Orkney is home to the most northerly nesting colony of little terns in Britain.

This colony nests on the beach at Churchill Barrier 4 between the islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay.

We (the local RSPB Scotland team) were increasingly concerned about their future because little terns had struggled to breed successfully on the beach for many years. Little terns are site faithful which means they will continue to return to the same site to breed no matter how successful or unsuccessful their breeding attempts are – more cause for concern.

So in 2015, our Outdoor Learning Officer in Orkney, Lindsey Taylor, began working with school pupils of Hope Community School and Burray Primary School to help protect the breeding area of the little terns and raise awareness of their presence at the beach and the importance of not disturbing them during the breeding season. 

  Pupils from Hope and Burray Schools

Little tern nests are very vulnerable to human disturbance as they often nest in areas that are also popular with people. It is very important that people and dogs stay as far away from the nests as possible during the breeding season, as adult little terns can abandon their nests if they are disturbed, and chicks and eggs can be damaged. 

 One of the signs put up to try to raise awareness

In the first year, the pupils helped to set up the beach area to be a safer breeding site for the little terns by helping to put up the fence, clearing the beach of litter, and making posters which were installed at the beach and also in local shops and ferries to let people know that the Barrier 4 beach is a little tern breeding site and how to help them to breed successfully.

 Clearing rubbish off the beach

The children also helped to make chick shelters which help to protect the chicks when the adults are away fishing, as well as ‘decoy birds’, which help to attract other birds to breed within the colony area.

 Chick shelter and decoy on the beach

In subsequent years, the school pupils have helped make more decoys and they always make wonderful posters to inform the public how to help the terns breed successfully.  

  One of the posters made by the primary schools

The great news is that since the involvement of the Hope and Burray schools in this special project – the little terns at Barrier 4 have had greatly increased breeding success! 

In the very first breeding season, there were 11 adult little terns and they raised 8 chicks – this was a fantastic success after no successful breeding the previous year! Then in the second year there were 18 adults and 11 chicks. Last year, there were 36 adults and 21 chicks, and this year looks equally as promising, with around 28 chicks successfully fledging the nests. 

This is in large part thanks to the enthusiasm and hard work of the school pupils.

Lindsey says that she has been “overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and knowledge of these highly charismatic birds and they have made a huge difference to their nesting success over the last four years”.

I am sure the terns appreciate their efforts too.