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Issue 21 - Bucking the trend

Scotland Magazine Issue 21
July 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Bucking the trend

While some species of bird are struggling, Britain's most distinctive sea bird is thriving reports Graham Holliday

The puffin is Scotland’s most distinctive sea bird. It mates for life and returns to the same cliff top burrow to nest every March.

Britain hosts nearly a million of the small black and white birds each year. The majority of those nest in Scotland before leaving for the Bay of Biscay in August. In season the islands of Orkney and Shetland teem with the brightly billed parrotlike birds which are closely related to the razorbill and little auk.

According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) 2004 was a ‘disastrous year’ for Scotland’s sea birds. Whole species failed to breed, but puffins bucked the trend and are on the increase.

“The Lothian coast is excellent for breeding sea birds with large concentrations of birds breeding on the islands and seashores,” says David Kelly, the Lothian bird reporter for the Scottish Ornithologist’s Club.

“There has been long term declines in kittewake and shag numbers, but other species are on the up, especially puffins.” Sea birds are long lived, puffins can live for up to 29 years, and only need to raise two chicks in a lifetime to sustain numbers. They lay just one egg every year, but a bad breeding year doesn’t mean there’s any lack of birds on the cliffs.

Martin Heubeck has been monitoring sea bird breeding at the RSPB reserve of Sumburgh Head on Shetland for nearly 30 years.

“There’s still plenty to see on the cliffs, even if the season doesn’t go well,” he says. “2004 represented an all-time low in the breeding fortunes of many of Shetland's sea birds. Only a handful of guillemot chicks, if that, fledged from Sumburgh Head last year. It’s too early to tell how this season will pan out for the cliff-nesting sea birds.” Further south, 12 miles off the Ayrshire coast is the one year old, and newest, RSPB nature reserve, Ailsa Craig. This 104 hectare island is Britain’s third most important site for gannets and was once a stronghold for puffins.

Rats arrived in the late 1800s with the building of a lighthouse. They quickly set to work decimating the puffin population. Puffins are easy prey because of their easily accessible clifftop burrows. The thousands of puffins were reduced to tens. The rats were eradicated in the early 1990s and the puffins have started to return.

Puffins prefer offshore islands like Ailsa Craig, Handa off the north west coast and the Isle of May near North Berwick because of the relatively low number of predators.

They fish predominantly for sandeels. One greedy puffin has even been recorded with 61 sandeels in its mouth at one time. However, a lack of sandeels is thought to be the reason why several other species failed to breed successfully in 2004.

Some observers believe the sandeels are moving north because of climate change. In 2004 Shetland Fishermen's Association, Scottish Natural Heritage and RSPB Scotland introduced precautionary measures in order to protect Shetland's seabird colonies.

Sandeel fishing in the waters around south Shetland is now banned. It is hoped that these measures will go some way to helping sea bird numbers in 2005 and into the future.

Where to see puffins:
The Scottish Seabird Centre has views over the Isle of May.
The Harbour, North Berwick, EH39 4SS
Tel: +44 (0)1620 890 202
Open all year. Cost £5.95

RSPB Scotland

RSPB Mull of Galloway, near Drummore
Open all year
Tel: +44 (0)1671 402 861

Fowlsheugh reserve, near Crawton in Aberdeenshire
Open all year
Tel: +44 (0)1224 624 824

The Isle of Mousa in the Shetlands
Open mid-April to mid-September
Tel: +44 (0)1950 460 800

Scottish Wildlife Trust Handa
Island, Scourie, Highlands
Open from April to early September. Ferry costs £7.50

Scottish Ornithologists Club

RSPB BIRDWATCHER’S CODE - Five things to remember:

• Avoid disturbing birds and their habitats – the birds' interests should always come first
• Be an ambassador for birdwatching
• Know the law and the rules for visiting the countryside, and follow them
• Send your sightings to the Birdtrack website:
• Think about the interests of wildlife and local people before passing on news of a rare bird, especially during the breeding season.