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Second successive poor season hits British Sea Birds   - Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Fears of poor seabird breeding season confirmed as failures hit Scotland’s west coast.

Scotland’s seabirds have suffered yet another poor breeding season across much of the country with 2005 seeing the problem moving from the east coast and the Northern Isles over to the west, according to three of Scotland’s leading conservation organisations.

Experts on reserves run by RSPB Scotland, the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, have reported major failures of certain species, particularly in the west coast reserves, such as Tiree, St Kilda.and Canna. According to the RSPB warden on Tiree, guillemots, razorbills and Arctic terns have had a disastrous year. The most recent survey there showed just four guillemot chicks present at Ceann a’ Mhara from a total of 2,173 birds. In a normal year, there would be 1,500 chicks on this Tiree seabird colony.

On St Kilda, owned and managed by the NTS, there was a spectacular breeding failure for puffins, with only 26% of burrows producing chicks, which compares to a normal figure of 71%. Canna’s kittiwake colony of around a thousand pairs saw its worst recorded year with barely five chicks fledged. A dearth of guillemots and razorbills was also reported on the NTS islands of Mingulay and Berneray. Other west coast colonies, such as the Treshnish Isles and Handa have been reporting very poor breeding seasons.

Similarly, Orkney has suffered another very poor season with many species – particularly kittiwakes and great skuas - breeding unusually late. This is probably because they were waiting around in vain for sandeels – the small fish that provide their staple diet – to appear in any number. On Papa Westray at RSPB Scotland’s North Hill reserve, there were 1,050 adult Arctic terns in four colonies and only a single fledged chick was seen. On Fair Isle, owned by the NTS, there have been complete failures for Arctic terns and great skuas as well as very poor breeding seasons for guillemots and kittiwakes, which are steadily declining in overall number. Elsewhere across Scotland the picture was mixed. South-east Shetland experienced some breeding success although it was still a poor season generally for the area. Parts of the eastern mainland coast, for example the RSPB Scotland reserve at Fowlsheugh had a better year than expected.

In broad terms, it seems that the species that nest earliest, such as certain types of gull, fared best and those that breed later – kittiwake, Arctic tern, guillemot and razor bill - did worst. Interestingly this year, the shortage of sandeels has forced some species to find alternative food sources in the form of juvenile white fish such as pollock, which are less nutritious for chicks.

“This has been yet another very disappointing season for Scottish seabirds, although it hasn’t been the complete disaster that we saw last year,” said Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland. “We believe last year’s breeding failures were due to lack of food for seabirds as a result of warming seas along the east coast which are a result of climate change. This year the picture is more complex, with the problem spreading to the west. It is of great concern that some birds are having to find an alternative diet just to survive. We need to monitor closely their feeding habits to see what effect this has on their breeding success in the future. This is the first time the west has been affected and we can only speculate as to why but climate change must be considered as a factor. The situation remains very worrying. Seabirds are excellent barometers of the state of the marine environment and we must do all we can to conserve these iconic species which are so emblematic of Scotland’s coast.”

“It is very worrying that places like St Kilda and Fair Isle appear to be suffering breeding failures in their seabird colonies,” said Richard Luxmoore, Head of Nature Conservation at the NTS. “While it is normal for seabirds to suffer periodic failures, the frequency seems to have been increasing in recent years. Scotland has around 45% of all the seabirds in the European Union nesting on its coasts and we have an international responsibility to care for them. The recent breeding failures pose a significant threat to the future of Scotland’s seabirds and it is important to remember that the country’s seabirds attract significant amounts of tourism to certain areas, boosting the economy and making our coasts unique.”

The Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) has also reported a very poor breeding season on its reserves. On Eigg, where kittiwakes would normally be expected to number 5000, the highest number to be been seen this summer is 15. Stuart Brooks, Head of Conservation at SWT said: “We are not certain of the causes but we fear that climate change is the trigger for this rapid decline. These changes are obvious but there is likely to be similar devastating changes beneath the waves where we know relatively little. There is no doubt that our marine biodiversity, a jewel in the crown of our natural heritage is under serious threat. The implications for wildlife and people are far reaching.”