Raptor windfarm deaths

During late May and early June, RSPB Scotland received four separate reports of a bird of prey being found dead close to turbines at windfarms in different parts of Scotland. In this blog Richard Evans, Senior Conservation Policy Officer at RSPB Scotland, looks into the challenges that birds of prey face in modern landscapes and what these recent deaths might mean for planning policy going forward.

It’s always upsetting to hear about the loss of birds of prey and the recent reports of four birds found dead at separate windfarms are certainly distressing: an osprey at Moy in Inverness-shire; a red kite at Mid Hill in Aberdeenshire; a hen harrier at the Griffin wind farm in Perthshire; and a white-tailed eagle at Edinbane on Skye. Although it’s not yet been confirmed how the red kite died the circumstances suggest that, like the other birds found, it was the result of a collision with a turbine.

The continued time and dedication spent helping these iconic species recover their numbers in Scotland and across the UK heightens the sense of loss. However, it’s really important to see the significance of these recent incidents in a wider context, particularly when the species involved here are subject to a wide range of risks from the modern landscapes of Scotland.  Windfarm collision is just one of these risks which, thanks to the careful planning of most developments, remains relatively minor.

During the Victorian and Edwardian eras all four of these species suffered greatly from persecution; ospreys and white-tailed eagles both became extinct in the UK, and red kites and hen harriers almost so, driven to the fringes of west Wales and Orkney respectively. Apart from hen harriers, all of the species involved have been recovering strongly over the last quarter of the twentieth century thanks to concerted conservation efforts.  There are now more than 100 pairs of white-tailed eagles, more than 200 pairs of ospreys and 1600 pairs of red kites breeding in the UK , with their population numbers steadily increasing so far – these achievements  - which have formed a central part of our mission over the last quarter of a century - are rightly celebrated and we’re immensely proud to have made a major contribution towards them.  In short, it matters to us a great deal.

This spring’s casualties are only the second white-tailed eagle and third osprey thought to have been killed by wind turbines in Scotland.  When the first white-tailed eagle fatality happened in 2014 we wrote about the perils these majestic birds face. Much of what we said then still applies today:  as numbers of these birds increase, and their range spreads, the chances of individual eagles dying accidentally through collision or electrocution increases greatly. In Scotland, more eagles have collided with trains and power lines than with wind turbines and this is similar to patterns of population increase and mortality in other countries.  We have much less information on the causes of death for ospreys, though satellite tracking has shown that around half of all osprey mortality occurs during the long-distance migration to Spain, Portugal and West Africa.

By contrast, persecution, including illegal killing, is still the key factor limiting the population size and range of red kites in parts of Scotland, and especially hen harriers in many parts of Scotland and England.  The RSPB is leading a 5-year EU LIFE+ project to protect hen harriers across northern England and southern and eastern Scotland. A national survey this year will show by how much and where things have changed since previous surveys in 1988, 1998, 2004 and 2010

Although persecution is unarguably the biggest problem faced by hen harriers in the UK as a whole, the sheer scale of its impact means that other pressures have a disproportionately high effect.  This is why the Perthshire hen harrier probably gives the most cause for concern out of these recent incidents – particularly as it has been reported from the same windfarm as three previous hen harrier casualties.  Unlike the windfarms where the osprey, white-tailed eagle and red kite were found, the Perthshire site is located on a former forestry plantation that was felled to make way for the turbines.  This has led RSPB Scotland to take a more precautionary approach to applications to develop wind farms on forestry sites close to breeding hen harriers, for example at Strathy South, in the Flow Country, where hen harriers are one of a number of species of concern and as a result we have objected to the proposal in the strongest possible terms, including presenting our case to a public inquiry in spring 2015.   

The concentration of hen harrier casualties at a single site is concerning and puzzling, especially as we’re aware of only one other possible hen harrier casualty at a wind farm in Scotland. We are therefore working with the site operators, SSE, to try and identify why there seems to be a particular problem at Griffin  windfarm  so that action can be taken as soon as possible to reduce the risk of further collisions. These unfortunate incidents also reinforce the need for reliable and targeted monitoring of windfarms after construction and once they are operating if we are to understand whether there are factors that might make some sites or even individual turbines more risky than others.  If so, there will be increasing opportunities, as the current windfarm estate across Scotland is replaced or “repowered” (old windfarms replaced with newer ones that through having a greater output or being more efficient increase the power generated), to apply monitoring and research results to reducing the impacts and risks of wind energy developments on threatened species such as hen harriers.

The operators of the sites where these dead raptors were found have taken a very open, honest and prompt approach to analysing and reporting the casualties, which is very welcome. In general, Scotland’s wind energy sector has taken a very positive approach to trying to avoid harm to wildlife and seeking to resolve problems when they arise. As a result, incidents like this remain, thankfully, very rare but continued collaboration will be essential if we are to ensure onshore wind continues to develop in Scotland with minimum impact on wildlife.