Springtime at Airds Moss Nature Reserve

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 Dan Brown, Senior Conservation Advisor for South and West Scotland, tells us about the vibrant springtime unfolding at Airds Moss – a protected area that is special for birds like curlew, golden plover and redshank, as well as its incredibly important peatland habitats.

Yesterday my colleague David described the arrival of spring at the Firth of Forth, and the tinge of regret as the numbers of waterbirds inhabiting the estuary slumps from the tens of thousands. It becomes a much quieter place, as birds of all shapes and sizes head for their breeding grounds.

Lapwing - Dan Brown

The reverse is true where I spend a lot of my time - at RSPB Scotland’s Airds Moss nature reserve and on farmland across Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, where a noisy and lively spring is unfolding. A certain number of birds from the Firth of Forth – like curlew, golden plover and redshank – first arrived back in March, fattening up on insect larvae like leatherjackets in low-lying nearby fields. Some species will stay to breed in these fields, others are here to fatten up before nesting in peatland and moorland habitats.

It can be eerily quiet during what has been a truly harsh winter. Some hardy soles such as red grouse, hen harriers and field voles tough it out - but many hibernate, head for the coast, or depart for warmer climes. But now, with spring finally clicked into gear, this landscape – a patchwork of peatlands, moorland and farmland - is showcasing why it is a special place for nature, and is protected under both European and Scottish conservation law.

The songs and calls of the curlew echo across the landscape; skylarks and meadow pipits seem too numerous to count; adders sun themselves on cold spring mornings. Rare, diminutive plants like bog cranberry and the insect-munching sundew are entangled amongst the bog mosses, cotton grasses and heathers. On calm, sunnier days dragonflies, damselflies, moths and butterflies are beginning to make their presence felt - fluttering and darting between the bog pools, wildflowers and grasses.

Airds Moss is a protected area, specifically a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), on the basis of its special blanket bog habitat, and is also part of a larger Special Protection Area (SPA) for important upland birds. Read our blog from Monday to understand more about SACs and SPAs and the laws that protect special nature sites all across Europe.

A major focus of our work at Airds Moss in recent years has been improving the ecological condition of the peatlands. Like most upland areas, they were historically drained for agriculture. We didn’t know much about climate change and carbon back then, but now we know that as the land becomes drier, it becomes harder and harder for a very special group of mosses – sphagnum – to grow.

Bog vegetation with northern egger moth - Dan Brown

And sphagnum mosses alongside other characteristic bog plants are what makes peatlands tick. As they grow, like all plants they capture carbon dioxide. But when they die this carbon is not fully released back into the atmosphere – due to the waterlogged, acidic conditions on the bog, they never fully ‘break down’ like autumn leaves. Instead, the dead plant materials slowly gets transformed into peat - and this process locks the carbon into the peat soil itself.

If drained, this carbon is released back into the atmosphere as the peat comes into contact with air. And so, we have been actively blocking up the old drains with small dams. This raises the water levels, gets the sphagnum growing once more – and kick-starts this natural carbon cycle again.

Much of the wildlife that is dependant on a high water table and bog pools can benefit too. With a higher water table, research has shown how the larvae of various craneflies – aka daddy longlegs – increases as well. And this provides a key food source for moorland birds like curlew, golden plover and lapwing coming back from the Firth of Forth and elsewhere. This helps spring to return to these hills once more. And the bog pools that form behind the dams provide an array of new homes for aquatic life like frogs and dragonflies.

Dragonfly - Dan Brown

Curlews are usually one of the first arrivals back at Airds Moss each spring, and working with farmers and wider land management community to conserve them is the other big focus of our work here. Read more about the plight of the curlew in our blog from earlier this month and later this week we will talk about the need for more and better protected sites for breeding curlew across Scotland.

Protected sites like this one are an utterly essential part of the solution to tackling wildlife declines both here in Scotland and across the rest of the world. Identifying and protecting special places is just the first part – managing them on a long-term basis, monitoring the nature interests within them, learning more about them, and ensuring the protections continue to be strictly put into action - that is the harder part and a long-term commitment.

Following the behaviour of birds like curlew, redshank and golden plover at sites like Airds Moss and the Firth of Forth SPAs across the seasons shows us how species use different protected sites at different parts of the year, depending on what kind of habitat they need in wintering or breeding seasons. This shows the importance of the overall health of the protected area network and how it connects nature across Scotland and other parts of the world. These special places for nature must remain protected and well-managed for the species and habitats that make them so unique. This will ensure that each spring continues to bring the unbridled joy of being surrounded by nature in full flow.