Extreme weather threat to seabirds

Little terns have been badly affected by recent severe weather conditions, the National Trust has warned (PA/National Trust)

Little terns have been badly affected by recent severe weather conditions, the National Trust has warned (PA/National Trust)

First published in National News © by

UK seabirds are being hit by a triple whammy of extreme weather, predators and disturbance by humans, the National Trust has said.

A study by the Trust of seabird sites along the 742 miles of coastline it cares for revealed that the most prevalent threat to breeding colonies of birds such as little terns and Atlantic puffins was extreme weather.

Extremes such as the winter storms in the past year and the heavy rains that washed out the summer in 2012 are expected to become frequent and intense as the climate warms.

The storms this winter hit the Trust's Blakeney National Nature Reserve in Norfolk, where severe storm surges changed the beach profile and forced more than half the little terns there to nest in low areas.

The nests then flooded in the high tides that followed in mid-June, leading to a very poor breeding season with just 10 chicks fledging from 108 breeding pairs.

Little terns in Long Nanny in Northumberland have faced a similar threat , the Trust said.

Atlantic puffins are also threatened by extreme weather, with the wet, windy summer in 2012 hitting the population of the charismatic bird on the Farne Islands.

Heavy flooding of the puffin burrows during the summer meant that one of the islands failed to produce any chicks, despite being home to 12,000 of the islands' 40,000 strong puffin population.

The puffin colony recovered and is the second largest in the UK, but it faces a challenging future, the Trust said.

Another major problem for seabirds is predators such as foxes, rats and non-native mink, according to the study carried out by the National Trust to evaluate the importance of its sites for seabirds and assess issues which affect breeding success.

In 2001, Manx shearwaters on Lundy Island, Devon, were virtually unable to breed because of predation from rats, but a project to eradicate the predators saw the birds make a spectacular recovery.

The Trust said managed removal of predators was now a priority, and regular monitoring will help detect issues early.

The third most common risk facing breeding seabirds was disturbance by humans, such as walkers and their dogs.

If nests are disturbed, seabirds can be displaced leaving their young vulnerable to predators, or the birds can be stressed, which affects their wellbeing.

The National Trust is urging walkers and visitors to be aware of their potential impact on nesting seabirds during the breeding season.

Dr David Bullock, head of nature conservation at the National Trust, said: "Seabirds are part of what makes the British and Irish coastline so special.

"A seabird colony is an assault on your senses; it has a unique smell; distinctive calls, such as that of the kittiwake, which sounds just like its name; and they are a fascinating sight as they lift off from the cliff.

"Our emotional connection with these birds along with what they tell us about the health of our seas means that it is vital for us to look after the places where they nest."

The report found that 10 areas of National Trust coastline were highly significant and the highest priority for breeding seabirds in terms of numbers and variety of species.

They were Strangford Lough, Carlingford Lough, Rathlin and Sheep Islands, Lighthouse Island, Northern Ireland, Cemlyn Lagoon/north Anglesey coast, Pembrokeshire's Middleholm, Lundy Island, Orford Ness, Suffolk, the north Norfolk coast at Scolt Head and Blakeney Point, the Northumberland coast and the Farne Islands.

The report also revealed a number of key bird species for whom National Trust sites are important, including Sandwich terns, Manx shearwaters, Atlantic puffins and Arctic terns.

The National Trust is calling for more regular monitoring to detect changes in seabird colonies, and a greater awareness of human impacts on breeding populations.

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