Life on the Firth of Forth

All this week we are celebrating our most special places for nature by bringing you a series of exciting blogs about Scotland’s amazing protected areas. Today David Anderson, Inner Forth Project Officer, tells us all about life on the Firth of Forth Special Protection Area (SPA), and the wonderful birds that this site protects.

I love spring. It’s the season when the whole natural world comes alive as it wakes up from its winter slumber. It’s exciting, it’s life affirming and it truly is one of the best times of the year. On the Firth of Forth however, this time of year is also tinged with sadness. Much of the wildlife that has kept me company over the winter months is now absent. The mudflats and lagoons that only a few weeks ago were bustling with feeding birds now lie quiet.

Many of the birds that were here, such as curlews and lapwings, have headed off to their breeding grounds in other protected areas, which my colleague Dan Brown will tell us about later this week. Many more have headed much further away to breeding grounds in Scandinavia, Iceland or as far as north eastern Canada.

It won’t stay like that for long however, before we know it autumn will be around again and just as the last swallows begin to head for Africa, the Firth of Forth will rise from its own mini slumber as thousands upon thousands of birds return. Waders will descend on the mudflats in search of food after their long journey south from their summer breeding grounds, ducks of all shapes and sizes will find safety on the saltmarshes and pools that line the river, and pink-footed geese will once again be heard calling over the towns and villages of the Firth of Forth. This is what makes the Firth of Forth so special, it is why I love working in this landscape and why it was designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA). You can read more about SPAs and the European network of protected areas in our introduction to Protected Areas Week.

Lapwings fly over the Firth of Forth SPA in front of the Grangemouth oil refinery (credit: David Palmar, www.photoscot.co.uk)

The wildlife of the Firth of Forth SPA is however under pressure. It lies in the heart of central Scotland and is surrounded by towns, cities, motorways and industry. The very human nature of this landscape has put pressure on the inter-tidal habitats (saltmarsh, mudflats and reedbeds) which make this protected area so fantastic for wildlife.

Historically land claim for agriculture has caused the loss of mudflat and saltmarsh habitat, and more recently increasing levels of large scale industry, such as the oil refinery at Grangemouth, has caused yet more loss of inter-tidal habitat.

Then, there is the ever increasing threat of climate change. Inter-tidal habitat would naturally evolve with the increasing sea levels caused by climate change, however due to hard sea defences installed to re-claim land, these habitats can’t change as they would naturally. They are ‘squeezed’ in to a restricted area and as a result will gradually be eroded away as climate change brings more unpredictable weather and storm surges up the estuary.

All this leaves us with a challenge, and it is a challenge which RSPB Scotland and our partners are determined to meet now, rather than leaving it until it is too late. We want to make sure nature still has space in this industrial landscape by protecting and enhancing the Firth of Forth SPA. Partly this involves creating new areas of inter-tidal habitat next to the existing protected area, such as the managed realignment project we are proposing at RSPB Scotland Skinflats. We also want to work with existing land managers around the estuary to ensure we can add value to the site. For example, we are working with Scottish Power to advise on the enhancement of wetland habitats at Longannet Power Station, which has recently been decommissioned, and previously helped ensure the ash lagoons for Cockenzie power station were returned to nature.

It is also important to ensure we provide people with more opportunities to experience the wildlife of the SPA without causing increased disturbance. Through our work at RSPB Scotland Black Devon Wetlands, as part of the Inner Forth Landscape Initiative, we have created new and better wetland habitats at the same time as installing new visitor infrastructure. This has given local people the opportunity to find out about the fantastic wildlife that lives, breeds and feeds on this site, and understand why it is so special. We are also utilising this site to engage young people with their local wildlife as well as developing educational tools, such as the ‘Inner Forth: Formed by People, Shaped by People’ animation.

New visitor infrastructure at RSPB Black Devon Wetlands (Credit: David Palmar, www.photoscot.co.uk)

This work has been vital in protecting, and enhancing the Firth of Forth SPA, but there is more to be done. We need to create a coastline that is resilient and able to adapt to climate change, be a home for wildlife, and all the while still providing for the people that live and work in the landscape. The Firth of Forth SPA is vital for this. If we do not protect and value it, then we risk losing some of the fantastic nature that makes this area so special, and the winter will be that little bit bleaker.

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