Print page

Seabird failure continues for another year

Last modified: 12 July 2008

Kittiwake on nest, Isle of May National Nature reserve

Widespread shortages of food means kittiwakes with chicks are becoming a rarer sight

Image: Andy Hay

Early reports of seabird breeding performance on some RSPB coastal reserves, especially in parts of Scotland and Wales, indicate continuing problems for internationally-important populations of guillemots, kittiwakes and other seabirds.

Abandoned nests and empty cliffs at sites, which should now be teeming with thousands of nesting birds, are clear indicators of a potential seabird crisis.
Worryingly, evidence suggests these repeated annual breeding failures, probably linked to climate-change impacts on their food sources, are now substantially reducing populations of certain species, with some experiencing massive population declines in recent years at cliffs that used to support huge colonies.
Different seabird species have experienced contrasting fortunes according to their location and feeding preferences, but colonies on the northern isles of Orkney and Shetland - together the UK’s most important "seabird cities" - have been hit particularly hard.

Kittiwakes – small ocean-going gulls - also had serious problems, and although many adults began nest building, significant numbers appeared to give up; others laying eggs but failing to get them to hatch.

Some sites affected include:

  • Sumburgh Head, Shetland: Early in the season many guillemots and razorbills appeared to have given up any attempt to breed at RSPB's Sumburgh Head reserve, with eggs left abandoned on the cliffs as parent birds spent more time at sea in a desperate search for food.
  • Fowlsheugh, Aberdeenshire: At Fowlsheugh the picture was slightly more encouraging, with razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes appearing to be nesting successfully, although counts are still well down on historic numbers. 
  • West coast of Scotland: On the west coast of Scotland, the breeding season has been more mixed, with both razorbills and kittiwakes experiencing a poor year, but some Arctic tern colonies fared well and were bringing in plentiful food supplies.
  • Copinsay, Orkney: The kittiwake population has plummeted drastically since the mid 1980s, when there were at least 10,000 birds on the cliffs. This year there are just under 2,000.
  • Ramsey Island, Wales: Kittiwakes here are continuing their decline of the past seven or eight years. Guillemot numbers are also reportedly down on last year’s figures.
  • St Bees Head, Cumbria: The counts of fulmar and kittiwake appear to be up on the previous five-year averages. This year’s count for guillemot is also holding up well compared with previous years.

A full analysis of the 2008 seabird breeding season will only be possible at the end of the summer.

Annual theme

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s Conservation Director, said: “Regrettably the poor breeding performance of our internationally important seabird colonies is now an annual theme. The UK has the most important concentrations of kittiwake, guillemot and razorbill in the European Union, making any declines here a serious cause for concern."

The declines are primarily being driven by changes in the availability of the fish that these birds depend upon. Sandeels, sprats and other small fish are not available to kittiwakes and other birds in the way they used to be. The adult birds are having to spend more time away from their eggs and chicks to find food and many are just giving up their breeding attempts.

Dr Mark Avery added: “These changes are almost certainly being driven by changes in the sea environment that we still know little about. Seabirds are indicators of the health of the marine environment and, like the canary in the coalmine, the decline in their fortunes is a wake-up call that we must heed.”
The RSPB has been calling for sometime for environmental issues to be at the heart of the marine legislation being drafted in both Westminster and Holyrood to improve the fortunes of seabirds and the marine environment upon which they are so dependent.


Dr Sharon Thompson, the RSPB’s Senior Marine Policy Officer said, “Marine legislation, including the UK Marine Bill, will not be a silver bullet that means that all the problems facing seabirds will disappear overnight. But it would signal a shift in policy away from the current approach of exploitation with only minor regard to the impacts. Our seas are a common resource and it is up to the governments across the UK to safeguard the future of our marine natural heritage.”  

The RSPB presented its views to a Parliamentary Committee scrutinising a draft of the UK Marine Bill in June. The role of this Committee is to review the legislation before a full Bill is published. It is due to publish its recommendations at the end of the month. RSPB Scotland will be presenting its views on the Scottish Marine Bill during the consultation period, which begins on Monday 14 July.

Dr Thompson added: “The UK and Scottish Marine Bills must deliver effective protection for our marine wildlife and the marine resources upon which we depend. A comprehensive marine planning system based on sustainable development principles must be delivered for seas that are increasingly busy, to ensure adequate space for marine wildlife, while reducing conflicts between different users of the sea.

“We told the Committee that the UK Marine Bill needs stronger requirements to designate a network of marine protected areas for important marine wildlife. And to deliver long-term sustainable management and recovery of our seas, will require the Westminster Government to deliver an approach that is integrated with parallel action in the UK’s devolved countries, including the Scottish Marine Bill, and across Europe through the European Union’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive.”

How you can help

The seas around the UK's coasts are increasingly overfished, over-trafficked and over-developed, but crucially under-protected. Your support today will help safeguard our sea life.