Banner image: Hen harrier (c) Mark Hamblin

Now that spring has well and truly sprung, and summer is on the way it’s a good time to get out and about and look for wildlife.

Internationally important Islay

Islay is renowned for wildlife (as well as whisky!) due to its diverse mix of habitats including coastline, farmland, moorland, bog and woodland. Many of these habitats are protected through European legislation to safeguard them and the species that rely on them. One example is peat bog habitat found in western and central areas of Islay. An area known as the Rinns of Islay (on the western peninsula) is made up of over 100 individual land holdings including rural estates, farms and working crofts. Numerous sites within the Rinns are designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) because of the type of peatland habitat present including blanket bog and heath. Eilean na Muice Duibhe (Duich Moss), in the centre of the island, is also designated as a SAC because of its blanket bog habitat. These two sites are targets for conservation in our CANN project.

Why conserve bogs? 

Peat bogs are an internationally important habitat. They store carbon and help to tackle climate change. They also regulate water flow, filter drinking water and provide the raw ingredients of rural farming, tourism and crofting. Peat bogs provide homes for a variety of animals, particularly birds, and many rely on these upland habitats for breeding success. 

Birds and bogs

Throughout the UK and Europe, many bird species have suffered recent declines in their numbers and range, particularly in upland habitats. The main reasons for declines of species are land-use change, intensive farming practices, forestry, loss or change of habitat, nest predation and climate change.

As part of the CANN project on Islay, birds are surveyed on peatland sites to collect data about their presence, distribution and breeding activity.  This information will be used to help develop conservation action plans for the Islay peat bog sites in the Rinns and Duich Moss. The data will also feed into the wider CANN project to give an overview of the sites within the whole project.  

Over the next three years, between April and August, bird surveys will be carried out on the Rinns and Duich Moss. Two types of survey will be carried out. The first will target breeding waders. Waders are a group of long-legged birds usually living near water along shores or on bogs and marshes. They tend to feed on insects, worms, molluscs and crustaceans and nest on the ground in a simple scraped-out hollow. To monitor these birds, surveyors walk a route through the survey site, stopping approximately every 100 m to look for birds and record any evidence of breeding behaviour e.g. courtship displays, distraction displays or carrying food. The species of interest at our sites are lapwing, redshank, golden plover, curlew and snipe. The surveys are repeated three times each year.

Lapwing

Golden plover (c) Andrew Parkinson

Redshank (c) Tom Marshall
Curlew (c) Terry Whittaker Snipe Hen harrier (c) Mark Hamblin

The second type of survey is a breeding raptor survey for hen harriers. Hen harriers nest on the ground in bogs and heath and eat small mammals and birds. The best way to look for these birds is to do a vantage point survey – a three-hour watch from an elevated location. The surveyor looks for the presence of hen harriers in the area, as well as evidence of breeding activity which can include impressive aerial displays ("sky dances") and mid-air food passes between the male and female above the nest site. Again, these surveys will be carried out three times each year.

What to do with all the data

All bird observations collected throughout the surveys are marked on a map and presented in an annual report. The reports will also include identification of any potential management options for improving the SACs for the target species. This will help the CANN project team when developing the conservation action plans for the CANN sites. In turn, this will help to improve the condition of the sites and species as well as help local people to effectively manage the unique landscape for generations to come.