Blog by Dave Blackledge - Site Manager, RSPB Cumbria Coast Reserves
RSPB Hodbarrow, on the side of the Duddon Estuary in Cumberland, is the site of an important colony of Sandwich, Little and Common Terns. They breed on land formerly occupied by one of western Europe’s largest iron mines and began nesting there as the mines closed over 50 years ago. Predator fencing and warden protection has seen increasing numbers of seabirds breeding on the island created on limestone slag with vital protected space at a premium. The Life on the Edge project has been helping create more space for our colony to expand.
At the start of the project in 2020, we constructed a new island and carried out work to increase the size of the existing one, giving us around 0.75 ha of extra breeding habitat, protected by anti-predator barrier fence. Work has continued this winter to further increase the opportunities for breeding seabirds by creating a third island of 0.25ha. and provide a line of marker buoys along our boundary with the neighbouring caravan park to reduce the incidence of boat disturbance near the islands.
The coastal iron mines were enclosed by a seawall at the start of the 20th century to protect works from flooding and thousands of tons of limestone slag from the nearby smelting works were dumped within the wall, providing an ideal substrate for nesting terns when the works were flooded following closure in 1968. Island creation on site therefore centres around lowering, moving and cutting off areas of the slag bank to create disturbance free areas.
This increased space has already begun to prove beneficial to a number of species. As terns, Black-headed Gulls and wildfowl began to increase behind the initial predator fence deployed in 2016, Little Terns in particular found it difficult to find space away from other species with their tendency to nest in a more dispersed pattern to other species. The first island created in 2020/21 has attracted most of the 60 or so pairs of common terns to breed creating space for little terns to expand. This season we have a peak of 53 pairs of little terns – a record for the site, and young are beginning to hatch at the time of writing.
With HPAI hitting some Sandwich Tern colonies hard, we are delighted to have 596 pairs currently hatching young on site – a little down on recent years, but probably expected with a presumably reduced UK population this year. Creating several islands also has the advantages of reducing the chance of predation – any breach of the predator fence would only allow foxes access to one area of the colony – and separating the colony into areas where interaction and movement will be restricted which may help prevent the spread of HPAI throughout the entire site.
Eiders too, have benefitted greatly from the works. With historical averages of around 5 nests, increased breeding space and predator fencing has increased this to 73 pairs, with several large creches seen escaping over the sea wall to the estuary in recent weeks. Along with 2 pairs of Arctic Terns, 12 pairs of Oystercatchers, 9 pairs of Lapwings and 4 pairs of Ringed Plover the busy breeding islands are proving a valuable haven for seabirds along the Cumbrian coast.
Blog by Rebekah Watts, Cumbria Wildlife Trust Foulney Island Warden
Why is Foulney important?
Foulney Island Nature Reserve is comprised of a shingle spit within Morecambe Bay SPA connected (via manmade causeway) to the mainland. The reserve is home to several wintering bird species such as knot, dunlin and wigeon and is an important breeding location in the spring and summer for shorebirds such little terns, Arctic terns, ringed plovers and oyster catchers as well as other bird species such as pied wagtails, meadow pipits, eiders and skylarks.
The terns that choose Foulney as their nesting grounds are protected species and they are in decline. It is so important to offer them a safe place to lay their eggs and raise their chicks as they are easily disturbed by human recreational activities, dogs, aerial and ground predators (such as sparrowhawks and foxes). Their nests are vulnerable as they nest where there are no visual obstructions to allow them to watch for predators but this means that they nest out in the open, making their chicks and eggs susceptible to predation. Their eggs are at risk of being trampled by people, as their camouflage is very successful. Terns nest on shingle and require close access to the sea to feed. That’s what makes Foulney the perfect place for them. Terns return to the same colony to breed in most cases and Arctic tern travel 22,000 miles on their migration. This special little island hosts these incredible birds and it needs to be protected.
Breeding Season Preparation
Preparation for breeding season on Foulney Island is an intense operation! For this year, the main island was turf stripped to provide extra habitat for shore nesting birds. This new shingle area was fenced off to protect the birds using it to raise their young, from ground predators such as foxes, rats and hedgehogs. Turf stripping involves the removal of the top layer of vegetation and in this case, changing the habitat to shingle. The vegetation was then buried beneath the layer of shingle. This area has been used this season by eiders, ringed plovers and oyster catchers who’s chicks began hatching recently, proving the success of the change in habitat! Skylarks and meadow pipits also benefited from the ground predator protection in this area as they too nested here, inside the fence on the edge of the shingle where vegetation remains.
In preparation for the electric fence the vegetation was strimmed. Insulator stakes were knocked into the ground and electric wires passed through the insulators. To prepare the public, signs were put up in the carpark, the causeway and on the island stating that dogs are not allowed and explaining why, and the rope fence to fence off the beach area, where the birds nest, was put up. Lastly, the caravan was put in place. Then it was time to begin surveying!
