Little tern recovery project

Little terns arrive back on UK shores in April and May, where they breed on sand and shingle beaches, spits or inshore islets.

Little tern at nest, wing stretching after incubating.


This delightful chattering seabird, with its distinctive yellow beak is suffering the effects of climate change and human disturbance, resulting in it becoming one of the UK’s rarest breeding seabirds.
Since the 1970's, wardens have supervised many little tern colonies, which has substantially reduced human disturbance, but more work needs to be done.
This is where the EU LIFE+ Nature Little Tern Recovery Project will help.
The five-year project is an 11-organisation partnership working together to ensure the little tern’s long-term future. Enhanced management and habitat restoration/creation will be carried out at 20 sites identified as containing important UK colonies. These sites are all located within Special Protection Areas (SPAs) which form part of the Natura 2000 network of sites designated for their international European importance for wildlife. SPAs are classified under the EU Birds Directive helping protect and manage areas which are important for rare and vulnerable birds.
The project will help keep people informed of the conservation issues facing little terns, particularly in the local communities close to the current and potential colony sites. It will also ensure that there is action on engagement with statutory agencies, local authorities and policy makers in government ensuring long-term conservation plans can work successfully to support little terns into the future.
At the end of the project, information gathered and lessons learnt will shape a UK little tern conservation strategy.
We believe that by working together with the local communities, beach users, the project partners and other organisations we can ensure this little seabird will remain a summer inhabitant along our shores.


  • Increase the total population of little terns across the project colony sites through enhanced management of existing breeding sites and restoration and creation of new or recently abandoned sites.
  • Protection of little terns and their nests and eggs from threats such as disturbance and predation.
  • Improve the understanding of little tern population and movements (demography) by undertaking a colour ringing programme to inform long-term conservation strategies.
  • Monitoring using standardised recording across sites to measure the success of the breeding attempts and feed this back to help inform each successive annual summer work programme.
  • Local communities and other interested parties will learn about the struggles of this scarce seabird, helping to raise support for the work at the UK colonies.
  • Build up our knowledge and best practice case studies by increased networking with other relevant projects in the UK, Europe and North America.
  • Work with statutory agencies and local authorities to find ways to support little tern conservation and extend the protection measures when appropriate.

Key Dates

  • September 2013 - project funding awarded and the project began.
  • 18 and 29 November 2013 - Two project start-up meetings held in York and Norwich for all partners involved.
  • December 2013/January 2014 - Winter storms altered many of the project site habitats.
  • February/March 2014 - The Communications Group, Technical Group and Project Steering Group met for the first time.
  • 17 March 2014 - Visit by John Houston (Astrale) external monitor for the Commission with positive outcomes.
  • April 2014 - First little terns were seen at some of the colonies on the second week of April.
  • 14 April 2014 - National press release outlined the challenges for little terns and gave details of the project partnership - great coverage in Wales where sadly there is only one colony left.
  • May 2014 - Nesting has begun but already some nests have been washed out by high tides.
  • 2 June 2014 - LIFE Inception Report covering the project's first nine months completed and sent to the EU Commission.

Planned Work

Each breeding season staff at project sites are undertaking systematic monitoring recording breeding activity and success rates. Predation and human disturbance will be monitored too.
The colour ringing programme is in the first trial stage – about 20 adults will be ringed at two Norfolk sites. As the rings are so small, a resighting test will follow using cameras and digiscopes. If this trial goes well, chicks will also be ringed during the season.
A beach visitor attitude survey will take place at eight colony sites, which have frequent visitors. Analysis of the questionnaires – we are aiming to speak to around 1,000 visitors – will be completed in March 2015.
The project is pleased to be able to work with the IPENS 2000 project, where we will be a stakeholder in meetings held to discuss Site Improvement Plans for the Special Protected Areas under the Natura 2000 network.


A colony raft has been installed at Easington by the Spurn Bird Observatory Trust, with financial assistance from EU LIFE and the Environment Agency. Although rafts have been used successfully for common terns we wait to see if the little terns take to the new rafts; which are seen as an alternative to an eroding, unsuitable coastal beach.
Decoys have been deployed at Long Nanny in Northumberland to encourage little terns to nest on higher ground away from the risk of high tide flooding. A pair were seen displaying over the area.
We have entered a collaboration with Suffolk Coast and Heath AONB’s Touching the Tide project (funded by HLF), to provide a graduate trainee to help with Suffolk colonies not covered by the EU LIFE funding. This has allowed us, along with the EU LIFE funding for two seasonal wardens, to have comprehensive coverage of this region.


The project partners successfully applied to the EU LIFE+ Nature fund, and over the next five years will be able to call on funds of €3.2m (£2.5m), 50 per cent funded by the European Union and 50 per cent funded from contributions by the partners.
We are still seeking further funding and have opportunities to use donations and sponsorship for any amount from £10 to £10,000, as we seek to extend the influence of the project to other colonies and to carry out more work and research to help our little tern conservation.


Coast on a stormy day

Susan Rendell-Read

Project Manager, Little Tern

Further reading

Tagged with: Country: UK Habitat: Marine and intertidal Species: Little tern Project status: Ongoing Project types: Species protection