Rare birds in a conservation area on the Firth of Tay have been “devastated” by a huge wildfire during a dry spell in April, according to wildlife experts.
They say that bearded tits, water rails and marsh harriers have had their eggs and nests destroyed. The experts have also warned that rising temperatures caused by climate pollution could cause more fires and damage in the future.
The growing threats have prompted conservation groups to review their fire management plans to try and better protect Scotland’s vital wildlife and natural habitats.
The wildfire was seen burning reed beds by the River Tay near the village of Errol for most of 27 April. Nine fire appliances and a helicopter tackled the blaze, which produced large flames and clouds of smoke visible for miles.
The reed beds are the largest in the UK and stretch for just over nine miles along the north bank of the river. They make up the 410-hectare Inner Tay Estuary Local Nature Reserve and are designated under four different national and international conservation regimes to protect birds, nature and wetlands.
The reeds are famous for hosting 250 pairs of rare bearded tits, the largest single population in the UK. They are also the most important nesting area in Scotland for 150 pairs of secretive water rails, and a safe haven to eight of the 12 pairs of rare marsh harriers known to breed in Scotland.
Steve Moyes, from the Tay Ringing Group which works to protect the area’s birds, estimates that the wildfire destroyed a quarter of the reed beds covering 125 hectares. The burnt area includes two marsh harrier nests and most of the prime habitat for 150 breeding pairs of bearded tits.
He told The Ferret he was “heartbroken” by the fire, which he said could not have hit at a worse time of year. When he visited the site the day afterwards, he saw two adult marsh harriers circling over the burnt embers where their nest and clutch of eggs had perished.
“It’s devastating,” he said. “We also lost a lot of ringing equipment in the fire and this will be the first year since 1992 that we will not be able to collect data. We will never know exactly how the fire was started – but as there was no lightning, it was most likely deliberate.”
Moyes feared that marsh harriers that lost their nests were unlikely to produce any young this year. The impact on the small Scottish population could be significant, he suggested.
He reported that water rails, which are usually well camouflaged and difficult to see in the breeding season, were visible foraging for insects in the black ash. Broken eggs shells from about 30 burnt-out nests were scattered on the ground.
Moyes has been ringing birds in the reed beds since the mid-60s and conducted surveys of the bearded tits for the past 15 years. He was hopeful that there was time for some of the displaced tits and rails to build new nests and lay more eggs in what remains of the reeds.
Reeds used to be traditionally harvested on rotation between January and March for thatching. But the practice, which left a patchwork of cut and uncut areas, ceased 15 years ago after it became financially unviable.
Moyes, a former firefighter, thought that one reason the wildfire spread so far could have been the absence of fire breaks and a lack of “effective reed management”.
The Tay Estuary Forum, which brings together councils and other bodies to encourage sustainable use of the area, warned that there could be more such fires. “There is no doubt this fire will have had a devastating impact on this season’s bird populations on the Tay reed beds,” said the forum’s chair and environmental science professor at the University of Dundee, Rob Duck.
“The concern is that wildfires become an increasingly common event under climate change, with fire-seasons lasting longer globally, putting pressure on fire-fighting resources to preserve our moorland, forest and heathland environments.”
According to the Scottish Government’s conservation advisers, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), half the land burnt by wildfires in 2019 – 5,860 of 11,710 hectares – was located within protected wildlife sites.
Statistics from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service from 2010 to 2018 suggest there have been more wildfires when the temperatures were higher in the summer months.
Half of the Tay reed beds reserve is managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). “We are in the process of producing a UK wildfire code of practice for our sites which is looking at managing and reducing the risk,” said the society’s area manager, Robert Coleman.
“Fire breaks are something we would consider and if planned and incorporated to site management they could also be of benefit for some species.”
In 2018 SNH set up a website to map Scotland’s wildfires, and highlight their dangers. “As part of our climate change action planning, managing for increased incidence of wildfires is an issue we have started to raise awareness about,” said Denise Reed, SNH area manager for Tayside and Grampian.
She added: “Our focus to date has been on moorlands but this fire at the Tay reed beds serves to illustrate the need to think more widely. It may be a useful case for the forum to review.”
On 6 May SNH joined with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to warn of an “increased risk of wildfire across most parts of the north of Scotland”. This followed “one of the hottest Aprils on record” and forecasts of continuing dry conditions.
“It’s now the time of year when the risk of wildfire is at its highest,” said SNH. “Sparks from garden bonfires, the use of sky lanterns or the casually cast aside cigarette butt when exercising outdoors, can all start unwanted fires.”
Fire station manager in Sutherland, Jason Gardiner, added: “Many rural and remote communities are hugely impacted by wildfires which can cause significant environmental and economic damage. Livestock, farmland, wildlife, woodlands, moors and peatlands can all be devastated by fires – as can the lives of people living and working in rural communities.”
Images of burnt reed bed and marsh harrier chicks thanks to Joyce Moyes. Photo of bearded tit thanks to Gus Guthrie. Graphs thanks to Stuart Spray.