From this month, the Seabird Monitoring Programme (SMP) will be changing in how it’s being run. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) has formed a partnership with the BTO and RSPB, to run this crucial project monitoring the UK’s internationally important seabird populations. Professor Richard Gregory, Head of Monitoring, explains.

This exciting new partnership will be changing the way in which the scheme is coordinated, with BTO leading on supporting the network of skilled volunteer and professional participants, collating data via the SMP Database, and producing vital statistics on bird numbers, survival and productivity.

Nicola Largey, PHD student working as a Research Assistant (c) RSPB (rspb-images.com)

A history of seabird monitoring

Since 1986, when the Seabird Monitoring Programme was created by JNCC (then the Nature Conservancy Council) and The Seabird Group, JNCC has coordinated collection, collation and analysis of seabird data from hundreds of skilled participants, many being RSPB reserve staff and volunteers.

These data and statistics have provided insights into the status and trends of our breeding seabirds and, alongside national censuses, have been crucial for informing conservation actions. The SMP Report delivers annual statistics and the SMP Database allows access to tens of thousands of records from coastal and inland colonies, to help us better understand seabird populations and how we might help them.

Why is this so important?

Seabirds are an important component of biodiversity in the UK – more than seven million breeding seabirds of 25 species benefit from the nutrient-rich waters of the NE Atlantic and from safe nesting sites along thousands of kilometres of coastline.

Gannets flying at RSPB reserve Bempton Cliffs (c) Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)

The UK is an internationally important area for breeding seabirds, with many species occurring in internationally significant numbers. Seabirds are protected by domestic laws and international agreements and the UK’s most important seabird colonies are protected within Special Protection Areas (SPAs), both terrestrial and marine.

As apex predators, they are a useful indicator of the state of our seas; changes lower down the food chain and in the marine environment are likely to be manifested in their populations. Knowing to what extent these seabird populations are increasing or decreasing is fundamental to their conservation, and to monitoring the state of both sites of importance as well as the wider environment.

SMP information helps improve understanding of population trends amongst policy makers, conservation practitioners, researchers, industry and the public. The outputs help JNCC and other parts of the UK and devolved governments to fulfil statutory and international obligations for the conservation of wild birds and the environment.

What the changes will entail

These changes will provide increased opportunity to grow the network and develop the scheme, drawing on BTO’s great expertise and experience in running bird monitoring projects. Organisations involved in the scheme in the past will form an important Advisory Group that will help guide development, and collaboration on long-term demographic monitoring at the four SMP Key Sites will continue.

Formally the RSPB is an Associate Partner in SMP, providing a modest amount of money per year to help with its smooth operation but very considerable in-kind support from our staff and volunteers across the UK in collecting and collating data, and in associated research. The RSPB will be a member of the SMP’s Steering Committee and very closely involved in its operation and strategic development.

At a time when highly pathogenic avian influenza is spreading fast through our seabird colonies, the need for first-class monitoring of seabirds has never been so high.

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