Spotlight falls on rare mountain bird feared to be at risk from global warming

SCIENTISTS have launched the largest ever study into the future of the ptarmigan, one of Scotland's most iconic birds, amid fears that it could be wiped out by rising temperatures.

The rare mountain gamebirds thrive in the snow-capped Scottish Highlands but researchers are worried that climate change is limiting its habitat and savaging population numbers.

Now, they have launched a year-long study into ptarmigan and have appealed to the Scottish public to help with the study and report any sightings or unusual patterns they see emerging.

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The plump birds, slightly larger than a grey partridge, are usually only seen on mountainsides and ridges above 700 metres. In winter, the bird turns white except for its tail and eye-patch, which remain black, to help its camouflage and protect itself from predators like foxes, stoats, and larger birds of preys.

Dr Kathy Fletcher, a senior upland scientist with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), will launch the project this weekend at the annual Scottish Game Fair at Scone Palace.

"This is a very important study for the future of the ptarmigan and the biggest ever research project into this very important, iconic species," she said.

"The ptarmigan lives in the rocky areas at the top of mountains, and live off low-growing vegetation there. But that means that they are really hard to survey.

"Everyone assumes that they are going to struggle with the affects of climate change but we need to get a handle on how their numbers are now so that we can help them deal with climate change.

"We suspect it could be in trouble, but unless we get a handle on what is happening with its numbers, we can't take action."

Latest figures from the RSPB claim that there are approximately 10,000 breeding pairs of ptarmigan.

But Dr Fletcher says that since there has never been a national survey, the estimates could be out of date.

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"We are trying to find all the people who live, work, and visit these high areas and ask them to help us with the survey," she said.

Funding for the study, which is earmarked for 12 months, will be confirmed in the next fortnight.

Dr Fletcher added: "If we do find a trend of birds declining, as we suspect we might do, then we are going to have to put together a much bigger project, or make a biodiversity action plan, to see exactly how we can help them.

"We need to safeguard its future so that everyone can enjoy this remarkable species, which is only found in Scotland within the UK, and is quite a tourist draw, in the future."

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