Scottish bird of prey numbers on the rise

RARE short-eared owls and kestrels are enjoying record levels of breeding success in Scottish glens after a joint partnership between conservationists and gamekeepers.

Experienced bird ringer Neil Morrison has recorded trend-bucking numbers of the endangered owls on grouse moor areas.

For two decades the ‘hobby’ owl specialist, licensed to ring birds by BTO Scotland, has developed relationships with gamekeepers and landowners in Perthshire.

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That partnership has helped produce valuable data, with numbers of short eared owls in three neighbouring glens - comprising grouse moor and farmland - being amongst the best in mainland UK.

At least 18 pairs of the amber-listed birds of prey have bred in the last two years and kestrels, declining alarmingly across Britain, are thriving, with eleven breeding pairs recorded since 2014.

His communication with the gamekeeping staff also recently enabled BBC Natural World programmers to film owls hunting, with researchers writing to praise the abundance of wildlife.

Now, on the eve of the 2015 grouse season, the raptor study group member believes warring factions should learn to put differences aside so birdlife can be the winner.

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Mr Morrison said: “All my interest is in birds. I have never got involved in countryside politics but, personally, the benefits I have reaped from working with gamekeepers and landowners has been far greater than I initially thought.

“All professions have good and bad but, from my experience, gamekeepers tend to get tarred with the same brush. For me, I couldn’t have worked on long-term projects without them.

“The owls have an amazing record of success in these three glens and it must be to do with the land management by the gamekeepers because, to get ground-nesters to be as successful as they can be, rats, stoats, weasels and foxes can be a problem.

“The gamekeepers control their numbers and, from over 80 nests I’ve counted over the years, I haven’t lost many to predators at all.

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“The patch work quilt of heather, created by muirburn for grouse management, also seems to be working for the short eared owls, to a lesser extent the kestrels, and also for the barn owls, which we suspect are hunting the moorland more than we realise.

“I know that bickering between both sides has gone on for a long time and it doesn’t seem to be changing which probably needs new approaches.

“There are trust issues on both sides.

“In my view, progress can only come from working together. Ultimately, the birds have to come first.”

Through regular communication with gamekeepers, Mr Morrison has been able to spot and study all four species of native owls breeding in the glens.

Estates have helped him place mist nets on the grouse moors and he has undertaken radio-tracking, tagging and ringing programmes.

As well as short and long eared owls and barn owls, he regularly spies other birds of prey and smaller rare birds such as Whinchat, Spotted Flycatcher and Kestrel.

“Good communication with gamekeepers has worked very well for me over the years. They know the land better than anyone and have pointed me in the right direction many times, saving me valuable time in the relatively short but hectic breeding season.

“From the small amount of literature available, this is one of the best places in mainland Britain for short eared owls and the kestrels do incredibly well. We regularly ring broods of five or six whereas, where I live, the kestrels are in sharp decline.

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“There is a healthy population of many species and a lot of that is down to the management.”

Ronnie Kippen of the The Scottish Gamekeepers Association, one of the gamekeepers who has worked with Neil said: “There is a growing appetite amongst gamekeepers to work with bird experts willing to communicate and build trust rather than campaign.

“The best results come when there is good communication between the bird experts and the estates. Our members are keen to work with the BTO to have their wildlife recorded because there are many successes for vulnerable species.”