A rosy looking future

Pushed to the brink, roseate terns are making a comeback. Read their story.

Humble beginnings

In 1889, a woman called Emily Williamson founded the Society for the Protection of Birds. Its purpose was to take on the trade in birds and their feathers, which were being used for decorating hats.

Looking back with modern conservation challenges in mind, it might seem a rather frivolous and unimportant aim. After all, what damage could a few hats do? But the millinery trade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries drove a wholescale slaughter of bird species from around the world on a scale that’s its almost hard to imagine. And despite the introduction of legislation to ban the trade in 1921 (in no small part due to the efforts of Emily and her society) the damage wreaked by a 40-year frenzy of feather-wearing, had long-reaching consequences.

Europe’s rarest breeding seabird

Roseate terns were just one of the unlucky species that people in the 1800s decided would look good perched on the brim of a fashionable hat. Their delicate, white feathers were in great demand, particularly the slightly rosy hues of their breeding plumage, and their long tail streamers were popular too. Some milliners even went as far as using entire stuffed terns on their hats – which is just odd.

Luckily, the terns did bounce back a bit in the years following the new legislation, but in the 1970s, their population started to plummet once more. This time they were facing multiple threats: the loss of their breeding sites through development and disturbance; predation from mink and gulls; difficulties finding food; and problems in their wintering grounds off Africa. By 1989, the population in the whole of Britain and Ireland was just 467 pairs.

Tern, tern, tern

Roseates aren’t the only terns to suffer declines in the last few decades; all the other UK species (Arctic, common, little and Sandwich) also saw a drop in numbers. But the roseate population had always been low, and their decline was particularly stark. Small breeding colonies started to struggle and then disappear, and eventually, the last remaining site in the whole of the UK was: Coquet Island, one mile off the Northumberland coast.

Where there’s LIFE there’s hope

Over the years, active conservation work started to improve their prospects, but the population was still small compared to historical records, and restricted. So in 2015, the EU-funded Roseate Tern LIFE Recovery project was launched, with the aim of reversing the terns’ fortunes in Britain and Ireland. The project is an on-going partnership between the RSPB, BirdWatch Ireland and the North Wales Wildlife Trust, who are all working together to protect existing colonies, improve conditions at historical sites for new colonies to form, and improving our understanding of the issues affecting the terns, to help their long-term survival.

On the ground that’s meant wardens and volunteers carrying out all sorts of conservation work, including protecting colonies from the threat of egg-collectors, putting up fencing to dissuade predators, building nest boxes to simulate the natural crevices the terns like to nest in, and constructing specially-built rafts to help support other tern species, with the long-term hope of attracting in roseates to join them in the future.

Has it worked?

In 2019, a record number of 122 pairs of roseate terns nested on Coquet Island, up from just 17 pairs in the 1970s. Between them, they fledged around 160 chicks, which is the second-highest productivity level on record.

On the Skerries, off Anglesey, four roseate tern chicks hatched in 2019 to two pairs of proud parents. It’s the highest number of roseate chicks on The Skerries for 29 years.

At Larne Lough in Northern Ireland, one pair of roseate terns hatched out two little chicks, after extensive restoration work was carried out through the LIFE Project following the collapse of sea defenses. The resulting work also benefitted other nesting seabird species such as Sandwich terns, common terns and black-headed gulls.

In Scotland, one roseate tern paired up with a common tern on the Isle of May (managed by SNH), and together they fledged one chick. Meanwhile, 109 common tern nests were counted on a new raft in the Firth of Forth, and it’s hoped the success of the colony may attract roseate terns back to nest in the area.

Green shoots of a good future

None of this could have happened without the dedication of hard work of everyone involved: early starts, night shifts, rigorous research, and occasional heartache. Yes, the numbers are still small, but the important thing is, they’re growing, and as more chicks fledge, and more dedicated habitat work takes place, there is genuine hope that the population will continue to grow.

After years of being worn on hats, struggling to find food, and being driven out of their colonies, the future of roseate terns in the UK is finally starting to look a little bit rosier.

Protect Coquet

Donate to our Coquet Island appeal and help save these charismatic seabirds and the other wildlife that calls Coquet Home.