Glimmer of Hope for Scotland’s Seabirds?

Scottish Natural Heritage has today said that a successful 2014-2015 breeding season offers glimmers of hope for seabird species including common guillemot and Atlantic puffin. This announcement follows the publication of the Seabird Biodiversity Indicator Report 2016, which uses information collected from the long-running Seabird Monitoring Programme.

The news is likely to receive a cautious welcome from conservationists after decades of declines in British seabird numbers.

The report itself paints a complicated picture. Breeding success varied among the 13 species assessed by SNH. It was higher than the long-term (1986 to 2013) average for seven species: Arctic skua; Atlantic puffin; black-legged kittiwake; common tern; herring gull; little tern; and northern gannet. Three species had lower breeding success than the long-term average: great skua; lesser black-backed gull; and Sandwich tern. Finally, three species had breeding success in 2014 around the long-term average: Arctic tern; common guillemot; and northern fulmar.

Glen Tyler, a marine ornithologist with SNH, said:

“We’re hopeful that the success of puffins and some other seabirds in certain areas of Scotland mean their fortunes are looking up, but it’s really too early to say for sure.”

Credit: Lorne Gill/Scottish Natural Heritage.

Credit: Lorne Gill/Scottish Natural Heritage.

The new report follows the latest Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) publication in December 2015, which now names puffin, shag, Arctic skua, kittiwake and herring gull as red-listed species, indicating an increasing level of conservation concern.

Whilst some of Britain’s seabirds like fulmar and gannet have have fared well in recent years, other species like kittiwake have seen declines of up to 80% in the last 30 years. These declines have been attributed to a variety of causes, including changing sea temperatures, food availability and predation by rats.

The new report makes particular note of the effect of fluctuating regional populations of sandeels, a major food source for several seabird species, as the primary cause of decline in kittiwake numbers. The report also highlights the negative impact that winter storms can have on seabirds, citing the widespread ‘wrecks’ of species including shags in 1994, 2005 and the winter of 2012/2013.

General trends in declines in Britain are mirrored across the North Atlantic. Iceland’s population of puffins has declined dramatically in the last decade, with some of its largest colonies suffering near total collapse. Great skua, Arctic skua have also suffered in Iceland.

Tyler continued: “There’s continued work to combat some of the pressures on seabirds – for example, by controlling non-native predators. The Scottish Government’s Marine Bill also includes measures to improve marine nature conservation to safeguard and protect Scotland’s unique habitats.”

Responding to the report, Alex Kinninmonth, Head of Marine Policy at RSPB Scotland said: “These latest figures show the real value in dedicated monitoring of seabird populations in Scotland, and certainly contain promising news for species including kittiwake and Arctic tern. However, this glimmer of hope is set against a backdrop of severe and long term population declines of up to 90% in some places.”
The report can be found here: http://www.snh.gov.uk/docs/B424907.pdf

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Andy Painting

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