Guest Blog by Sarah Dalrymple South Walney Manager & Reserves Officer, Cumbria Wildlife Trust
The gull colony at South Walney is an incredible one, and its fortunes over the years mirror strongly that experienced by the UK’s two commonest gulls, the herring and lesser black-backed gulls.
Although a few gulls nested in the early 1900s, the numbers were steadily increasing. With the South end of Walney Island established as a Nature Reserve in 1963, regular and reliable counts were undertaken, and by 1974 an incredible 41,366 pairs of gulls – 22,751 herring and 18,615 lesser black-backed – were counted, making this largest colony in Europe at this time.
Speaking to older birders who remember the height of the colony, a daily job at this time was to walk the tide line at low tide and collect the corpses of hundreds of gulls that had died from botulism over the previous day. The main food source for the colony was presumed to be a landfill 2.5km up the road from the colony; as this reduced in scale over the years until complete closure in the 1980s, the colony size declined accordingly.
Remaining stable at about 10,000 pairs for a few years, the colony then started to suffer from mammalian ground predators. Remarkably, as Walney is only separated from the mainland by a narrow channel, foxes were not present on the south end of the island until the 1990s, and badgers not established until the late 2000’s.
In 2011 Cumbria Wildlife Trust trialled temporary electric fencing of a part of the colony, which saw a notable success in fledging compared to the rest of the colony. Two large areas of the remaining colony were fenced – The Spit, a shingle area at the very southern edge of the reserve, and Gull Meadow, an area of semi-fixed dune on the western shoreline of the reserve.
Although initially successful, a new problem arose in the mid 2010s. Year on year, several thousand pairs were fledging zero chicks. The most harrowing was in 2017, as we found a busy colony full of gulls and their young was carpeted with dead chicks only a week and a half later. This scene was repeated the following year.
Necropsies were carried out by the Animal & Plant Health Agency, and it was identified that most chicks had been killed not by predators, but with “peck” marks. It was highly likely that the gulls were, in fact, killing their own young, or the young of their neighbours, and then not eaten – just left where they were.
This is not an unknown phenomenon, as we’d seen this at Rockcliffe Marsh gullery, another site managed by Cumbria Wildlife Trust, and it has been seen at Gulleries in Texel, the Netherlands – although not to the same extent. We think that this intra-species predation is caused by the gulls experiencing extreme stress, loss of a food source plus predation pressure plus disturbance all adding up to cause the gulls to kill either their own or their neighbour’s young.
By removing predation and disturbance from the Rockcliffe Colony, we managed to stabilise it after several years of zero productivity, and it is now a recovering colony successfully fledging young each year.
At South Walney, a landfill just over the bay had closed in 2016, GPS tracking from a BTO project suggested our gulls had been feeding there; this closure led to a huge food source loss. And our electric fence was only mostly keeping the predators out; badgers and foxes were still sometimes getting through, but in 2020 badgers not only happily pushed through the fence, they dug a temporary sett right in the middle of the colony!
By this point South Walney had dropped to under 1,000 pairs. Clearly something drastic was required to save it, and at least by removing any risk of predation we’d give the gulls the best chance we could. So thanks to our funders, this winter we erected a permanent fence, nearly 2m high, topped with electric, and with a horizontal “skirt” extending out underground 50cm to prevent any digging underneath. We enclosed almost the entirety of the Spit with this fence, double the area of the original electric fence.
The eggs have started to hatch, and our counts reveal a new record low of just under 500 pairs. Will the new fence be enough to save the gull colony?
Guest blog by Wynona Legg, Project Officer
Beach nesting birds are facing an extraordinary struggle to raise young successfully on coastal sites around the globe. More and more people are seeing the value of taking time out on the coast with greater visits to more remote sites. This increase in footfall on our beaches is having a severe impact on vulnerable ground nesting birds that are sensitive to disturbance and whose eggs and young are at risk from trampling. So how can we balance our enjoyment of beaches during the summer holiday season with the needs of wildlife relying on these spaces to exist?
My name is Wynona and I work with the RSPB as Ringed Plover Project Officer for a newly funded project called ‘Plovers in Peril’. My job is to monitor the population of ringed plovers breeding on a stretch of beach from Snettisham to Hunstanton on the shores of The Wash SSSI. Though at first glance it is a pretty vast stretch of beach, the space left for the birds to breed here is sadly shrinking.
