Upland estates and landowners have joined forces to help some of Scotland’s rarest birds to nest and breed. There are now 22 land managers in the Loch Ness area working together to create habitats for rare species such as Curlew, Oystercatcher, Redshank and Lapwing.

The results have been outstanding, with more birds returning to the region each year and a significant rise in the number of nests which produce chicks successfully. In some areas there has been a 50% increase in moorland and wading birds over the past ten years, with Curlew and Lapwing the main beneficiary.

The Loch Ness Rural Communities Moorland Group covers 33,000 hectares of moorland spanning 32 miles from Fort Augustus to Farr and includes estates such as Garrogie, Aberarder, Dunmaglass, Glendoe and Corriegarth. Their collaborative approach to conservation is supported by the GWCT (Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust) and RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds).

Jenny McCallum, coordinator of the Loch Ness Rural Communities Moorland Group said:

“Many of the farms and estates in the Loch Ness region are managing habitat specifically for waders. This means excluding livestock or keeping the stocking density low in areas where nesting is preferred and creating wader scrapes to allow chicks access to shallow, wet areas to feed on insects. Land managers are trained to carry out wader surveys in the spring to assess the breeding success.

“We also control predators such as carrion crows and foxes, which is an activity registered with Police Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage and subject to stringent conditions. This combination of methods helps the waders to nest successfully and we are delighted with the results.”

 In addition to Curlew, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Redshank and Black Grouse, other birds which benefit from the moorland management practices in the region include Golden Plover, Snipe, Greenshank, Twite, Hen Harrier and Dotterel. There are 15 known black grouse leks [1] in the area.

All of these birds – apart from the Golden Plover – are on the red list or the amber list for birds considered to be of conservation concern because of their low numbers.

Ken Fraser, who farms land at Gorthleck Mains and Migovie said:

“It’s noticeable that the number of wading birds has really increased in recent years, particularly the Curlew and Lapwing, because of the way the land is managed. Over the past ten years their populations have certainly increased by 50 per cent in my area.

“At this time of year the birds are courting and pairing up, which is an absolute joy to see and hear in the skies around you. I hear the calls of the curlews on a daily basis. We also see lots of black grouse leks every spring, an unforgettable spectacle. The past 10 years have shown that if we didn’t manage the land year-round, these fragile populations would be lost and may never recover.”

Moorland managers also help insect populations – which are an important source of food for birds in May and June. Craneflies are so important to moorland birds that it has been noted that golden plover chicks survive best in years when there are good populations of craneflies.

The peatland restoration work undertaken by estates in the Monadhliaths and many other parts of Scotland involves blocking the drains which were constructed in the past to reduce water levels and enable increased grazing density. By allowing the water levels to rise, insect populations are boosted and this also helps many moorland birds to thrive.

Loch Mhor is an ideal habitat for many waders – there is a substantial area of mud flat, which is exposed depending on the level of water in the loch and subject to its use as a reserve for the hydro scheme. The mud flats are a precious resource for wading birds.

 Jenny McCallum continued:

 “Our understanding of how to protect the environment has really improved over the past 20 years. We have a much more scientific and coordinated approach to land management practices and this has produced excellent results. Every spring we see a good number of red listed and amber listed birds returning and nesting.

“It’s not only the estates that work together across the region, we have also had training from the RSPB and the GWCT on how to count waders using their recognised ‘transects’ approach. The Scottish Government Agri Environment Climate Scheme has also helped us think strategically about the different types of habitat, from grassland to semi-moorland, mud flats and in-bye areas and how they can be best maintained for birdlife.”

[1] A lek is an area where male black grouse gather to display and fight to attract the attention of the females.

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