Assessing the damage of the Tay Reedbeds blaze

Mark Purrmann-Charles, SISI Project Officer
May 2020

The fire takes hold at the Tay Reedbeds. (Image- Vicky Turnbull / RSPB Scotland)

On 27th April the Tay Reedbeds burned.  Following a rain-free month, the tinder-dry reedbeds spectacularly caught alight and fire ran along 3km of the River Tay’s north bank.  When it was over, an estimated 120 hectares of reedbed habitat – around 30% of the total area – had been destroyed in a matter of hours.

A Helicopter dropped water on the fire which destroyed the dry reeds. (Images – Vicky Turnbull / RSPB)

Mainly lying along the north bank of the Inner Tay Estuary, the Tay Reedbeds are the UK’s largest continuous reedbed and home to a vast range of wildlife – notably important breeding bird populations, many of which are endangered or rare species.

For example, the reedbed is thought to support up to 50% of Britain’s bearded tit population and last year at least five marsh harrier pairs nested there – incredible considering there are fewer than 20 breeding pairs in Scotland.  A range of notable bird species including water rail, redshank, reed bunting and reed warbler also call the place home.  Needless to say the area has a collection of designations – The Firth of Tay and Eden Estuary Special Protection Area and Special Area of Conservation and The Inner Tay SSSI to name but three.  The Tay Reedbeds are undoubtedly a special place.

Aerial view of Tay Reedbeds (Image P&A Macdonald/SNH). Bearded tit (Image Gus Guthrie)

We have been working at the reedbeds since 2019 – specifically to protect bird species from the non-native American mink.  Mink, well established in the wild having been brought to the UK in the 1930s for fur farming, can cause huge damage to ground/near ground nesting bird species by predating young and eggs.  With the support of local volunteers, landowners and RSPB Scotland, which has a reserve there, we have established mink monitoring and control across the reedbeds.

It is hard to know exactly how many mink operate in the reedbeds – in 2019, we caught eight in the five traps and monitoring rafts we operate there.  We also recorded mink tracks at all five sites, suggesting so far we’ve removed only a proportion of the total present.  The wider area provides excellent mink habitat and the reedbeds a happy hunting ground – together providing a prime breeding location for mink.  Therefore, the mink control we carry out is important not only in protecting the breeding birds on site but also in preventing the area acting as a breeding ground from which mink disperse into surrounding areas.

American mink in trap at Tay Reedbeds in August 2019 (Image – SISI)

With a large portion of prime nesting habitat now destroyed or degraded for this season, bird breeding will undoubtedly be affected – next year hopefully regrowth will support nesting in these areas again.  Species that have yet to nest or are able to attempt nesting again in 2020 will use remaining good habitat areas or be forced to sub-optimal locations.  This could leave them exposed and vulnerable to predation from mink.

Destroyed reedbed (Image – Alison Thornton / SISI). This dead chick was a casualty of the blaze (Valerie Stewart / SISI)

With the current COVID-19 movement restrictions we can take only limited action right now.  Where they can, local volunteers on their daily exercise outings are assessing damage and identifying surviving areas of reedbed – when complete we will relocate rafts and traps to protect these locations. Amazingly all our mink monitoring rafts survived the blaze – although some are a little singed around the edges! 

Mink do not live in the reedbeds, instead they access the area to hunt before returning to home territories in the surrounding countryside.  We know many of the access routes mink use and have caught them on these highways – since the fire some of our surviving rafts on these routes have already recorded tracks confirming mink remain at large.

Remarkably these mink monitoring rafts survived – although they were a little charred!
(Image – Alison Thornton / SISI)

We won’t catch all the mink, but if we can continue to reduce the population hunting the reedbeds, as well as the wider population in the area this will help native species make the best of what is clearly a bad situation and prevent the fire causing lasting impact.

The Scottish Invasive Species Initiative could not be successful without the hard work and commitment of volunteers. Those working on the Tay Reedbeds are among our most dedicated volunteers and care deeply about the nature and wellbeing of the area. We will work with them, landowners and RSPB Scotland to support site recovery for wildlife and everyone to enjoy.

One of several Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI) volunteers on the Tay Reedbeds, Valerie Stewart.
(Image – Alison Thornton / SISI)

Perhaps you’d like to get involved with the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative at the Tay Reedbeds or where you live?  Visit our website and get in touch (sisi@nature.scot) and we can make plans for when COVID-19 restrictions are eased.

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