Protecting Orkney’s special wildlife: The Orkney Native Wildlife Project

Today, we feature a guest blog from the Orkney Native Wildlife Project team. The project staff are working hard to safeguard the unique and internationally important native wildlife of Orkney by tackling the threat it faces from an invasive non-native predator: the stoat. Watch this wonderful video for the background of the project and then get a glimpse into the important research undertaken by assistants who join the team every year for four months.

We mark high summer with a change in the team. Every July, the temporary research assistants who join us for just four months to observe our birdlife depart for their next contract. It is a unique travelling life fuelled by a dedication to help nature. When they arrive in March, they are out in some vicious cold, looking for nests, while in the midsummer they are up before dawn to observe skylarks, meadow pipits and wheatears out at sunrise serenaded by beautiful birdsong.

Finding nests takes patience, dedication and some eagle-eyed observation skills as the ground-nesting birds hide themselves away in the vast grass seas of Orkney pasture, making them incredibly hard to find! Any nest found is recorded, and this season, 1,024 nest checks were made. The nests are then watched to follow the progress of the eggs and record whether the chicks successfully fledge the nest. The team revisit their sites, which stretch from the Burwick in the south up to Birsay in the north, to regularly to check on progress. Some site visits include a spell on Sanday and Eday, so records from these stoat-free islands can be compared with those on Mainland.

Actually, they could barely be called ‘nests’ as that is giving far too much credit to what is a collection of a few twigs arranged in one spot and are just where the waders have scratched an impression in the earth. Lapwing nests are called ‘scrapes’ as they are just that – scratches at the soil on which to lay eggs.

It is heart-warming when the kindness of farmers avoids these exposed bird nurseries. On one nest visit, fear turned to relief as a vulnerable oystercatcher nest had been spotted and the muck was carefully spread around it leaving the eggs untouched in the middle of the pasture like a castle surrounded by a vast moat of muck.

These meticulous surveys provide the conservation scientists with the necessary data to analyse and measure the status of Orkney’s native wildlife. This year’s records are incredibly important providing a realistic idea of how the eradication of stoats is helping our native birdlife. When the analysis is finished next year, and results compared with previous year’s conclusions, we should have a clearer idea of the benefits the project has brought to Orkney’s breeding birds.

There has been a lot of talk about climate change affecting temperatures, particularly with the south suffering record-breaking highs recently. Spare a thought for wildlife as they too must cope with changes in climate, avian flu and other threats, on top of the impact from non-native species – such as the stoat in Orkney. We are doing all we can with the eradication of a non-native invasive species to help redress this particular man-made problem.

You can read more on why the project was set up in the scientific report commissioned by Nature Scot.

You can also keep up with our progress project by signing up to our blog on our website or follow us on our Facebook page.

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