The EU LIFE-funded Little Tern Recovery Project has helped turn the tide for little tern populations. Communications Officer, Sydney Henderson, reflects on the success of the project and why the work is by no means complete.  

 The weight of a tennis ball. 

A picky eater. 

A courtship proposal in the shape of a fish.

The scientific name, Sternula albifrons describes the distinctive white forehead, with albus, "white", and "frons", forehead.

And nests laid precariously close to the rising high tide line. 

The Little tern.

A declining species

The UK’s second rarest breeding seabird, the little tern, spend their winter in West Africa and migrate to Britain in the summer to breed on soft sand and shingle coasts.  And here lies their vulnerability and a key factor in the species population decline. Little terns tend to lay eggs close to the high-water mark on beaches. But suitable, safe nesting spaces are being lost to erosion and stormy weather, which is increasing in frequency due to climate change.

Little tern nesting sites are also impacted by ‘coastal squeeze’ – hard sea defences prevent the natural rolling back of beaches and inter-tidal areas on eroding coasts, reducing the area suitable for terns.

As if this wasn’t enough, areas popular with little terns are also often also popular with people enjoying beaches for recreation and dog walking. Even if the terns can nest amidst the disturbance, the extremely well camouflaged chicks and eggs are at high risk, not only from natural predators, but from humans and dogs.

 A big team for a little bird

These were the kind of issues facing staff and volunteers working on the EU LIFE-funded Little Tern Recovery Project. It consisted of ten partners (including the RSPB), 26 colony sites, 16 Special Protection Areas across England and Wales and supported by 60 members of staff and 250 volunteers.

The Project worked to monitor and protect nesting terns on our beaches. Staff and dedicated volunteers engaged beach visitors about the threats the birds face and what can be done to help them. They monitored and protected tern nests with protective fencing and equipment updated at 88% of colonies. The seemingly ridiculous, but extremely successful method of using tern lookalike decoys to lure terns to safer nesting spots was deployed at 13 sites.

Results indicate a slowing of the population decline over the five years at Project sites and two-thirds of sites had improved productivity. As little terns move between sites both within each season as well as between years, this makes comparisons on a year on year basis more complex. In order to improve our understanding of their demography, the Project also funded a new ringing programme where during the five years, coded-colour rings were fitted to more than 100 adult terns and 350 large chicks. Re-sighting these rings will help researchers follow the fortunes of individual birds and develop further conservation plans and protection measures

Little terns are long-lived seabirds and improved productivity will enable populations to slowly recover in the future if colonies continue to be appropriately managed.

 A cautiously optimistic future

The five-year Project has now come to an end; however, the work is not finished and as long as staff and volunteers from all partner organisations are able, they will be fighting to protect one of the UK’s smallest seabirds, the little tern.

Looking forward, we must continue to create new nesting space to give the UK’s little tern population space to expand. All organisations involved in coastal management must work together to find opportunities to create new habitat areas. These can bring flood defence benefits as well as more areas where wildlife can flourish.

We must continue to fight for coasts to be managed for people and for wildlife. People must be able to enjoy the coast whilst good management protects sites for wildlife. This approach would benefit many species, such as ringed plovers and oystercatchers, as well as dune and shingle habitats, for future generations.

Little terns, these wonderful birds, need us. We, the RSPB, alongside Project partners, will continue to work on increasing community involvement, raising awareness of the issues and encouraging and supporting local people to take part.

If you would like to get involved in the essential work protecting little terns, we have range of volunteering roles from public engagement to monitoring. Information can be found at