Conservation work is a messy business. Conserving species and habitats involves an awful lot of dirty work, and – to the uninitiated – a surprising amount of what appears to be wanton destruction and violence. As professional conservationists we spend a lot of time cutting things down, mowing things flat, fencing things out and even setting things on fire. Life at Forvie is no exception, and it’s no coincidence that many of your author’s professional qualifications involve some sort of destructive capacity. Chainsaw, knapsack sprayer, flail mower, brushcutter, that sort of stuff. These are the tools of our trade; contrary to popular misconception, a working life on Reserves isn’t all rare birds and roses.
One of our biggest conservation tasks at Forvie is the protection of the breeding birds in the south of the Reserve, namely terns, gulls and Eiders. Obviously this is chiefly a spring and summer assignment – indeed, the terns will still be on their winter quarters in distant parts of the world as I type this. But the work to ensure they have the best chance of success has already begun. And unsurprisingly, it involves a degree of destruction. First though, a bit of background.
As regular readers of this blog will already be aware, the ternery in the south of the Reserve is home to about 5,000 pairs of breeding birds each summer. They come here to make their nests on the bare ground within the four-hectare electric-fenced enclosure, where they are safe from predators like Foxes. Now as we all know, seabirds produce a lot of droppings – guano – and that which doesn’t get deposited directly on the Reserve staff ends up fertilising the soil. With thousands of birds doing this each year, the ground at the ternery is incredibly fertile, meaning the vegetation grows at a fearful rate. By the end of the summer, it’s a dense jungle of Stinging Nettles, Rosebay Willowherb, Ragwort and thistles, all of which thrive on the nutrients being provided by the birds.
By the time the vegetation is at its highest, the birds have finished raising their young and departed, leaving the insects to enjoy the bounty of flowers. However, as winter approaches, the leaves die back, leaving a vast forest of dead stems – pale, brittle and woody, ghosts of the long-gone summer season.
Birds don’t much like landing among these dense stands of tall stems. In fact, if left standing, the dead vegetation renders much of the area unusable for the birds. That’s where the destructive stuff comes in useful. Step forward Simon and Cat to help me out and man the brushcutters. Over the course of a couple of days, we managed to razz down the worst of the dead vegetation, clearing the ground ready for the birds coming back.
That wasn’t quite the end of it though. With all the cutting done, we were left with a dense thatch of cuttings on the ground. Though the Black-headed Gulls will contentedly use a proportion of these for nesting material, the volume of cuttings produced is huge. In order to prevent the buildup of excessive amounts of dead vegetation from year to year, we rake up and burn the worst of the cuttings. This then leaves a large area of open, bare ground, the favoured nesting habitat of our Sandwich Terns. This year we were indebted to SRUC’s Rural Skills group, as well as regular volunteers Richard and Hugh, for their hard work in getting the job done.
But why do all this? Surely the birds got along fine for thousands of years without us doing this for them? True. So what’s the story here then? Read on…
Terns are notoriously itinerant. Given the choice, they often tend to flit between different breeding sites from year to year. When conditions at a site become unsuitable, e.g. the vegetation becomes too dense for them, they simply move on and nest somewhere else. So they might go up or down the coast a bit, and choose another suitable-looking site nearby. But due to the impacts of the ever-growing human population on our coasts – development, recreation, disturbance – the birds simply don’t have anywhere else to go. And this makes what we do here at Forvie seriously important. This is a stronghold for several species on the edge.
Over the last three or four years we’ve been gradually expanding the area that we’ve cleared of dead vegetation prior to the gulls and terns arriving. The birds have responded really well, with the Black-headed Gull population rocketing to a whopping 2,124 pairs in 2018, while in 2019 we recorded over 1,000 nesting pairs of Sandwich Terns – the best total for many years.
Hopefully the birds will appreciate all our efforts this year, and will nest in large numbers once again. Here’s hoping for a productive season at the ternery in 2020 – watch this space!