2020 - A huge success for seabirds on England’s south coast

Oriole Wagstaff

Tuesday 30 March 2021

2020 - A huge success for seabirds on England’s south coast

2020 saw a huge number of threatened seabirds successfully breed along England’s south coast.

  • The success of these breeding birds is a result of the hard work of RSPB staff and volunteers to provide and protect suitable habitats, despite challenges from Covid-19 restrictions.
  • A record 164 sandwich tern chicks fledged from RSPB Pagham Harbour last year.
  • Over 30 little terns, one of the UK’s rarest breeding seabirds, fledged at Chesil beach and a further 15 at RSPB Pagham Harbour.
  • At RSPB Langstone Harbour, in Hampshire, an amazing 1579 pairs of Mediterranean gulls nested last year, the 2nd highest total ever recorded. 

Last year saw a huge number of threatened seabirds successfully breed along England’s south coast.

RSPB Pagham Harbour, in west Sussex, saw a record 164 sandwich tern chicks last year. Sandwich terns breed around the UK coast in summer, but they nest directly on the ground which puts them at a higher risk of predation, human disturbance and flooding. Because of this they rely almost entirely on nature reserves. In 2012 the RSPB took on the management of West Sussex County Council’s Pagham Harbour nature reserve and have been carrying out work to protect these birds ever since. Creation of shingle habitat and protective fencing on ‘tern island’, made for the ideal nesting sites for these seabirds and led to a boom in their numbers.

One of UK’s rarest breeding seabirds, the little tern, also had remarkable breeding success in the south last year. Little terns also nest on beaches and are recognised by their small size and distinctive black beak with a yellow tip. As last year saw some of the highest tides recorded, and with a spike in visitors after the easing of lockdown, the terns faced a series of challenges. A team of staff and volunteers installed fencing and signage, and patrolled the nesting sites, to make sure parents and chicks had the space they needed to thrive. Thanks to their efforts 15 little tern chicks arrived - the best result in over four years. This success continued along the coast at Chesil beach, in Dorset, where similar work (funded by Portland Court Leet, the Environment Agency and Dorset Council) led to the largest number of breeding pairs since work began in 2009, and resulted in the arrival of over 30 little tern chicks.

Sometimes called ‘sea swallows’, because of their long tails, common terns also thrived in the south of England last year. On Hayling Island, RSPB staff launched rafts into the lagoon at the West Hayling Local Nature Reserve to provide a safe haven for returning common terns. This resulted in 56 chicks taking to the skies. Tern breeding success in the eastern Solent has completely transformed since a project to protect these birds launched in 2017 after years of total failure. Similar work to carefully manage nesting habitats and protect nests led to the highest number of common tern chicks fledging in nearly a decade, at RSPB Lodmoor in Dorset, with a total of 90 new chicks. The success continued to the east as at least 90 additional chicks fledged at RSPB Dungeness, Kent.  

And it’s not just the terns which had an excellent year, at RSPB Langstone Harbour, in Hampshire, 1579 pairs of Mediterranean gulls nested last year, the second highest total ever recorded. Mediterranean gulls were once very rare but are now breeding around the UK coast in increasing numbers. Last year saw the first pair nest at RSPB Lodmoor and the first ever chick to fledge from there.

Richard Archer, RSPB Conservation Officer said, “The coastal habitats that these birds rely on are shrinking, so restoring and creating suitable habitat is vital to their survival.  The success of our little tern numbers has led to the highest number of breeding little terns in over a decade and reflects a huge amount of planning, hard work and innovation. Our volunteers, operating under Covid-19 restrictions, have been fantastic. If they can breed successfully, little terns will often return to the same nesting beach every year, so it’s a really positive sign that the work we are doing here will support the future of these vulnerable birds.”

Wez Smith, RSPB Site Manager said, “The future of our coastal breeding birds remains in a perilous state here on the south coast of England but it’s reassuring to see our ongoing work bearing positive results.  Once again, this shows that when our shore nesting birds are protected in suitable coastal habitat and given space, they can thrive.  Taking action to allow increasingly rare birds like little terns to nest on beaches near populated areas along with creating new sites to replace those that have been lost is a real sign of progress. It’s vital that we can continue our ongoing work to protect wildlife and the habitats they require to thrive. The truly amazing success for breeding terns at RSPB Pagham Harbour is a particular moment to be treasured in our coastal conservation work and should see a newly invigorated population of young sandwich and little terns returning over the coming years.”

How can you help?

Over half of England’s most threatened breeding bird species are ground nesting which can leave them at risk of predators, human disturbance, and flooding. As nesting season begins there are some simple ways to help protect our most threatened beach nesting birds this year. A key thing you can do is simply watch where you walk. Stick to the paths, watch out for signage, and keep your dog on a lead when walking on beaches and coastlines. When off leads, dogs can run through nesting areas, causing stress to breeding birds. When walking across open shingle, look and listen out for alarmed birds, as these are usually a good indicator there is a nest nearby. If you do hear alarm calls, please back away to avoid disturbing them further.

With the support of members, the RSPB can create ideal habitat for threatened birds. This habitat helps keep nesting birds and their chicks safe but, as a charity, the RSPB can only continue this vital work if people support them. More than a million people already support the RSPB’s work as members – will you join them today? Join us now at www.rspb.org.uk/join-and-donate/join-us/





Editor’s notes:

1.     For general information on terns and gulls, visit: www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/gulls-and-terns/

2.     For information on the little tern project, visit https://littleternproject.org.uk/

3.     For information on the mentioned reserves, visit:

4.     The Chesil Beach Little Tern Project previously received support from an EU funded Life Little Tern Recovery Project which finished in 2019. For more information, visit: https://littleternproject.org.uk/

5.     The RSPB is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.

For further information and to arrange an interview, please contact:

Oriole Wagstaff at EngMediaEnquiries@rspb.org.uk or on 07595092346


Images to support this story are available for download from: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/43jifmfwvrsn12h/AADdU41lkUHlTmMgofnzQNGka?dl=0  

Last Updated: Tuesday 30 March 2021

Tagged with: Topic: Birds Topic: Conservation Topic: Giving nature a home where you live Topic: Reserves Topic: Wildlife Topic: Common tern Topic: Little tern Topic: Sandwich tern Topic: Marine and intertidal Topic: Conservation Topic: Giving Nature a Home Topic: Green issues Topic: Habitat conservation Topic: Marine and water Topic: Reserves Topic: Species conservation Topic: Langstone Harbour Topic: Pagham Harbour Local Nature Reserve