Every year thousands of seabirds return to our shores to breed on cliffs and beaches but some of them travel further inland to our towns and cities where ledges on buildings and bridges provide suitable places to nest. Kittiwakes started nesting along the Tyne in 1949 and have been here ever since. The RSPB’s Helen Quayle, Tyne Kittiwake Partnership Chair, tells us more about these unique inland seabird colonies.

The Tyne kittiwakes create a wildlife spectacle in the heart of the Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside – the most inland nesting location for the species in the world. These unique kittiwakes have captured the hearts of many and become a tourist attraction in their own right. Usually kittiwakes nest at more remote cliff locations but here they can be easily viewed by local people and visitors.

Kittiwake in Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside (c) Ian Cook

However, kittiwakes can be noisy and messy which can bring them in to conflict with neighbouring businesses.

It is worth noting that kittiwakes winter at sea and are only here from late February to August; their return marking the start of spring. Whilst nesting on the Tyne, kittiwakes can make 100 mile round trips out to sea in search of food and do not interact with people.

In response to concerns regarding noise and mess, deterrents are often used by property owners to prevent kittiwakes from nesting. Over the years, the use of deterrents, renovations and demolition activity has resulted in the kittiwake population shifting as nest sites have been lost. In 1998 a “Kittiwake Tower” was built by Gateshead Council to provide a home for birds displaced by the redevelopment of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Located a short distance downstream of the Baltic, the tower is now designated as a nature reserve.

The Tyne Kittiwake Partnership (TKP) formed to safeguard the Tyne kittiwakes, ensuring their future as a unique feature of the Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside cityscape. The TKP collaborates to raise awareness, improve our understanding of kittiwakes in an urban environment and respond when nest sites are threatened.

The TKP includes the RSPB, Natural History Society of Northumbria, Durham Wildlife Trust, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, neighbouring Councils, Natural England, Newcastle University and independent ornithologists – including one who has been monitoring the Tyne kittiwakes for 25 years.

Every year the TKP responds to planning applications, provides advice on the safe use of deterrents and responds to concerns regarding netting including incidences of trapped birds. Adult kittiwakes, their active nests, eggs and chicks are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).

Once kittiwakes have started building new nests, or adding to old nests, these nests are legally protected and must not be removed or interfered with. Any action to prevent kittiwakes nesting on ledges must be taken outside the breeding season from September to February. Action taken during the breeding season could constitute a criminal act.

Deterrents may also be used to protect listed buildings of architectural or historic interest such as the Guildhall in Newcastle. It is worth noting that whilst exemptions can be made under General Licence to manage some gull species, this is only in specific circumstances and does not apply to kittiwakes.

Deterrents include netting and spikes which are intended to create a barrier between kittiwakes and the nesting ledge. However, kittiwakes can build their nests up, around and on top of spikes and, unfortunately, if netting is not put up correctly or properly maintained, it can become a danger to wildlife. Kittiwakes nesting near unfit netting may become entangled and unable to free themselves, often resulting in injury and/or death.

It is vital that those responsible for the netting ensure that it is fit for purpose and take prompt action to release kittiwakes should they become trapped. Failure of those responsible to take action when a net is known to trap kittiwakes, could have very serious animal welfare and legal implications.

Kittiwake with chick (c) Dan Turner

If you see a live kittiwake trapped in netting please alert the property owner and the RSPCA immediately. Please also report the incident to the TKP (see links below) as it allows us to follow up with property owners to raise awareness and ensure that action is taken to make the net safe. Similarly, we are also able to take action if alerted to deterrents that have been installed during the breeding season.

Globally, kittiwakes are thought to have declined by around 40% since the 1970s, and were added to the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List in 2015. This was followed by the species being uplisted from Least Concern to Vulnerable in 2017. In the UK, kittiwake numbers have plummeted, particularly in Orkney and Shetland where breeding birds have declined by 87% since 2000, and on St Kilda in the Western Isles where as much as 96% of the breeding population has been lost.

Climate change and fishing that sets aside too little for the birds are likely causes of serious declines in kittiwake numbers. Over 2,500 kittiwakes were recorded nesting on the Tyne in 2017; we need to safeguard these unique river- nesting colonies as part of the wider conservation effort for kittiwakes.

The TKP will continue to work with local businesses, developers and neighbouring Councils to safeguard existing nest sites and provide advice on alternatives when this is not possible. The overwhelming response of local people to safeguard the kittiwakes and their nest sites demonstrates the strong affection people have for these birds. We hope that by raising awareness with businesses we can ensure that kittiwakes continue to have a home along the Tyne.

For more information

Find out more about the Tyne Kittiwakes including the Partnership and 25 years of kittiwake monitoring here.

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See the Tyne kittiwakes via Durham Wildlife Trust and Baltic nest camera.