This week a national conference is being held in Norwich to celebrate the success of a five year EU-funded project to protect little terns – the UK’s second rarest sea bird.
The ‘EU Life+ Little Tern Recovery Project’ is a partnership project with 11 organisations (including Natural England, the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and several AONBs) and is 50% match funded.
The project aimed to ‘improve the conservation status of the little tern in the UK through targeted action at the most important colonies’. In Norfolk and Suffolk, colonies have been protected at five key breeding sites for little terns: Eccles, Winterton, North Denes, Scroby Sands and Kessingland. Additional work has also included improved monitoring of little terns in Essex, and creating improved nesting habitat around the Blackwater estuary.
This year, 417 breeding pairs of little terns chose to nest at the Norfolk and Suffolk colonies overseen as part of this project. Of all the sites, Winterton had the most success with a productivity of 1.40 chicks per pair – beating the EU LIFE+ target of 0.75 chicks/pair. In addition, little terns successfully fledged chicks at three sites in Essex.
Nationally, the project funded by EU LIFE, has resulted in almost 3,000 little tern chicks successfully fledging at 26 sites around the UK over the past five years. It has also identified the main risks to the tern population and the ways these could be reduced.
RSPB’s senior conservation officer for Eastern region, Philip Pearson, said: “Without a replacement for EU LIFE’s £20m per year of funding across the UK, large-scale biodiversity projects will struggle to be funded. If the goals of the Westminster government’s 25-Year Environment Plan for England and the devolved governments’ ambitions for nature’s recovery in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are to be realised then appropriate resources must be provided. This is essential if we are ever to achieve a sustainable, long-term future for little terns and many other species.”
Nationally, the EU LIFE Project sites results show that 5,247 pairs raised 2,933 fledglings over the 5 years. Two-thirds of Project sites had improved productivity and results indicate a slowing of the population decline over the five years at Project sites.
A number of measures were employed to achieve this. These included:
- 24-hour wardening at two sites (Winterton and Eccles)
- Improved monitoring of hatching success, predation rates, impacts of human disturbance and, ultimately, colony productivity to determine threats and actions needed to best manage the colonies.
- Enhancing colony fencing and other deterrents.
- An extensive network of volunteers. In 2018 alone, 51 volunteers in the region devoted more than 1,800 hours to monitoring, supporting and protecting little terns in the region.
The RSPB has been involved in protecting little terns on the east Norfolk coast for 33 years and began when part of the beach at North Denes in Great Yarmouth was cordoned off in the early summer of 1986 allowing the birds to nest undisturbed. The colony soon became the UK’s premier nesting site for the species and was consequently designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) in 1993.
The little tern – one of our rarest and smallest breeding seabirds – nests on open sand and shingle beaches around our coasts between May and August each year. Their numbers have declined by almost a fifth since 2000 due to reduced breeding success and to the many threats they are exposed to on our beaches.
Conservationists will now set up a UK Steering Group to continue the little tern conservation work and build on the impact of the LIFE Project successes.
Susan Rendell-Read, the RSPB’s little tern project manager said: “We achieved what we set out to do laying the foundations for long-term recovery but the future for little terns is by no means secure. Further funding is urgently needed to build on the lessons learned over the past five years and to make sure that our coasts remain a welcoming place for this wonderful seabird.”