By working with Dr Durwyn Liley of Footprint Ecology to compare a study first done in the 1990’s, we hope to compare just how much has changed here within that time and to capture important information on how the birds are faring, how they use the site and the scale of impact visitor pressure is having on their breeding success.
Having successfully been granted funding for the project from Kings Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council through the Habitats Monitoring and Mitigation fund, the RSPB has formed an exciting partnership with Ken Hill Estate and Norfolk AONB and will for the first time, be able to put in place increased protection for the beach nesting birds that rely on this beach to breed.
On this busy stretch, we will be erecting physical barriers around vulnerable nests to reduce the risk of trampling. The camouflage of the eggs is so remarkable that they are incredibly difficult to see when we are walking on the upper beach and as a result, they are at constant risk of being damaged underfoot. By creating fence cordons around each nest as they appear, we can ensure the main nesting sites are protected. Clear and engaging signage has been erected at main access points to strengthen that protection by educating beach users about the birds, highlighting the areas they will be using to nest and outlining the best ways for visitors to reduce their individual impact and help give the birds space.
Though these physical measures are vital, the most important focus of my work on this site is public engagement. All the work that we are doing here requires the support of both visitors and the local community for it to make a real difference to the birds and it is often a challenge to get the balance right for both wildlife and people.
The Norfolk coast is one of the key breeding areas for ringed plovers, holding around 17% of the England total in 2007. Snettisham beach is one of these strongholds. The number of breeding pairs in Norfolk has declined by 79 per cent in 35 years, with just 123 pairs recorded in 2018.
It’s not surprising that since lockdown we have seen a rise in people visiting outdoor spaces but many of these sites are rich in wildlife and are incredibly sensitive to disturbance. With our walks often accompanied by our four-legged friends we need to remind ourselves that whilst dogs have come to be part of our families, they have not evolved to be part of these wildlife communities. To beach nesting birds which make their nest on exposed sections of beach, any animal approaching the nest spells danger and adult birds will flush from the nest, leaving the eggs exposed to unforgiving temperatures and predation. The project is about empowering people to be mindful of our impact during the nesting season (April to end of August). We all have a collective duty to visit natural places in a responsible way and every one of us can be the difference in bringing struggling species back from the threat of total loss.
Species protection work can be challenging on sites where there is conflict of interest, and face-to-face engagement is one of the most powerful tools we have. The presence of a warden or team of volunteers is so important for us at this site and is such a crucial part of the process of awareness raising amongst both visiting public and local residents. We are engaging with visitors at this site to assess current perspectives and attitudes towards beach nesting birds and the work we are doing to protect them – taking into account the needs and concerns of all. These on-the-ground conversations generate a platform for discussion that gets right to the heart of the problem and will help us shine a light on where we need to focus our efforts to benefit both plovers and people!
The results of this project will be published in a British Wildlife magazine in the autumn, along with more detailed technical report available online on the Project LOTE website. The analysis of changes in the status of Snettishams ringed plovers and the BW paper and tech report are funded jointly by LOTE and NE, through the Action for Birds in England programme.
Find out more about the project and to follow the projects progress here or contact Wynona.Legg@rspb.org.uk
Are you Interested in volunteering for Plovers in Peril as a Beach Ranger this season (1st April-31st August) and live locally to Snettisham or Titchwell? We are looking for help during the breeding season to engage with beach users and protect vulnerable beach nesting birds. Register your interest by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org . We would love to hear from you!
Blog by Amy Hopley, Morecambe Bay Partnership Nature and Wildlife Officer
Amy here from Morecambe Bay Partnership, and I’m delighted to be writing this month’s guest blog on coastal volunteers. We love our volunteers – without them, much of the work we do would be impossible! And whether it’s chatting about birds or cleaning beaches; bracken bashing or planting trees, volunteering is a fun and rewarding way to get involved with your local community and help projects you care about make a real impact. Without them, charities such as Morecambe Bay Partnership and the RSPB would be unable to do most of what they do.
How will volunteers help Life on the Edge?
