Saving Britain’s Rarest Duck

A major collaboration between several conservation bodies has provided a timely insight into the decline of one of Britain’s rarest breeding birds.

It seems that the future of the species could rely on a surprising benefactor: the angling community.

The common scoter Melanitta nigra, a high arctic species with a toe-hold in this country, breeds on a tiny number Scottish lochs in the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland and in the highlands of Inverness-shire. The last official count was in 2007, when there were 52 pairs. The current population estimate is around 30 pairs. The species also winters off of our coasts in large numbers.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The three year project, a collaboration between RSPB, WWT, SNH and TCV, lays the blame for the decline on competition with increasing numbers of brown trout Salmo trutta.

Dr Mark Hancock, from RSPB’s Conservation Science department, said: “of all the lochs we investigated during this work, scoters bred most often at those with the shallowest water and the most large, freshwater invertebrates. It soon became clear that there were more insects where there were fewer brown trout, so it looks like scoters are being limited by a lack of food in places where the fish are eating it all.”

The project will now look at finding ways of reducing the impact of brown trout on scoter breeding success. “We’re now using these results to design new ways of helping scoters. For example, in areas of the north Highlands where angling activity has dropped off and fish numbers have increased, more trout angling is potentially one way to boost freshwater insect life. At hydro lochs, where water levels are to some extent under human control, we could also aim to maximise the area of shallow water.”

The project is a testament to the benefits of close collaboration between conservation bodies in helping to identify and mitigate the issues that affect our fragile ecosystems. John McFarlane, of The Conservation Volunteers, said: “TCV is delighted to have been part of this exciting project.  Working with partners like RSPB Scotland and WWT allowed our Natural Talent Apprentice Hannah Robson to really fine-tune her taxonomy skills. All of which helps to inject new fresh blood into aquatic conservation.”

The project also highlights the ecological importance of the Flow Country, a vast blanket bog that covers some 400,000 hectares of the extreme north of Scotland. This unique wetland is home to some of Britain’s rarest wildlife, including black-throated divers, golden eagles and greenshank. The Flow Country also acts as a ‘carbon sink’, storing some 400 million tonnes of carbon.

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Andy Painting

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