uk/about/
Photo credit: Keilidh Ewan

Scottish Wildcat

The history of the Scottish Tiger is another sad story of habitat loss and persecution. European wildcats crossed into Britain at around 9,000 years ago and the Scottish wildcat is the only native member of the cat family still found in the wild in Britain. Once widespread, Scottish wildcats are now on the brink of extinction. The most significant threat to wildcats now is interbreeding with domestic cats, from which they can catch diseases. Other threats include:

  • Incidental harm from predator control activities
  • Road collisions
  • Habitat disturbance

Numbers have dropped so low in Scotland that a UK conservation breeding programme has been set up by the organisation Saving Wildcats. Wildcats are elusive so it is very difficult to know exactly how many are left in the wild but it is believed to be between 115 to 314 individuals.

https://savingwildcats.org.uk/about-saving-wildcats/conservation-breeding-programme/

Photo credit: David Bradley

Capercaillie

Capercaillie live in the pinewoods of Scotland, but are occasionally found in mature oak woods. Males weigh 4.3kg and have a wingspan of up to 125cm, making them the largest member of the game bird family. In fact, the Gaelic name for this species, capall-coille means ‘horse of the forest’. The capercaillie is another species that has suffered from the loss of Scotland’s woodland and is at very real risk of extinction in Scotland (for the second time). All capercaillie in Scotland are from Swedish stock as the species became extinct in Scotland in 1785.

Photo credit: Getty images

Pine Marten

Found primarily in the north of Britain, the elusive pine marten lives in woodland areas and are fantastic climbers. They live in holes in trees and feed on birds eggs and fruit. In fact, in the summer months they eat so many bilberries that it can turn their droppings blue!

During the 19th century the pine marten population in Scotland was driven almost to extinction by hunting and trapping by gamekeepers to protect game birds. Their fur was also a valuable export across Europe. The loss of much of Scotland’s woodland has also been a driving force in their decline. Today they are a protected species and it has been illegal to kill pine martens since 1988. The replanting of many forest areas across Scotland has assisted with their recover and their numbers are slowly increasing.

Photo credit: Mark Hamblin

The threats to Scotland’s wildlife are complex. Interlaced with political and economic conflicts, the protection of the magnificent species depicted in our mural is as all conservation in the UK, a delicate balance of stakeholders, conservationists and politicians. It requires open, level-headed communication and above all, a respect for the species we share our home with. The survival of red squirrels, wild cats, capercaillie and pine martens depends on the protection of Scotland’s forests. Planting the right trees in the right places restores habitats, supports biodiversity and is important for carbon sequestration. The UK has pledged to plant trees on 30,000 hectares of land per year by 2025, if this is done correctly we can restore the homes of Scotland’s wildlife while mitigating climate change.

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