March 21, 2006

Scotland’s Endangered Wildlife: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

By Fordyce Maxwell and John Ross

AN ATTEMPT by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to highlight the endangered status of 23 species of wild animals, plants and birds in our landscape is believed to be the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

Not only will wildlife protection groups be called upon to act in the interests of these vulnerable natives, but the public, too, are being urged to air their views on which species best deserve protection.

The good, bad and, frankly, the rather ugly have been named as priority targets for action in a framework launched today by Rhona Brankin, the Deputy Environment Minister. The three-month consultation period will give the public a chance to make a case for their own favourites among those in danger of being wiped out, and choosing others with a good case for re-introduction - or even eradication - in Scotland.

"This is not about selecting a top 20 of the rarest species," Brankin stresses. "Nor does it focus exclusively on those whose decline is cause for concern. Much important conservation work goes unnoticed because the species are common or not as charismatic as others."

Charisma? She might have the well-publicised capercaillie, red squirrel, wildcat or white-tailed sea eagle in mind. Not common, but less obvious to the layman might be the great yellow bumblebee, the lesser butterfly orchid, the small cow-wheat - a small yellow flower - and that rarest of freshwater fish, the vendace. They are all there on the list of goodies to be revived or saved. Among the list of 23 there is also a bad quartet earmarked for eradication or severe pruning: the voracious American mink, the North American signal crayfish, the common or garden hedgehog - running amok in the Western Isles - and the rhododendron.

Intervention through positive management is sometimes necessary to conserve sites and protect species, says Brankin, and early recognition and action is needed: "What starts as a risk turns into a threat and then becomes a decline. Then we hear the word extinction. "

"Hear, hear," is the feeling among representatives of more than a dozen conservation and environmental groups gathered at Hopetoun House to hear the good news. Let's hope it won't be too late to turn things round.

1. GREAT YELLOW BUMBLE BEE: Once common across Britain, this species is now restricted to the flower-rich, extensively-grazed grasslands of the far west and north of Scotland. This type of grassland has largely disappeared elsewhere as farming has become more intensive.

2. RED SQUIRREL: An estimated 75 per cent of Britain's remaining 160,000 red squirrels are in Scotland, but they are increasingly under threat from the more aggressive grey. Greys also carry a virus, harmless to them, but fatal to red squirrels: nine cases of this have been found in Scotland.

3. WATER VOLE: The water vole has suffered one of the most dramatic population declines of any Scottish mammal, mainly because it is an easy prey for American mink, although pollution and habitat loss - often caused by drainage schemes - are also factors.

4. FRESHWATER PEARL MUSSEL: Provided parts of the Scottish and British Crown jewels, and were once found in almost every river in Scotland. Numbers have declined to just 61 breeding sites because of pollution and illegal fishing. These sites still make up half the world population.

5. SCOTTISH WILDCAT: Once common, now restricted to northern Scotland. Population unconfirmed, but estimated at 3,500. Under threat from disease and hybridisation with feral/domestic cats. Action is needed before only genetic testing could distinguish wild from domestic.

6. CORN BUNTING: Increasingly rare in Scotland, restricted to a few small areas in the east of the country and the Western Isles. SNH say that the decline in other areas could be partly, but not entirely, owing to the increase in autumn-sown cereals and reduction of winter stubble.

7. BLACK GROUSE: Almost all the UK population breeds in Scotland, but the most recent survey in 2004 indicates that this bird is still in steep decline because of loss of habitat, absence of predator control, deer fencing and what SNH call "inappropriate management".

8. CAPERCAILLIE: Scotland's largest game bird, whose numbers have fallen significantly from about 20,000 to 1,900 in the past 30 years. Scant breeding success, deer-fence strikes and poor-quality habitat are given as reasons. A GBP 5 million project began in 2002 to treble numbers by 2010.

