Over half of England’s most threatened breeding birds are ground nesting, including little terns and ringed plovers. RSPB Communications Officer, Oriole Wagstaffinvestigates why little terns are in trouble, and what the RSPB is doing to help. 

The little tern is one of the UK’s smallest seabirds, weighing no more than a tennis ball but it’s also one of the UK’s most vulnerable bird speciesThe UK little tern population has been declining since the 1980s, and their numbers have dropped by almost a fifth (18%) since 2000. Now, less than 2,000 breeding pairs remain in the UK. 

Little terns nest on beaches close to the high tide lines on shingle and sandbut these sites are particularly vulnerable. Rising seas and coastal flooding, due to climate change, can flood nests and wash away eggs and chicksDisturbance from humans enjoying the same beaches also poses a problem for these birds. If disturbed by dogs or beach users, then adult terns will leave the nest, leaving their eggs and chicks vulnerable to the cold and predators. Its becoming harder for them to find safe, quiet spaces to nest in. 

Little terns aren’t the only threatened birds that nest on our beaches; ringed plovers and oyster catchers also rely on these vulnerable spacesand sandwich terns, redshank and Mediterranean gulls rely on coastal islands. 

Little tern newly hatched chick and unhatched egg in nest. Credit: Ben Andrew

What is the RSPB doing to help little tern populations recover?  

With little tern numbers plummeting, in 2014 we embarked on the EU LIFE+ Little Tern Project. This was a five-year EU-funded project, with 11 organisations working together to protect little terns across 19 sites in England by: 

  • erecting warning signs and raising awareness 
  • fencing off nests to protect chicks 
  • creating safer nesting sites by hiring wardens to monitor disturbance and even feed 
  • predators like kestrels at alternative sites to divert them away from nests 
  • sheltering chicks and protecting nests threatened by flooding  
  • improved monitoring  

As a result, 2,933 young successfully fledged during the project, helping to slow local population declines. 

Since the funding finished in 2019, RSPB staff and volunteers have continued to protect these vulnerable birds. As last year saw some of the highest tides recorded, and a spike in visitors after the easing of lockdown, so little terns faced a series of challenges. A team of staff and volunteers at RSPB Pagham Harbour, West Sussex, installed fencing and signage. They also patrolled the nesting sites, to make sure parents and chicks had the space they needed to thrive. Thanks to their efforts 15 little tern chicks arrived - the best result in over four years. This success continued along the coast at Chesil beach, in Dorset, where similar work (funded by Portland Court Leet, the Environment Agency and Dorset Council) led to the largest breeding population since work began in 2009, and 50 pairs of little terns raised over 30 little tern chicks. 

Little tern chicks sitting with parent on nest in June. Credit Kevin Simmonds

The RSPB has been involved in protecting little terns on the east Norfolk coast for 33 years and began when part of the beach at North Denes in Great Yarmouth was cordoned off in the early summer of 1986, allowing the birds to nest undisturbed. The colony soon became the UK’s premier nesting site for the species and was consequently designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) in 1993. Today we are progressing this work with our new EU funded Life on the Edge project to little tern colonies in Norfolk and at other sites across England. Thank you to all those who donated to our Big Give Life on the Edge appealyou helped raise over £80,000 to fund work with coastal breeding species. However, we hope to raise even more as this does not fully cover the scale of our wider ambitions to protect these threatened birds. 

We are also working with Essex Wildlife Trust around the Colne and Blackwater Estuaries on #ShareOurShores to protect little tern colonies at our key reserves. This project focuses on working with estuary users and volunteers to monitor and survey little terns in Essex. 

What you can do to help  

Visitors to RSPB reserves and other beach nesting bird habitats, can help keep nests safe by watching out for nesting birds, backing away from any alarmed birds and keeping their dogs on leads. When off leads, dogs can run through nesting areas you may not have noticed, causing stress to breeding birds. Even if dogs don’t physically harm the birdsbeing disturbed may cause the parent to desert a nest and it can also cause birds to scatter, making them vulnerable to predatorslike birds of prey.  Repeatedly being disturbed like this can also stress birds out, use up valuable energy and leave them weaker and more vulnerable to other threats.  

If you take part in beach or coastal water sports, whether it’s kayaking, paddle boarding or even jet skiing, look out for signage around breeding colonies and avoid landing near these sensitive sites. By following this simple advice, you can really help to protect rare breeding birds like little terns. Volunteers have been crucial to supporting our work on protecting beach nesting birds, look out for volunteering opportunities to learn how you can help your local little tern colony. 

With little tern populations falling nationally, we’re fighting to save this special bird. With the support of our members ideal habitat for beach nesting birds, by installing fencing, signage and employing wardens to monitor disturbance at our coastal reserves across England. This habitat helps keep the birds and their chicks safe, but as a charity, we can only continue this vital work if people support us. More than a million people already support our work as RSPB members – will you join them today?  

We urgently need to raise £130,000 to keep the RSPB little tern conservation programme running this summer. With your help, we can keep wardens in place, put warning signs up, and keep vulnerable nesting sites protected. Otherwise, chicks will soon be at the mercy of rising seas, predators and disturbance once again. We can’t stop now – little terns and their chicks are relying on us for their survival. With your help, we can keep protecting these wonderful birds for another year. Please give whatever you can to help little terns today and donate here.