Scotland's seabird cities continue to struggle


Reports of seabird breeding performance on a number of RSPB Scotland's coastal reserves indicate continuing problems for the country's internationally important seabird colonies. In light of the poor breeding performance on these reserves and the mixed picture elsewhere, the RSPB is calling on the UK's governments to ensure that the areas that are important for seabirds at sea, particularly where they forage of food, are included and adequately protected in the networks of Marine Protected Areas that are currently being discussed in Scotland, England and Wales.

The biggest population declines were in the Northern Isles, with reserves in Orkney showing significant drops in populations of sensitive species such as Arctic Terns and Kittiwakes. A full colony count at Marwick Head reserve on the Orkney mainland showed a staggering 53% decline in the total number of seabirds present since the last full census of the UK's seabird populations in 2000, and a 22% decline since the last colony count in 2006. Guillemots and Kittiwakes failed to produce a single chick at Noup Head, while at North Hill reserve breeding pairs of Arctic Skuas were down by nearly half. The single remaining pair of Kittiwakes on this reserve failed to raise any young at a colony that once had over 150 breeding pairs of of the species.

Kittiwake, Westray, Orkney (Photo: Stephen Allen)

On the Western Isles and Inner Hebrides numbers were also low, and breeding attempts were not helped by gale-force winds in the last week of May, which ruined a high proportion of nesting attempts for terns in particular.

There have been some successes this year, though. Conservationists discovered 15 occupied burrows of Leach's Storm-petrel on Ramna Stacks & Gurney, Shetland, RSPB's only reserve for this enigmatic bird. However, the picture was bleak elsewhere on Shetland.

Leach's Storm-petrel
Leach's Storm-petrel, Unst, Shetland (Photo: Alastair Wilson)

The breeding season was mixed throughout the rest of the UK. The east coast of Scotland generally showed better productivity than the previous year, but overall numbers of Guillemots and Kittiwakes have fallen significantly over a 10-year period. Troup Head on the Moray coast reported the biggest drop in Guillemot numbers, experiencing a massive 66% decline at the reserve since 2001. RSPB reserve counts showed that Razorbills and Guillemots appeared to enjoy a relatively successful year further south in England and Wales.

Dr Sharon Thompson is the senior marine policy officer at the RSPB's headquarters. Commenting on the need for better protection for seabirds at sea, she said: "Whether populations are in decline or in good health or improving, Marine Protected Areas are an important tool for protecting the areas that are vital for seabirds at sea. We have the national and international laws needed to protect our marine wildlife, including seabirds, and the process of selecting these sites and forming a network of marine protected areas is underway. Unfortunately, the needs of some of our most precious sealife are not being considered properly."

The success or failure of seabird breeding seasons are an indication of the health of the marine environment as a whole and a reminder to the UK Government and devolved administrations of the need to prioritise and carry out a full census of the country's seabird colonies. The comprehensive survey will allow scientists to monitor long-term trends accurately and to target conservation action for important seabird populations.

Doug Gilbert, Head of Reserves Ecology for RSPB Scotland, said: "The terrible season for critical colonies in the far north warns us that seabird populations in the UK remain in real danger. This is against the backdrop of long-term decline for many species. Carrying out another full census is vital. By knowing how different species are faring, conservationists can then attempt to determine causes of decline and the means of protecting these species."

To support the RSPB campaign and step up for seabirds, please visit www.rspb.org.uk/marine to sign a pledge encouraging the UK government to protect all the sites of importance for seabirds in our waters.

Written by: RSPB