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Extra effort needed to save critically endangered chough, say experts

The red-billed chough is facing extinction in Scotland, experts say (David Whitaker/PA)
The red-billed chough is facing extinction in Scotland, experts say (David Whitaker/PA)

Moves to save a critically endangered bird must be stepped up in order to save the species from extinction, experts say.

Specialists believe the red-billed chough is merely “clinging on” to survival in its last Scottish stronghold on the western islands of Islay and Colonsay.

It is estimated there are barely 50 pairs left on the islands – a lower count than anywhere else in the British Isles at the moment.

A report commissioned by NatureScot reviewing chough management across the UK and Ireland argues sustainable, long-term support is urgently needed now to stop Scotland’s population dropping to zero over the coming decades.

Dave Parish, a NatureScot ornithologist, explained: “Chough rely heavily on agricultural and coastal grasslands, and mainly feed on the invertebrates found in soil and the dung of livestock – cattle in particular – preferring to forage in short, grazed grassland.

“However, modern agricultural practices support less of the insects that chough need which has impacted juvenile survival in Scotland.

“Coupled with a limited supply of nest sites, decreasing genetic diversity in the population and an increase in harmful parasites, these corvids are facing a bleak future, with studies predicting they may be lost from Scotland within 50 years without our help.”

A dedicated group of people have been studying chough and laying out extra food around the islands in recent years to try and boost survival rates of young birds.

However, NatureScot believes further action is needed, including improvements to habitats to provide more insects for chough to eat to ensure Scotland’s population has a future.

Dave Parish said: “Support for farmers to carry out chough-friendly practices and provide robust nest sites for the birds is key to maintaining chough populations in Scotland.

“The new report pulls together information from successful conservation projects across the UK and Ireland.

“Coupled with our experience gained from working with the many passionate farmers on Islay and Colonsay, we can devise revised, and hopefully better, measures for the new agriculture support package that is being developed.”

Experts are also considering releasing birds bred from different stock into the Scottish population as a means to ultimately strengthen their ability to resist parasite infections.

Dave Parish continued: “This important species is facing a tough time in Scotland, but our work with partners in the Scottish Chough Forum and elsewhere has shown us exactly what the problems are and how we might resolve them.

“We hope partners will continue to work together to help save Scotland’s chough.”

Gavin Siriwardena of the British Trust of Ornithology, who undertook the review of chough management, added: “Chough populations across Britain and Ireland are highly fragmented, and conservation work is currently not strongly co-ordinated.

“All interested groups, and the species itself, would benefit from more consistent reporting of demographic and count data.

“Formal studies of the effectiveness of the management measures implemented under schemes like the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme in Scotland would also be very valuable.”