The tiny tidal island of Oronsay sits snugly beside its larger neighbour Colonsay just off the west coast of Scotland. Both are part of the Inner Hebrides, a chain of islands that runs from Skye in the north to Islay in the south.
At just over two square miles in size, and with a population of only eight, Oronsay might be small, but its importance for wildlife is immense. The RSPB manages the whole island as a nature reserve, using low-intensity farming methods to create homes for a wide-range of rare and threatened species.
Chief amongst these is the chough, a member of the crow family with a population of only around 60 pairs in the whole of Scotland. Choughs are charismatic birds with bright red legs and bills which call their own names as they fly chough chough chough! In Scotland, their biggest stronghold is on Islay, but despite its size, Oronsay supports two pairs of choughs in the summer, while flocks visit to feed there in the winter.
The reason Oronsay is so perfect for choughs is the way it’s farmed. 600 sheep and 60 cattle munch away at the coastal heath and grasslands, keeping them short and allowing the choughs easier access to the insects they love. Organic dung from the animals provides another source of insects, while the invertebrates that thrive in the piles of seaweed thrown up by winter storms create an all-you-can-eat chough buffet as they rot in the summer sunshine.
But as with all RSPB reserves, managing the land for one species tends to have positive knock-on effects for lots of other creatures. Birds such as skylarks, twites, lapwings, redshanks and ringed plovers all thrive on Oronsay, as do rare marsh-fritillary butterflies. Around 3,500 barnacle geese visit in the winter, and in the summer the wildflower meadows and machair come into full bloom, including one field with over 100 Irish ladies-tresses, a very rare orchid.
One final bird that calls Oronsay home is the corncrake. We grow our own winter bedding for the cattle, and corncrakes like nothing more than hiding in this tall vegetation as they attract their mates and raise chicks. Corncrakes are notoriously difficult to see, though their distinctive rasping calls can be heard across the island on still, warm nights.
John Aitchison had rather a close encounter with a corncrake when he was with us filming for Springwatch. He’d been standing quietly at a gate waiting to see if any corncrakes would put in an appearance, when he moved, and a corncrake flew out from between his feet! It just shows how well camouflaged these birds are, if an experienced BBC wildlife cameraman can’t spot one when he’s standing practically on top of it.
You can visit the island of Oronsay via a tidal strip from the island of Colonsay, but access is challenging, and there are no facilities for visitors. You may prefer to visit the RSPB farms at Loch Gruinart and The Oa on Islay, where a similar range of wildlife can be seen, without the worry of getting caught by the tide! Loch Gruinart has a visitor centre, while both reserves run regular events throughout the summer.
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