Update from Orkney Native Wildlife Project

This week, we feature a guest blog from Adam Robertson, the Communications Officer for the Orkney Native Wildlife Project , which focuses on the important work of conserving voles on Orkney.

It was looking like an early spring. Late February and the lapwings were dancing, the skies were clearing, and the wind had dropped. If the unseasonable weather had you fooled, you weren’t alone. The crocuses spent their first few weeks peeking out from beneath a blanket of snow. Despite the recent blast of Arctic air, spring is working its way north, and for us at the Orkney Native Wildlife Project, springtime means monitoring.

March marks the start of the breeding season for the Orkney vole, which is found nowhere else in the world. After spending most of the winter in the cosy confines of its tunnel network, the vole goes forth at the start of spring to mate and reproduce. Accordingly, our monitoring team must also go forth! By surveying vole holes, nibbled grass and its by-product; vole poo, they assess how the species is getting on.

Last spring, our staff and volunteers recorded the highest number of voles since the start of the project. This is great news, as the voles are not only part of Orkney’s unique heritage, but an important cog in the food chain. Short-eared owls depend on the vole for survival, and the increase in voles has coincided with an increase in owl nests recorded by the Raptor Study Group.

While voles can sit out the worst of the winter underground, others are not so lucky. Wading birds overwinter in fields and begin nesting in March. From this point onwards, our Monitoring Officer, Sophie, has her work cut out, despite the assistance of her intrepid volunteers. Throughout spring, the team surveys our key species; lapwings, curlews, and oystercatchers, as well as our less common redshank, snipe, and ringed plover.

nest finding south Ron

Unlike voles, who are obligingly indiscreet in their nesting habits, waders are wily creatures. The monitoring team must spot and record nests, eggs, and chicks, to get an accurate picture of population change. Curlews in particular have no interest in making this easy, choosing to land away from their nests and then sneak through the vegetation to their brood. This habit, combined with their dappled brown plumage, can result in some long and frustrating days spent monitoring. The number of successful curlew nests has increased significantly since 2019, and we’re hoping to see this trend continue into 2023.

In contrast to the stealth tactics employed by the curlew, oystercatchers take a more strident approach. The ultimate helicopter parent, oystercatchers will make their discontent known to anything that they think is too close to their young. Last spring, our monitoring team recorded an astonishing 82% success rate across 97 nests!

To find out whether these positive developments are set to continue, our team will be monitoring at 12 sites across Papay, Sanday, Egilsay, the Orkney Mainland and the Linked Isles. In rain and wind – but hopefully no more snow – they will be out collecting this vital information. In doing so, they help the project to continue protecting Orkney’s native wildlife.

You can keep up to date with the project’s progress via our Facebook page and blog, the Stoat Snippet, where we publish all our trapping statistics. Or check out our website!

The Orkney Native Wildlife Project aims to safeguard the unique and internationally important native wildlife of Orkney. It is a partnership between RSPB Scotland, NatureScot and Orkney Islands Council with generous support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and EU LIFE, as well as in kind and financial contributions from partners.


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