As the weather warms up, you're likely to be heading outdoors more often. There are loads of amazing nature spectacles to enjoy in spring and summer, but how can we make sure we're not causing harm to the wildlife we so love to see? Here are our top tips for getting out and about responsibly. 

The Covid pandemic has seen unparalleled public access and enjoyment of the Scottish countryside. It has been well publicised that the people of Scotland have opted for local staycations, as foreign travel options have been reduced. Indeed, this has been to a large extent a very good thing as many people have found time to reconnect with nature and the role of nature in improving human mental health is now more widely understood. The engagement by the public in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch has been at record levels, with over a million people taking part across the UK, and just under 80,000 in Scotland.

Access to open countryside in Scotland is a right that all enjoy and we should certainly not take for granted. However, with rights come responsibilities, and responsible access rights are defined by the Scottish Outdoors Access Code (SOAC) and associated best practice guidance. We should all “know the code before we go” as the mantra states.

A group of people with backpacks on walk single file away from the camera, along a path through trees.

So has there been a negative impact on wildlife (and particularly from our perspective birds) from increased public access to the countryside? RSPB Scotland nature reserves have proved hugely popular places for the public to visit during lockdown and we have greatly enjoyed welcoming these visitors, including many who are learning how to connect with nature for the first time. However, some of our best-loved sites have come under increased visitor pressure, especially from wild camping and increased use of motorhomes, including unauthorised use of our nature reserve carparks for overnight parking when intended for use by our site visitors. Pressure from water sports, including the relatively recent pastime of paddle-boarding, has increased at Loch Garten and at Loch Ruthven, the latter the most important site in Scotland for the rare breeding Slavonian grebe.

In the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Parks, NatureScot helped fund increased ranger services to provide advice to the public and to help avoid human disturbance to sensitive breeding bird species including the declining capercaillie population. Capercaillie are known to be shy and very sensitive to human disturbance especially arising from disturbance by dogs. Elsewhere, the Scottish Raptor Study Groups have reported increased incidences of human disturbance to sensitive breeding birds of prey, including golden and white-tailed eagles, and indeed several pairs of breeding pairs of ospreys have been reported to have failed in their breeding attempts due to camping and campfire incidents close to their nest sites. Most birds of prey and some other bird species will only make one nesting attempt each breeding season so any disruption will mean no chicks hatch that year.   

A close up image of a nest made out of small twigs, with three pale blue eggs in the centre.

Scotland’s islands including Orkney and the Western Isles are home to some of Scotland’s most important breeding bird populations. These birds are mainly make their nests on the ground or on cliffs, and include divers, corncrakes, waders, birds of prey and seabirds. Some of the local habitats, including the flower rich machair, are highly sensitive to damage from increased vehicular access and vulnerable to damage from campfires and disposable barbeques. Beaches can be important nesting places for the rare little tern and ringed plovers. Travel to the islands by campervans has increased massively, often accompanied by people with their dogs. SOAC requires dogs to be kept under close control at all times which is particularly important as many of the islands are thriving crofting communities with livestock out on the hill and machair. Many dog owners behave responsibly, however reports suggest that this is not always the case.

As we approach this coming spring and summer, we are encouraging the public to go out and experience the great outdoors and the wonderful wildlife spectacles that Scotland has to offer. However, this is also a gentle reminder that human activity can have a significant impact on birds and their nests. Disturbance to nesting birds can lead to eggs or chicks becoming chilled or falling victim to predators. The law recognises this, and reckless or intentional disturbance to some species can result in prosecution. You may need a NatureScot licence to photograph certain specially protected species at the nest.  Similarly, drones can cause disturbance to nesting birds and other wildlife and may also require a licence.

A corncrake pokes its head out of a dense patch of nettles. No other part of the bird is visible.

We urge the public to familiarise themselves with SOAC and its requirements before they travel, especially in relation to responsible behaviour and sensitive breeding bird species. Understanding of the signs that birds display is often helpful; noisy calls and distraction behaviour are often indications that an active nest is nearby and in such cases it is usually best to retreat and give the birds some safe distance. Working through accredited wildlife tourism operators and visiting nature reserves with marked trails and safe viewing hides, as well as following the guidance and specialist advice on offer, are also good ways to proceed.    

 Main image: Three cute blue tit chicks peeking out of a hole in a tree trunk.  Ben Andrew