Highlands & Islands

Isles offer hope to little terns, say RSPB Scotland

Little tern Image copyright RSPB Images
Image caption Little terns migrate from Africa to breed in Scotland

Coastal meadows on the Western Isles known as machair offer some of the best protection to one of the UK's rarest visiting birds, according to the RSPB.

Little terns migrate from western and southern Africa to Scotland to breed on sandy beaches.

RSPB Scotland said mainland colonies have been in decline because of increasing disturbance from holidaymakers and other beach goers.

It said less frequently visited machair provides some of the best habitat.

The Western Isles have between 80 to 90 pairs of little terns, about 5% of the UK population.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Some of the best little tern habitat is in the Western Isles, says RSPB Scotland

Most of the Western Isles colonies are found on the Uists, but in some years they also breed on Lewis and Harris.

RSPB Scotland's Stuart Taylor said: "On the mainland numbers have decreased as the nice sandy beaches on which they nest are increasingly used by holiday-making humans with dogs and buckets and spades.

"Some colonies are only successful due to the warden schemes set up to protect them. Fences are put around the colonies to keep people out as well as predators such as foxes.

"On the Western Isles the birds nest away from the beaches, preferring the machair instead. Here they are unlikely to suffer from disturbance, but late agricultural activities can be a problem."

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Human activity is blamed for declining numbers of the terns nesting on mainland beaches

In years when ploughing has been delayed due to weather conditions, nests and young can be destroyed during machair crop sowing, said Mr Taylor.

He added: "Being ground-nesting birds, the clutch of two or three eggs are well camouflaged against the sandy ground and can easily be overlooked.

"We are hoping that crofters will be on the lookout for them so that they have a chance of breeding successfully."

A member of RSPB Scotland has started work identifying where terns are nesting and alerting crofters to where the birds are.