By Rhiannon Jehu
I find birds amazing, they can seem so small, so light weight, so vulnerable looking, and yet they survive in what to us feels like harsh extremes. The RSPB suggest that birds are probably the most researched and recorded wildlife on the planet. At the opposite end of the spectrum, wetlands have often been viewed by people as wastelands. However, they are essential not just for the survival of many of our much loved bird species, but also for our survival as a species. This month I thought that I’d write about 2 different events that have happened almost together this year –RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch that has been running since 1979 and World Wetlands Day which has been celebrated since 1997 and has just become an official UN event.
The Big Garden Birdwatch
The Big Garden Birdwatch is a very popular citizen science project – in 2021 over one million people took part across the UK with 78,000 people counting a total of 1.5 million birds in Scotland. The BGB data was combined with information gathered by 70 other organisations and used in the ‘State of Nature 2019 report’ which in turn is being used to advise and campaign for improvements in nature care. The BGB count is especially important because it has been taking place for so long that it allows trends and changes to be identified. Sadly, this means that we know that over the last 50 years, 40 million birds have vanished from the UK’s skies.
For me, doing the birdwatch is a social experience since we compare notes with neighbours and friends as to what we’ve seen and not seen. This year we saw sparrows, starlings and pigeons. The RSPB ask us to record the maximum number of each species we see with their ‘feet on the ground’ at any one time. This means no counting the flock of geese flying over-head, which can be very frustrating – a case of the ones that got away.
The stats from 2021 show that house sparrows were our most common garden visitor across the UK. In Scotland this was followed by starlings but in England, blue tits came number two. Nationally, sparrow populations have dropped by 58% and starling numbers by 83%, since 1979.
So, where do wetlands come into the equation? The name wetland describes a wide range of habitats, saltwater or fresh, inland or coastal, natural or human-made. In Shetland, this includes our peatlands, blanket bogs, marshes, lochs and lagoons.
Blanket bogs (a type of peatland), form where soils are water-logged and acidic. Conditions are too harsh for many non-specialised species but mosses, especially sphagnums thrive. They can hold up to 20 times their dry weight in water meaning they reduce runoff (and therefore flooding) and hold water during dry periods, reducing the risk of droughts.
Sphagnums and other bog plants break down very slowly and thus build up (at a speed of about 1mm a year) to form layers of peat which can be over 8m deep (Blanket bog | NatureScot). However, though healthy peats store carbon, when they are degraded they release it back into the atmosphere. This means that caring for our bogs is massively important if we are to limit climate change.
There are over 30 species of sphagnum moss in the UK, but they are very difficult to tell apart.
The Shetland Amenity Trust, with funding from the Peatland ACTION project have so far helped to restore about 400 ha. of Shetlands degraded peatlands as part of a wider national target to restore 250,000 ha. of degraded peatlands by 2030. In Shetland, they are hoping to reach the point where we are restoring 1000 ha. a year. The RSPB in Shetland are also working hard to protect peatlands, employing a dedicated Peatland Officer who works to restore and protect peatland habitats for the benefit of Shetland’s bird species.
Scotland’s location at the edge of the Atlantic means that it catches a lot of rain which the hard rocks stop from draining away quickly. This combined with agricultural practices has allowed bogs and thus peat to cover almost a quarter of Scotland’s landscape (1.8 million hectares). This is a significant amount of our planet’s blanket bogs which in turn support some of our rarest wildlife. So, whilst some people may view wetlands as not being very productive because we can’t grow many crops in them, globally, they are home to 40% of the world’s known plant and animal species and 30% of known fish species, with, for example, many birds using wetlands as rest & refueling stops during migrations.
In Shetland, the vast extent of peatlands is an important breeding area for wetland birds such as dunlin, golden plover and curlew, giving islanders plenty of opportunity to spot these birds while out and about.
Curlews breed on a range of habitats including moorland and bogs. For me, their song suggests the start of spring (almost)
I love watching for the birds that visit our islands and our gardens – even when they hide. Monitoring the wellbeing of individual species, as happens with the Big Garden Birdwatch, helps us to see and understand the long-term situation and can inspire action. However, individual birds trying to survive and reproduce need a wide range of resources and wetlands are incredibly valuable. Caring for them here and around the world is important if we want to give other species and ourselves the opportunity to survive and live well.
If anyone is interested in learning more about carrying out peatland restoration on their hill or apportionment then Sue White from Shetland Amenity Trust would love to hear from you. There are also some ‘how to’ You-tube guides to peat restoration by NatureScot: Peatland Restoration Techniques.