Blog post by Ellie Owen, Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

I was really pleased to see the recent article in the Observer giving much-needed attention to the catastrophic declines in seabird numbers in Shetland, one of the UK’s seabird hotspots.

It painted a vivid picture of the scale of declines and the frightening speed at which the cliffs have gone from glorious guano-painted, noisy, seabird metropolises to eerily quiet dapplings of birds clinging on to the place where they have bred for their whole adult lives.

The stark figures should be a wakeup call to all of us, I know they are to me, and I work on seabirds!

Puffin with fish. Image by Oliver Prince.

There are lots of ways to help Shetland's puffins

Some readers of the article have rightly spotted that one of the figures in the article was not quite right.

The article said “In 2000, there were more than 33,000 puffins on the island in early spring. That figure dropped to 570 last year and there are no signs of any recovery this year, although it is still early in the season.”

This data comes from a census that was carried out by the RSPB’s Project Puffin but unfortunately it needed a little more context.

The actual result was that we surveyed 20 sites in Shetland and those sites had held 33,000 individual puffins on land at the time of the last count in 2000 but we only found 570 in those same areas in 2017.

The actual number of puffins across the whole of Shetland has experienced a serious decline but the number still living there is much much higher than 570 birds.

We wanted to check our findings with other scientists and so have written a scientific paper which has been reviewed by peers and will be printed later this year in the Journal Scottish Birds so keep an eye out for that if you want to find out more about the conservation fortunes of Puffins in Shetland.

How you can help

Meanwhile you might be thinking what can you do to help seabirds on Shetland, and you may have felt quite pessimistic after reading the article. Here are some of my optimistic suggestions:

  1. Climate change is a big problem for UK seabirds, but never assume that any problem is insurmountable. For example, marine scientists have been concerned about marine plastics for over a decade but how could we stem the global flow of plastic into the sea?
    And yet the amazing social change that is currently in progress, following the galvanising effect of the BBC's Blue Planet II reminded us that even large problems can be tackled. In the same way that we are used to limiting our use of plastic bags now, we need to remind ourselves that every time we save electricity that is one less lump of coal being burned in the power station. Saving energy helps puffins!
  2. Be a citizen scientist! Often the key to working out how to help seabirds relies on us collecting information to see how they are doing. I’d love to think that every puffin lover across the UK might feel empowered to start actively taking part in helping them. We ran ‘Puffarazzi’ in 2017 asking members of the public to send us photos of puffins carrying fish so that we could map puffin diet for the first time – and the response was amazing. At the moment you can actually be a seabird counter yourself and be part of the volunteer effort to count every seabird in the UK, sounds fun? – it is!
  3. Get active on email or with pen and paper. Ask for offshore windfarms and other forms of energy generation to be developed without impacting on seabirds – who should you ask? Your local member of parliament is a good place to start but if you are feeling really inspired then you can also contact councillors and even electricity companies to tell them that seabirds matter to you. You could tell them to support levies so that offshore developers are required to monitor their impact or floating turbines sited away from seabird foraging areas, not turbines close to seabird colonies like the Firth and Tay turbines which have recently been approved and are predicted to kill thousands of puffins and gannets per year.
  4. Support schemes that remove non-native seabird predators from island refuges. Such as the amazing restoration project on the Shiant Islands which has recently seen the islands declared rat-free! Meaning puffin and other seabird chicks will no longer be eaten by rats before getting the chance to go to sea.
  5. Support conservation organisations, like the RSPB, that champion marine conservation. Support means becoming a member, visiting a reserve or supporting a conservation project. Your support, however you give it, gives us a louder voice with which to promote the conservation of seabirds amongst politicians.

But most of all, get out there and see some seabirds, be enthused and tell the world how great the UK and Shetland are as global seabird Meccas.

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