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New science helps northern wildlife

A pioneering piece of collaborative science – to support key work in the north of Scotland which benefits wildlife, peatlands and forestry interests – has been published today.

A group of scientists has developed a new computer model to help guide forest and conservation planning in the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland. The research, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, details the results of work by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), RSPB, Forest Research (FR) and the Forestry Commission (FC).

The research has identified areas where redesigning forested areas in the far north should benefit some of Europe’s richest peatlands and their nesting concentrations of two of our more charismatic birds, dunlins and golden plovers.

The Flow Country peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland contain European Union Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), and are among Europe’s most important areas for nature conservation. Before their nature conservation importance was fully understood, trees were planted on large tracts of these wider peatlands in the 1970s and 80s, resulting in the loss of open habitats.

There have also been concerns about the extent to which these new forests have affected the conservation quality of adjoining areas – for example, through altering peatland habitats and communities of nest predators. As these first rotation forests mature and timber harvesting is set to begin, there is an opportunity to reconsider the forest design and the patterns of land use.
Working cooperatively, the scientists have developed computer models that identify areas where forest removal would most benefit the return of birds to adjoining areas. The work has also pointed to areas where peatland habitats will benefit from tree removal.

Chair of the group carrying out the work, Professor Des Thompson of SNH, commented that: “This is one of the best recent examples of scientific modelling guiding practical land management to get the best deal for wildlife.  It just goes to show what we can achieve through genuine cooperation.”

Using bird survey and environmental data, the scientists were able to test whether three wader species of high conservation importance (golden plover, dunlin and greenshank) were influenced by distance to forest edge, after accounting for the effects of habitat and topography. They found that, for golden plover and dunlin, there were fewer birds close to the forest edge, especially within 800m. The group used this to predict which areas should benefit the most by removing adjacent forest.

Lead author of the paper, Professor Jeremy Wilson of the RSPB, remarked: “It has been inspiring to be part of a collaboration that is translating problem-solving science so quickly into conservation action in one of the world’s most important peatlands.”

Now the group is working closely with forest managers to implement the guidance and advice on forest planning around these European protected sites. They will also work cooperatively to help monitor habitat and bird responses to the changes in forest cover and restoration blanket bog habitat.
John Risby, the FC Conservator who is making use of the decision tools, commented: “This paper and the practical guidance derived from it are proving valuable. They are an objective basis for preparing and assessing forest plans in Caithness and Sutherland, and striking the best future balance between forestry and peatlands in the Flow Country.”

For the full report, see


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