Why the chough needs a champion

Did you know that there is now a parliamentary majority of ‘Species Champions’ in the Scottish Parliament? Amanda Trask from the University of Aberdeen tells us more.

Red-billed chough. Gordon Yates (www.gordon-yates.com

Red-billed chough. Gordon Yates (www.gordon-yates.com)

This is great news for Scotland’s wildlife – 65 MSPs have each chosen to champion the survival of a different threatened Scottish species. Threatened species are first nominated by a sponsoring organisation, then MSPs can choose to ‘champion’ them, by lending political support, contributing to practical action and raising awareness of the threats their species face.

However, there are still threatened species in Scotland that need urgent help. One such species is the red-billed chough. The chough is one of Scotland’s iconic coastal birds, with bright red legs and beak, and glossy all-black plumage. It is a member of the crow family and is known for its aerial acrobatics and distinctive call, which resonates off the sea cliffs. 

Why are Scottish chough threatened?

Sadly, there are currently less than 200 individual chough left in Scotland, with the last remaining populations existing on only two islands in the Inner Hebrides; Islay and Colonsay. Historically, chough in the UK faced various threats, ranging from changes in farming (which led to changes in the coastal habitat they rely on), persecution (with crows, rooks and chough quite possibly controlled indiscriminately) and egg collecting.



Red-billed chough. Gordon Yates (www.gordon-yates.com)

However, to better understand the recent decline in chough numbers in Scotland, the Scottish Chough Study Group (SCSG) have been monitoring the population since 1981 and their efforts have recently been recognized and highly commended in the Nature of Scotland Awards. Along with researchers from the Universities of Aberdeen and Glasgow and the Scottish Rural Agricultural College, they have found that the decline in chough on Islay is likely to be linked to availability of their invertebrate food. In particular, young chough may not get enough food and so starve to death. This is bad news for the population not only because the individual young chough die, but also because those young chough then never breed, and so any future offspring are also lost. In response to this, an emergency conservation initiative was set up in 2011 by Scottish Natural Heritage and the SCSG to supplementary feed chough on Islay with mealworms. Alongside this, agri-environment schemes aim to improve grassland habitat for chough in Scotland in the long-term.

Sea cliffs on Islay, home to one of the two remaining populations in Scotland. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Sea cliffs on Islay, home to one of the two remaining populations in Scotland. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

However, other factors may also be contributing to the population decline, including genetic problems which can lead to diseases such as blindness (for more about blindness in Scottish chough, see here). Genetic problems are a particular concern in small, isolated populations as there is an increased chance of mating with a close relative, which is known as inbreeding. These genetic concerns can only be reduced if unrelated individuals from different populations are introduced into the Scottish chough population. However, introducing new chough into the Scottish populations would only work if we can make sure these introduced chough don’t also starve to death. Future research will hopefully look at both the genetic and environmental threats to the population to try to come up with a future conservation strategy to ensure the survival of chough in Scotland.

How can a Champion help?

I recently attended a Species Champion event at Holyrood, hosted by Graeme Dey MSP, who is Species Champion for the woolly willow. Both current Species Champions and MSPs interested in becoming Species Champions, as well as 15 different wildlife organisations, attended. At the event, the enthusiasm the Champions had for their species and their eagerness to contribute to conservation initiatives in Scotland was clear to see. The event was a chance for wildlife organisations to nominate new threatened species in Scotland to be championed. However, I was surprised to see that the chough was not a species being nominated to be championed. I was further surprised that few people seemed aware of how low numbers of chough left in Scotland currently are.

A Species Champion for the red-billed chough could help raise awareness of the plight of the chough in Scotland and the threats this species faces. A Species Champion could also lend both practical and political support to future conservation initiatives to address the environmental and genetic threats that chough in Scotland face. In this way, we can make sure chough remain an iconic Scottish coastal bird.

For further information about the Scottish Parliament’s Species Champions, see here.



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