Puffins and other, better seabirds

(c) Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Todays Blog is written by Jeff Knott Director of Policy and Advocacy on the importance of ensuring our seabirds have safe places to feed and breed.

There really is nothing quite like a seabird city. 

These breeding colonies where thousands of birds cram onto tiny ledges are a spectacle in every sense of the word. The sites, sounds and smells will never leave you. 

Its become a bit of a running joke that I hate puffins. To be clear, I don’t hate them. Its just they’re not as good as gannets. 

So today was an absolute treat for me, as I spent the day at RSPB Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire, home to thousands of pairs of breeding gannets, along with kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills and yes, puffins too. 

I’m never quite sure what my favourite bird is, but gannets would be right up there. The impressive size, flash of blue eye lid, stunning lined feet and that amazing art deco beak. They are utterly breathtaking as individual birds. When faced with a cliff full of them, they become utterly intoxicating. 

Jeff Knott at RSPB Bempton Cliffs, (c) Jeff Knott.

While gannets at Bempton are doing well, many of our seabirds are really struggling around our coasts. In global terms, they are our most important group of birds, and yet they are also many of our most rapidly declining species, giving the UK a vital international responsibility to protect them. 

They face an array of threats, all made worse by the scourge of the worst bird flu outbreak in history. Last year’s outbreak was devastating at many colonies and concerted action is needed to ensure it isn’t the straw that breaks the camel’s back for our threatened species. But as well as tackling the virus head on, we also need to build resilience of our seabirds, by redoubling our efforts to tackle the other threats. 

Very simply, this is about ensuring policies across the four countries of the UK give seabirds safe places to feed and safe places to breed. 

While Bempton is unusual as a seabird colony on the mainland, many other important colonies are on offshore islands. Where invasive predators, such as rats, have reached these islands, seabird breeding success plummets. We now have some great successes removing these non-native predators and the benefits for seabirds can be massive and swift. But in the face of bird flu, we need to re-double our efforts and ensure long term Government funding for biosecurity, ensuring those islands remain safe from reinvasion. 

While these land actions are vital, seabirds, as the name suggests, spend most of their life at sea, so without proper protection of their marine habitats, all the island work is just creating safe places to starve. That might sound like just a turn of phrase, but it can be an all too awful reality. I once spent a summer on Fair Isle, midway between Shetland and Orkney, in a year when lack of food meant the resident arctic tern colony completely failed. The memory of collecting and counting thousands of dead tern chicks, all starved to death, is something that will stick with me forever. 

To tackle this having a proper network of protected areas in the marine environment is vital. The current network is incomplete at best, with big gaps which we need to see filled. For example, some of our key colonies such as Lundy Island are still omitted from the seabirds’ protected sites, whilst the network also fails to take into consideration climate change, with almost no protected areas designated for their blue carbon contribution. Just as important is ensuring these areas are more than paper parks, needing to be well managed and monitored with measures in place to stop damaging activities.

And of course we also need to address the impact of fisheries on our seabirds. We need to put in place measures to bring an end to the large numbers of seabirds killed in fishing gear each year and we must protect the fish stocks on which our seabirds rely. We’ve seen some progress on the latter of these in recent weeks, with Defra currently consulting on closing the sandeel fishery in the English waters of the North Sea. Sandeels are a hugely important food source for many seabirds, so this would be a major step forward, after decades of RSPB advocacy work. You can add your voice here.

Infographic of pressures faced by seabirds, (c) RSPB

All this might sound daunting, but there is definitely reason for hope. We have the tools in our arsenal to help our seabirds recover. If we can deliver spatial plans and conservation action at land and sea, we can deliver on our global responsibility to save our seabirds, even in the face of bird flu. All we need is the will to deliver on that. There might not be a greater challenge we face. 

I’ll be back at Bempton this weekend. Inspiring by the seabird scenes in Wild Isles, my daughter has pleaded with me to take her for her first seabird city experience. She’s mainly excited about puffins. While that might be her winding me up, whether its puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills or gannets, I honestly can’t wait to share one of our greatest wildlife spectacles with her. Ensuring future generations get to revel in the wonder of these great colonies should be all the motivation we need to do everything we can to save our seabirds. 

Further resources

- Hope for our struggling seabirds (rspb.org)