Life on the Edge is a project which will have a strong emphasis on volunteers. The project seeks to raise awareness of the threats faced by our wonderful shore-nesting birds. Here in Morecambe Bay, rare breeding species such as ringed plover and little tern, and much loved iconic species like the oystercatcher and the herring gull, are failing year after year to successfully raise their young.
Shore-nesting birds are exceptionally vulnerable to not only the effects of climate change and coastal erosion, but also to human disturbance. Increased leisure time, better access to the coast and the increased popularity of the stay-cation all mean that our beaches are becoming busier than ever. As our popular beaches become too crowded, visitors seek out quieter, more secluded shores to enjoy the peace. However these quieter shores are already occupied, by small and almost invisible birds that need space and peace to raise their young.
The quieter beaches are becoming busier, and the number of safe places for our coastal bird species to nest are running out. Those still attempting to nest on busy beaches see their nests accidentally destroyed, or disturbance causes them to abandon their nests, eggs or chicks. But nests are tremendously difficult to spot – even for an experienced bird watcher, let alone a visitor just having fun at the beach. So how can we protect our nesting birds when they can’t be seen?
That’s where our volunteers come in!
First, we need to find and protect these precious nests. Volunteer surveyors will visit sites regularly to identify the areas where birds are nesting on beaches. Once found, the nest will be protected by friendly engagement volunteers who chat to visitors and explain that there are birds raising their families nearby, asking people to make small changes their routes to avoid disturbing the birds. This allows visitors to ask questions about the birds, and may even give them the opportunity to spot the birds in question with the help of a knowledgeable volunteer! A friendly face has a far better impact than a sign, and a positive experience with a volunteer is a far more memorable experience for the visitor.
How can I get involved?
Right now, Life on the Edge is currently looking for volunteers to help protect the endangered birds raising their families on the few remaining UK shores where they can still nest in peace. There are a range of ways you can get involved! Here at Morecambe Bay Partnership we are currently looking for volunteers to:
With the help of a knowledgeable, passionate and friendly volunteer team, we can change the future of our vulnerable nesting birds from its current steady decline, to one of stability and growth. Not only that, but we can ensure a safe future for the birds beyond the life of the project by inspiring and educating local people to care for the special wildlife on their shore.
How do I get in touch?
You can email email@example.com to enquire about any of the roles above. You can also chat to us online at @BirdsoftheBay on Twitter, or by searching for Morecambe Bay Partnership on Facebook or Instagram and following our pages!
There are also opportunities on RSPB reserves in the south and east of England too! Find out how to get involved here: https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/volunteering-fundraising/volunteer/
Or you can enquire through the LIFE on the Edge website: https://www.projectlote.life/
By Leigh Lock, RSPB Programme Manager
The importance of our soft coast and estuaries is staggering.
The UK occupies a key strategic position along the NE Atlantic flyway supporting 3 Million waterbirds moving north to breeding grounds in northern Europe/The Arctic in spring and returning south to southern Europe and Africa in autumn – this represents 10% of the waterbirds of NW Europe and 15% of migratory waders in flyway.
Amongst our breeding birds we have some of the largest colonies of gulls and terns in Europe and communities of breeding waders threatened throughout Europe. We hold 30% of Europe’s estuarine habitats, and 30% of its saltmarsh. Furthermore these coastal habitats provide a range of other services – salt marshes store more carbon per hectare than forests, natural habitats provide protection from coastal erosion and protect homes and businesses from flooding. The UK coastal ecosystem services have been valued at £48 Billion pounds.
But despite this importance and the legal protection offered to it, this precious asset is under huge pressure. We have suffered massive scale past losses of habitat, the quality of remaining habitat is poor, particularly through developments and human impacts. Further losses of habitat are predicted with climate change a major driver – increased storms, erosion, flooding – compounding the losses over the past 50 years (all described fully in our Sustainable Shores report).
Even where habitat remains the frequency of high tides, storm surges in spring /summer is flooding out our coastal breeding birds – in 2017 we estimate 20% of our little terns were flooded out over one weekend of spring tides. With erosion, flooding of key areas it is not surprising that little terns redshanks ringed plovers are amongst our most threatened breeding birds. On top of this is the impact of recreational pressure. It is estimated that 10% of UK recreational activity is concentrated on 0.6% of land area along the coast – and these effects very evident last year post lockdown when huge numbers of people flocked to the coast. This causes disturbance to breeding, roosting and feeding birds, damage and destruction of sensitive habitats.
