In 2021, at Project Seagrass we reflected on the first year of community-led seagrass restoration here in Scotland. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration commenced with Seawilding’s pioneering work in Loch Craignish, Argyll (which was celebrated in this short film). In 2022 the Seawilding team have been able to celebrate the hard work of that first season with many of that first season’s seagrass seeds successfully germinating this Spring.
Seawilding‘s marine restoration efforts have also been celebrated nationally this year with the community group winning a Nature of Scotland Award. It’s clear to see that on the West Coast of Scotland, #GenerationRestoration is going from strength to strength and I would encourage people to follow their inspirational journey at Seawilding.org. This year though we would like to reflect on the momentum that is now building around community-led seagrass restoration on the East Coast of Scotland, and why the Scottish Seabird Centre - a marine conservation and education charity - is working closely with us to support marine ecosystem restoration in the Firth of Forth.
Restoration Forth is a major marine restoration programme which is working with communities to restore seagrass meadows and native oyster populations in the Firth of Forth. Throughout the project, the Seagrass Officers, Dr Marie Seraphim at the Scottish Seabird Centre in East Lothian, and Lyle Boyle at The Ecology Centre in Fife, are engaging community groups on both shores of the Firth of Forth to the presence and importance of existing seagrass ecosystems. Marie and Lyle are also promoting and contributing to the ongoing monitoring of local seagrass conditions whilst assisting Project Seagrass and Heriot-Watt University with ongoing scientific research.
So, is there a link between birds and seagrass ecosystems?
Yes! There is established and growing evidence of the link between healthy seagrass ecosystems and a variety of bird species. Waders, wildfowl, and seabirds are an often-overlooked part of marine ecosystems; not only are they crucial to the health of marine ecosystems, but their populations are also supported by the productivity and biodiversity of marine ecosystems such as seagrass meadows.
It’s long been known that during the autumn migration (September to December), Brent geese (Branta bernicla) and Wigeon (Anas penelope) feed on seagrass, with both grazing on leaves and shoots above the sediment and the latter also feeding on the rhizomes and roots below. However, more recently evidence has begun to emerge highlighting how seagrass meadows are globally foraged for fish and invertebrates by coastal birds.
Issy Key – a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh – is investigating the extent to which birds use seagrass as feeding grounds. Earlier this year, she set out to survey birds in six different seagrass meadows around Scotland. At the subtidal meadows (those that are always underwater), she recorded birds such as shags and red-breasted mergansers regularly diving to catch fish.
Meanwhile, in the intertidal meadows (those that are exposed at low tide), she recorded birds such as curlew, oystercatcher and eider duck feeding in the mudflats covered in seagrass. For some species, such as curlew and shag, her initial observations suggested that the birds preferred to feed in the seagrass than in areas of bare sand or mud. However, in other cases the story was more complex, for example, red-breasted mergansers appeared to prefer to feed along the boundary of the meadow.
To unpick the story further, Issy will be assessing the food (i.e., fish, crabs, snails, and worms) available for the birds, the hypothesis being that the presence of seagrass generally increases the number and diversity of food available, and therefore is often (but perhaps not always) the preferred foraging ground for birds. ‘In the coming year, she is also planning to use video cameras to watch for birds over seagrass and therefore increase the size of her dataset, allowing more definitive conclusions to be drawn. So, watch this space!’
As we continue both this research in 2023, and our seagrass ecosystem #GenerationRestoration journey, I would encourage everyone to follow the Scottish Seabird Centre’s blogs and podcasts for more regular updates on the team’s progress.
This article is originally by Project Seagrass.
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, led by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and its partners, covers terrestrial as well as coastal and marine ecosystems. As a global call to action, it will draw together political support, scientific research and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration. Find out how you can contribute to the UN Decade. Follow #GenerationRestoration.