9. WHITE TAILED EAGLE: These birds were extinct in Scotland, but are now a tourist attraction in areas such as Mull and the west coast, following a reintroduction programme from 1975 to 1985, when 82 young birds were brought from Norway and released on Rum. Once widespread throughout north and west Britain, with at least 100 nests occupied in the early-19th century, shooting and poisoning wiped them out. The last pair was shot in Skye in 1916; the last surviving bird was killed in Shetland two years later.

10. VENDACE: The rarest freshwater fish in the UK, it became extinct in Scotland more than 40 years ago. But two lochs were re- stocked, apparently successfully, from Cumbria in the 1990s. However, further assessment is needed and nutrient enrichment of freshwater is a major threat.

11. WOOLLY WILLOW: Rarest of mountain willows, now found only in a few inaccessible locations. Scrub with willows like this is an important above-the-treeline feature in mountain systems, but has been almost eliminated in Britain by grazing. Supplementary planting has taken place in two areas, but grazing must be controlled to allow plants to grow and spread.

12. LESSER BUTTERFLY ORCHID: Still found over a wide range of grassland and moorland habitats, but since 1964 it has disappeared from one third of Scottish areas surveyed, with more intensive upland grazing and more intensive lowland farming given as the main reasons.

13. CORNCRAKE: Corncrakes were on the brink of extinction in Scotland a decade ago, but 1,100 were recorded last year, the highest number in 27 years of monitoring, thanks to the combined efforts of the RSPB, SNH, Executive and payments made to farmers and crofters for changes in management.

14. EUROPEAN BEAVER: Not so much conservation on the schedule here, more re-introduction for a species that became extinct in Scotland four centuries ago. Seen as a valuable addition because it creates wildlife habitats such as coppiced woodland, dead wood, ponds and wetlands.

15. SMALL COW-WHEAT: A small, yellow-flowered annual that grows from seed each year. Once found on more than 200 sites in Britain and Ireland, now restricted to only 22 - of which 19 are in Scotland. Tree planting, grazing and fertiliser use are thought to be responsible for the decline.


AMERICAN MINK were introduced to the Western Isles in the 1950s and 60s in attempts at commercial fur farming in Lewis. When that failed, the animals were released or escaped and spread rapidly.

Up to 10,000 adult mink are thought to have colonised the islands, with several hundred in the Uists. They are voracious animals, blamed for killing poultry, raiding fish farms and threatening bird colonies by eating chicks and eggs.

An omnivorous feeder, it can hunt its prey to local extinction because it simply transfers to other species. A project is continuing to wipe out the species in the islands and a recent report indicated the purge was working, with evidence of birds again breeding successfully in areas where mink had been eradicated.

HEDGEHOGS were first recorded in the Western Isles in 1982, but it wasn't until 1995 that it was realised how much damage they were causing to the population of wader gulls. A subsequent controversial cull started to wipe out about 5,000 hedgehogs, to protect birds such as dunlin, lapwing and redshank whose numbers had dropped significantly.

Animal-rights groups have protested about the cull and have relocated some of the hedgehogs to the mainland.

The North American SIGNAL CRAYFISH was introduced to England in the mid 1970s and has recently been found on several Scottish sites. Its spread can be through natural dispersal, but has also been by misguided and illegal movements by humans.

An aggressive, invasive species, it can have a major, and rapid, effect on freshwater biodiversity and immediate action is recommended to remove it when found in new areas.

The only plant on the invasive non-native species hit list is the RHODODENDRON. It is widely invasive, its dense growth eliminating most other species and doing particular damage to important populations of mosses and lichens in the West of Scotland woodland.

Two species are noted for conflict management, that is balancing their needs against farming - the GREENLAND WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE which can flatten large areas of grass and crops on Islay, and the HEN HARRIER, still occasionally shot or poisoned because it eats grouse chicks.

RED DEER and native OYSTER are listed for sustainable use. The oyster has gone from areas where it was once plentiful, such as the Firth of Forth, but could be revived, and red deer are a sporting resource that tend to cause damage by over-grazing.