Seabirds on the seashore?

A report published this week by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee has revealed major declines in many UK seabirds since the late 1960s.

The report by JNCC – using information from the UK’s Seabird Monitoring Programme – reveals that the UK populations of at least nine of the UK’s 25 species seabird have decreased dramatically.

Since 2000:

  • the UK kittiwake population has dropped by 40 per cent;
  • the shag population has dropped by 25 per cent;
  • the Arctic skua population has dropped by 57 per cent;
  • and the herring gull population has dropped by one third.

Overall the report shows the UK’s seabird population has reduced by nine per cent since 2000, but in Scotland, where the majority of the UK’s seabirds occur, numbers have crashed by nearly one fifth (19%).

Douglas Gilbert, is reserve ecologist with RSPB Scotland. He said: “We are now beginning to see the effects of many years of poor breeding success for some seabirds. There just aren’t the numbers of young birds being produced to maintain stable breeding populations into the future. The situation on Fair Isle, reported by JNCC, reflects what is happening on our reserves as well – particularly on Orkney where kittiwakes and terns have virtually failed to produce any young for several years now.”

Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla, adult in flight. Grahame Madge (

Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla, adult in flight. Grahame Madge (

Population counts last year of Copinsay, an isolated island off the east coast of Orkney mainland, showed a 70 per cent decline in razorbills,  57 per cent decline in kittiwakes and a 25 per cent decline in guillemots since 2000.

Doug continued: “If the declines continue at this alarming rate, then many of Scotland’s famous seabird cities could be virtually deserted within a decade. In the past decade, the hopes of a good breeding season have been crushed, as eggs are deserted or young chicks starve in their nests because the adult birds cannot find enough fish.

“We now know that plankton populations underpinning the whole ecosystem of the North Sea are changing fast because of warming waters. That’s fine if you just want to take a dip to cool off in the summertime, but if you are a seabird whose life depends on finding fat sandeels at the right time and in the right places, this is a big problem.”

The UK has more than one third of the global population of several species of seabird, including great skua, shag, gannet, and Manx shearwater.

The UK also has the largest European Union population of several seabirds, including the Arctic skua, great black-backed gull and kittiwake.

Dr Sharon Thompson is a marine policy officer with the RSPB. She said: “We believe the new figures emphasise a deeply worrying trend, not just for seabirds but for those whose livelihoods and wellbeing depend on the marine environment.  We have an international duty to do all we can to conserve our seabirds.”

The RSPB hopes forthcoming marine protection legislation currently going through Westminster and the Scottish Executive will help to ease some of the issues seabirds face.

The RSPB’s Dr Sharon Thompson added: “New legislation will not be a silver bullet that makes all the problems facing seabirds disappear. However, it will signal a shift from simply exploiting resources to safeguarding the future of our marine heritage, including our world-famous seabird colonies.

“Some measures to help halt the decline in our seabird populations could be delivered through new legislation currently before the UK and Scottish Parliament. The UK’s Marine and Coastal Access Bill and the Marine (Scotland) Bill must increase our seabirds’ resilience to the impacts of climate change by addressing unsustainable fisheries, pollution and development and protecting areas of the marine environment that are important for seabirds such as feeding areas.”

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