RSPB Scotland's Vicky Turnbull, Warden for the Tay Reedbeds, shares an update following the fire earlier this week.

An update following the fire at the Tay Reedbeds

This has been a tough week and a really devastating time for some of the breeding birds which nest at the Tay Reedbeds. A fire began around noon on Monday 27th April and swept along 3km of the north shore of the river, burning around 120 hectares of reed at a really crucial time of year for a number of species. The reedbeds are a special place, unique in their scale and a well-loved local landmark, so it’s no wonder that the damage has affected the community as much as it has the wildlife that calls it home.

The fire began south east of Errol and the wind carried it west along the bank, occasionally changing direction and thankfully carrying the fire towards the river rather than the bank and nearby houses. By the time I arrived on site there were many police officers and fire crew with their appliances positioned at the limited number of access points, but as access was so difficult on foot it was felt that support from the air may be the only effective way to stop the fire. The RSPB made the decision to hire a helicopter to dump water on to the flames, much of the reedbed was already gone by this point, but we wanted to make sure the fire was dealt with as quickly as possible, limit the damage and prevent any further spread up river. The helicopter company, Skyhooks, was quick to attend and get going, the pilot Guy Stephens was fantastic to watch as he scooped water from the river and accurately targeted the flames, it was definitely the right decision as secondary fires began to pop up downriver and were quickly dealt with. Looking out over the charred remains of the reeds it was clear to see the immediate impact of the fire – large areas blackened and covered with ash, the smell of smoke in the air and, toughest of all to watch, harriers flying over the area that earlier that day had held their nests with this year’s eggs.

The RSPB has been involved in the site since 2005 to ensure that the benefits of the reed management were retained, taking on the management once reed cutting ceased as a commercial operation. The site is home to a range of reedbed specialists, all with slightly different needs, and the RSPB carries out work each winter to create a variable age structure throughout the reeds to provide the widest range of benefits to breeding and wintering birds and other wildlife. Over several years, blocks of reed are cut for thatch, chopped or flattened on rotation to encourage new growth to create the different ecological niches that allow the wildlife to thrive. The reedbeds, stretching 11 miles along the riverbank within the Tay Estuary, are internationally important, being the largest continuous reedbed in the UK it’s not surprising that they hold significant numbers of breeding birds in the spring and summer, which is why the fire has been such a blow for the reserve.

Although we’ve not been able to get out on site this year to carry out our usual surveys due to the lockdown restrictions, we have a fairly good idea of the species that will have been impacted by the fire. Thanks to work carried out by the Tay Ringing Group, who have been monitoring birds at the reedbeds for many years, we know It’s likely that at least 2 marsh harrier nests were caught in the fire – a significant loss when the Scottish population is so small, at fewer than 20 pairs. The harriers tend to favour the same nesting areas each year and, being so far into the season, with little reed left in their favoured areas and so much already invested it’s unlikely that they would attempt to breed again this year. Water rails are able to have a second breeding attempt and may have a second clutch of eggs if they are able to find suitable habitat nearby, while checking the area earlier this week I did hear males calling so it is possible some pairs may yet rear chicks this year. Bearded tits, one of the main reasons the RSPB is involved with the site, and the largest population in the UK, will likely fair the best. They are a mobile bird which is capable of rearing multiple broods each year, this strategy puts them in a good position to recover from poor breeding success and it is hoped they will be able to move to undamaged areas and re-lay. Around 30% of the total area of reedbed was lost in the fire which does leave a large area for birds to move into, although not all of this will be in good enough condition or suitable to support displaced birds.

The reed itself is resilient and fast growing, and despite the fire it will soon begin to shoot and will be back to near full height by the autumn. The RSPB will look to carry on our management next winter to improve and maintain the habitat for these special birds to give them the best chance to bounce back next year and, as we have for the last 15 years, we plan to be back there to monitor it.

I’m really grateful to all involved in helping with Monday’s fire and preventing it the outcome from being worse: To the emergency services for their quick action and coordination of the massive crew; the helicopter team who were very adept and efficient at putting out the flames; the volunteer drone operator Iain who was there for the fire service but was kind enough to share his footage so the RSPB could assess the damage and to the incredibly supportive local community who have offered help on the ground to repair any damage, donations to help with costs and for their kind words. At a difficult time (for everyone) it’s reassuring to know there is support out there when you need it most.

If people would like to contribute to the RSPB to help us continue our work for wildlife then the best option is to become a member of the RSPB and support all our conservation efforts. If you would like to donate specifically towards the fire at Tay Reedbeds please visit the RSPB Scotland Just Giving page and mention Tay Reedbeds in the comments: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/rspbscotland

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