Rainbow dredger. Less than 1% of the material dredged from our coastal waterways is used for environmental enhancement. We will be delivering an exciting project with HHA using material from the Harwich dredge to build up the shingle bank at Horsey Island in Essex. Much more on this later this year. Photo Credit: Mark Hackett
Against such a background of pressures, we have developed the LIFE on the Edge project. Over the four years of the project we will be carrying out targeted work to improve the condition of a series of sites in England – from Titchwell in Norfolk, Langstone Harbour on the South Coast, South Walney in Cumbria to the Blackwater Estuary in Essex- and improving the prospects for some of our most charismatic coastal species such as Sandwich tern , little tern, oystercatcher. This involves demonstrating a range of management techniques from restoring freshwater grazing marsh, protecting salt marsh, creating and restoring islands, and improving the success of beach nesting birds – working in partnership with Government, NGOs, industry and coastal communities.
Not everything will work – but we will test and trail new ideas, and learn from others not just in the UK but from practitioners in NW Europe in areas like The Wadden Sea which face similar issues. In doing so we will build up some good case studies of methods and approaches which can be applied more widely and recommend policy change to support their delivery.
The LIFE+ Little Tern Recovery Project ended in 2019. Although the project helped slow the decline, we concluded that more was needed to be done to increase the population. Through LOTE we will look to increase the area of safe nesting habitat and give the terns that extra boost. Photo Credit: Lyn Ibbitson (rspb-images.com)
Ultimately we hope that LIFE on the Edge brings a message of hope- with examples of positive changes which bring benefits to wildlife , local communities and the local economy and which help set the tone for a step change in how our fantastic coast is managed.
On this blog we will feature a range of views and experiences from coastal site managers, scientists, policy makers, with representatives from NGOs, government, industry and local communities – which will all be much more interesting than this one! So please follow us, and support our work to protect LIFE on the Edge.
By Dave Blackledge, RSPB Site Manager - Cumbria Coastal Reserves
RSPB Hodbarrow sits on the edge of the Duddon Estuary in south-west Cumbria. Part of the Morecambe Bay and Duddon Estuary SPA, it was the site of one of Europe’s most productive iron mines in the 19th Century.
As mining operations ceased in 1968, a mixed colony of Sandwich, common and little terns began to nest on the limestone slag by the lagoon formed on the flooded workings. This colony is now of international importance and its position behind the sea wall, protecting the site from storms, high tides and future sea level rise mean it is an integral part of western Europe’s tern network.
Introduction of anti-predator fencing in 2016 immediately reversed the fortunes of the colony after a few years of fox predation, with tern numbers increasing rapidly. In 2018, predator disturbance of the Sandwich tern colony at Cemlyn on Anglesey led to a large influx at Hodbarrow with 1950 pairs, around 15% of the UK population breeding here that year. The fox free breeding islands have also benefitted other shorebirds, with black-headed gulls, eider, tufted duck, ringed plover and oystercatcher all benefitting and increasing in number.
With all this activity concentrated on a single 1.5ha island it became apparent that nesting space was becoming an issue. Little terns in particular, arriving and settling later than many of the other species were being squeezed to the edges of the island, picking sub-optimal nesting sites wherever they were able to find their preferred semi-isolated spot.
Life On The Edge is addressing this problem by creating further protected breeding habitat at Hodbarrow. Around 12500 tonnes of limestone slag from the adjacent slag bank will be dug and transported to increase the size of the current breeding island from 1.5 ha to 2 ha, alongside the creation of a second 0.25ha island.
A further 130m of fencing to protect the new island will also mean that breaching of defences to one island will not give foxes access to the entire breeding area, giving a further level of protection.
Other works include scraping of vegetation and scrub from an artificial flood bank left over from the mining operations. The aim is to provide further nesting opportunities for the SPA designated lesser black-backed gulls along with herring gulls and great black-backed gulls.
The main habitat works on site have progressed well this winter (while complying with the covid-19 guidance) and we now eagerly await the 2021 breeding season to see how the birds respond to the improved and new islands.