Eyes fixed on the horizon

RSPB Conservation Officer Toby Wilson explains his current priorities on the Forth, ranging from the damage caused by rising sea levels, to the recreational disturbance of nesting sites, and the impact of warmer sea temperatures on sand eels and puffins.

· Sustainability,Partnerships
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If you could head back in time to a spring day on top of Bempton Cliffs in North Yorkshire, you might well encounter a young Toby Wilson clutching his first pair of binoculars and eagerly anticipating the arrival of nesting seabirds. The RSPB Nature Reserve was one of Toby’s favourite boyhood haunts, and growing up on the edge of Beverley’s Westwood common also provided a window on the world that would inspire his career. For as long as he can remember, and encouraged by his father and godfather, Toby was always set on working in conservation.

After studying Environmental Management at Dundee University, Toby worked at Natural England and then enjoyed a spell at the Ayrshire Joint Structure Plan team. “Environmental policy is important but it was quite detached from the delivery side,” he says. “I felt I was preparing wording but that any delivery would always be further down the line. However, I wanted to get a bit closer to the action, and always wanted to work for the RSPB.”

When a recruitment opportunity arose, Toby grabbed it with both hands and has been with the organisation for 17 years. His role as Senior Conservation Officer embraces several aspects of the RSPB’s work. That includes planning casework – for instance, responding to proposals for the flood protection scheme at Grangemouth. The development adjoins the RSPB Nature Reserve at Skinflats, and Toby is calling for nature conservation interests to be fully considered in any plans.

Seabird islands
Toby also leads on some of RSPB major projects in the area, a recent example being the creation of intertidal and wetland landscapes at Inch of Ferryton, near Clackmannan. He also has oversight of six RSPB Nature Reserves, four of which are on the Forth – Skinflats, Black Devon Wetlands near Alloa, and the seabird islands of Inchmickery and Fidra.

Local wardens carry out a lot of regular work to maintain these sites with Toby bringing in additional support. For instance, when we spoke, he was working with a group of students from Stirling University to carry out fish monitoring work. And the following day, he was planning a visit to Inchmickery to remove invasive elder shrubs taking hold among the island’s old WWI and WWII air defences, and threatening the habitats of ground-nesting seabirds.

“Tree mallow is another invasive species that has to be kept in check because it grows rapidly, sideways and upwards, covering puffin burrows and nesting grounds and making it very difficult for birds to fly in,” says Toby. “There is also the risk to the islands of rats or even mink getting on land and devouring bird eggs, so bait stations with little blocks of cocoa are regularly checked.”

In addition to all that, Toby also undertakes work in partnership with others, such as participating in the Forth Estuary Forum management group, and developing successful collaborations with stakeholders on other projects. But across these responsibilities, what are his current priorities for the RSPB along the Firth of Forth

Three priorities
“Three things stand out at the moment,” he says. “One of them is adapting to climate change and potential sea level rise which is likely to be very problematic. A key habitat for us is the Special Protection Area on the inner Forth, designated for its internationally important wintering waterfowl and waders that love the intertidal habitats of mudflats and salt marshes. The problem here with climate change is that a rise in sea levels could lead to the loss of those habitats.

“Climate change is also affecting our seabird colonies,” adds Toby. “Sand eels are a key part of the marine ecosystem as a food source for several seabirds, particularly puffins. But as the sea gets warmer, those sand eels are moving. And if the sand eel population gets out of kilter with breeding seasons, it could have a disastrous impact – we can already see the impact on seabirds such as kittiwakes.

“Another increasing problem is the disturbance of nesting sites. All birds to some extent need an undisturbed time to feed, rest up and to breed, however, on some of our Forth estuary sites, particularly urban areas, we're seeing increased recreation. In many respects, that’s to be encouraged but where we have people walking their dogs, particularly off the lead at important times of the year, it flushes the birds out, and that loss of habitat becomes another species threat. We're looking at how we can manage this but it’s a difficult balance.

“And a third priority is the impact of major developments on the Forth, which can bring risks of pollution, habitat loss and bird loss.” For instance, if an offshore wind farm is located in areas where seabirds are moving to and from colonies, large numbers of them can perish by hitting the turbines.

Creating a powerful voice
In terms of these issues and the concerns of other stakeholders, Toby believes the Forth Estuary Forum has an important role to play in bringing people together to share information and explore issues from varied perspectives. “One of its strengths is that it’s not just an echo chamber for us and other conservation groups,” he says. “Instead, it enables us to have conversations with different types of interest groups, such as RYA Scotland and Forth Ports. Having a body that represents all interests along the Forth can create a powerful voice.”

He’d also like the Forum to develop a central resource of reports, plans, consultations etc. “There are so many initiatives going on and I think most organisations, like us, find it difficult to keep track of everything, so we sometimes miss out on things we would have liked to have got involved in. Creating that sort of resource would be very useful for everyone involved.”

Although Toby lives in Glasgow, it takes him less than an hour to get to Skinflats.The inner Forth is interesting because it’s really under-used and under-promoted from a bird-watching or naturalist perspective ,” he says. “We have this amazing site with literally thousands of wintering wildfowl and waders, and I’m very lucky that my job allows me to embrace the passion I have for these environments.” The boy on Bempton Cliffs would be impressed.


The RSPB story began in 1889 when the environmentalist Emily Williamson decided to take action against the extensive use of bird feathers in fashion – and the reluctance of the male-only British Ornithologists Union to do anything about it. She therefore set up the women-only Plumage League as a single-issue campaign group, and set to work. Her determination culminated successfully in the 1921 Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act and, by then, the RSPB (which received its royal charter in 1904) had diversified into other areas.

Today, its work covers the following:
•Protecting species and habitats.
•Influencing government and business.
•Educating and inspiring the next generation.
•Investigating scientific solutions to threats posed to nature – particularly in terms of climate change.

Emily Williamson’ Plumage League has also developed into a major employer with around 2,000 staff, 10,000 volunteers, more than a million members and an annual income of around £165m (2022/23).