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Londoners warm wave of support for kittiwakes

24 August 2012

Tim Webb
London Communications Manager

Dramatic changes in the marine environment, particularly those fuelled by climate change, are believed to be responsible for the striking collapse in the numbers of one of the UK’s most engaging seabirds.

Kittiwake’s are quite possibly the UK’s most graceful cliff-nesting gull. Their numbers have more than halved since the mid 1980s across the UK, and populations in Scotland have crashed by almost two thirds.

In contrast, the East Sussex cliff-top colony at Seaford’s Splash Point has mysteriously seen numbers increase, from 800 pairs in 2011 to some 1100 pairs this year. The Sussex colony at Seaford, east of Brighton, has become increasingly significant in recent years as kittiwakes struggle to breed in strongholds along the coast of northern England, Scotland and Wales.

It’s one of the South East’s last remaining kittiwake colonies. Chicks hatched at the beginning of June, hopefully indicating another successful year for this important seabird colony. Another south coast colony at Newhaven, which has been steadily decreasing over the last few years, had no nesting kittiwakes at all this year.

Early reports of seabird nesting performance from across the UK this summer indicate continuing problems for the kittiwake population with one breeding colony now extinct and others predicted to disappear within three years. Counts of the average number of chicks per nest also seem to be reducing. These declines are being linked to changes in the marine environment.

Dave Burges, conservation officer for the RSPB in the South East said: “It now seems beyond doubt that the decline of the kittiwake is being driven by a slump in the availability of sandeels; a staple food for this and many other seabirds. And, it’s almost certain that the crash of sandeels is linked to the warming of the sea and subsequent changes in plankton availability. In other words, changes at the microscopic level are wreaking havoc at the other end of the food chain.”

Although one of the world’s most abundant seabirds, kittiwakes are declining at an alarming rate, particularly in Orkney and Shetland where around one-fifth of the UK population return to breed each year. The mystery as to why Seaford’s kittiwakes are thriving while others collapse needs further investigation. It may be that they’ve found unknown populations of sandeels or an alternative prey.

Dave Burges added: “Seabirds remain largely unprotected at sea and have been marginalised in the identification of new Marine Protected Areas. This obvious gap needs to be filled if we’re going to prove we’re serious about protecting threatened marine wildlife. It’s vital  the current tight restrictions on the North Sea’s industrial fishery for sandeels is maintained to ensure it doesn’t add to the wider pressures on sandeel stocks and we need public support to argue that case.”

In other parts of the kittiwake’s range, there is evidence from Iceland, Greenland and Norway of its population declining.

In 2008, the kittiwake was added to an international watch list of threatened species, under the Ospar – Oslo-Paris – Convention, set up to protect the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic.

Marine scientists have shown temperature differences in the North Sea are sending seismic shocks right up through the food web. This is being reflected in seabird populations. As top predators, many seabirds, including elegant kittiwakes, are now suffering a chronic decline after many years of population recovery.

Interestingly in winter (when sandeels breed), Shetland's sea surface temperatures are higher than further south in the North Sea. So, in the UK, the biggest disruption to the marine food chain may be more apparent at first in more northerly waters.


  1. Figures from JNCC (Joint Nature Conservation Committee) show that between 1986 and 2011, kittiwakes declined by the following amounts: UK (55%); England (31%); Scotland (66%); and Wales (26%). These figures have been rounded to the nearest one per cent.
  2. The UK Seabird Monitoring Programme partnership (SMP) is currently planning the next full UK seabird census, which aims to count all colonies of seabirds in Britain and Ireland. This survey will provide an update on the last full census, carried out between 1998 and 2002.  SMP is an ongoing annual monitoring programme of the 26 species of seabird that regularly breed in Britain and Ireland (  It aims to ensure that data on breeding numbers and breeding success of seabirds are collected from a representative sample of colonies, both regionally and nationally, to enable their conservation status to be assessed. The SMP is led and coordinated by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) in partnership with others, including the RSPB.
  3. Research into sea temperatures and climate change can be found on the website of the ‘Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science’. 
The RSPB is Europe’s largest conservation charity, working to save and support the UK’s urban and rural wild life and wild places. With more than a million registered supporters, we speak out for nature, champion development which brings economic growth alongside a healthy environment for people and wildlife, and aim to bring people closer to nature.

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