Warden life on Foulney
Hi! I’m Bekka, and I’m this year’s seasonal warden on Foulney island nature reserve. This beautiful little island reserve is home to many species of breeding birds over the summer including oystercatchers, ringed plovers, eider ducks and little terns. In addition to the birds, the island is home to and visited by mammals such as grey seals and voles; as well as insects such as butterflies and moths.
Sharing an island with such beautiful wildlife is an amazing experience. Being the only person living on an island might seem lonely, but I have plenty of fishermen to chat to, and of course the wildlife! During the season I have been lucky enough to experience finding nests and watching parents lovingly incubate their eggs, and have watched eggs hatch into beautiful chicks. Watching eider females with crèches of up to 30 ducklings swimming across the water and oyster catcher parents leading their chicks across the shingle are sights that will never get old.
As the warden, I spend my time monitoring eggs, chicks and adults, checking trail cameras and engaging with and educating the public. Explaining to the pubic the importance of reducing disturbance to nesting birds is an extremely vital part of my job. The natural threat response in nesting shorebirds is triggered by the public and their recreational activities, especially when dogs are involved. When threatened, shorebirds are forced to flee, leaving eggs and chicks vulnerable to predation, and forcing the adult bird to expend energy which should be used in incubation or finding food. In the worst case, an out of control dog can kill shorebirds, which unfortunately occurred on Foulney this season. It is so important that our shorebirds are protected. We all have our part to play!
Now that chicks are hatching we are well into the season. Fingers crossed that all goes well here on Foulney island!
My name is Jessie, and I’m this year’s seasonal warden at Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s South Walney Nature Reserve. South Walney is a beautiful reserve that I feel very lucky to be calling home this summer, and it’s a home I share with a lot of amazing wildlife. Whether it’s intently scanning our shingle beaches for the nests of ringed plover or oystercatcher, counting the hundreds of eider duck that roost here at high tide or chatting to visitors, there’s plenty to keep me busy here.
I’m employed by Cumbria Wildlife Trust, but my job is a part of the Life On The Edge (LOTE) project, an EU funded project lead by the RPSB. LOTE is dedicated to understanding, monitoring and improving the quality of coastal habitats, with a particular focus on oystercatcher, ringed plover and little tern. Engaging with visitors and reducing the impact of visitor disturbance on nesting birds is one of the most important parts of this, which can include keeping people away from the most important nesting areas and strict rules on dogs.
All of our breeding shorebirds are very vulnerable to disturbance, as although their incredibly camouflaged nests provide excellent protection from predators it also means that people don’t notice them and can very easily step on them. Sadly, dogs are also a threat – even the most well-behaved dog will be seen as a predator by a nesting bird, and repeated encounters with dogs can cause birds to abandon their nest. In the worst cases, out of control dogs can actually attack or even kill wild birds, although this is rare. All breeding birds are protected under UK law, so we all have a duty to do our bit to protect them where we can! Here at South Walney we don’t allow any dogs (except assistance dogs) and there is no public access to the beach, and this goes a long way to protecting the beautiful wildlife that calls this place home.
The best part of my job has to be nest surveying. I have to scan far ahead of me on the beach for any signs of nesting or territorial birds, and be incredibly careful where I walk to avoid stepping on the very thing I’m looking for – eggs perfectly disguised as pebbles. These may be the eggs of oystercatcher – unmistakable with their black and white plumage and vivid orange bills – or of ringed plover – looking a little like a forgotten member of the Incredibles with their distinctive black mask. Nest finding requires patience, a keen eye and keeping on constant alert for the slightest movement or the faintest alarm call from a nearby ringed plover. Although I have to say oystercatcher alarm calls are never exactly faint, and often I find myself being shouted at by an oystercatcher 200m away that I hadn’t even noticed yet!
In the last week I have been lucky enough to find 3 little tern nests. Little terns are the UK’s smallest breeding tern, with a bright yellow bill and a very distinctive chirping call. Like many seabirds, they migrate from Africa to Europe every spring to breed, and will return there again in the autumn. I’m very excited to have them breeding here at South Walney and will be crossing my fingers for a successful breeding season!
Stay posted for regular updates from me and if you’re visiting you may see me out and about – come and say hi!
Blog by Leigh Lock, RSPB Project Development Manager
The global and national threats to seabirds are widely recognised and much focus understandably links the status of seabirds with the state of our seas which is where most seabirds spend most of their time. But what about the state of the ‘land’ where seabirds spend the breeding season – a critical phase of their lifecycle? As a land-based observer of birds on the coast for decades, the growing pressure on breeding seabird sites has been a major concern and I feel we have reached a tipping point where if we don’t act now there will be no safe nesting space left for seabirds in some areas in the future.
Therefore, I was excited by the prospect of Seabird Conservation Strategies being developed within all four UK counties by government – each will set out the strategic needs of our seabird species and set out a route map for their recovery. This process in England has been led by DEFRA and NE. But I wanted to make sure that the current state of seabird colonies in England was reflected in this process and that the thoughts and concerns of those most close to the sites – the site managers, conservation officers etc responsible for these areas– were captured. So I contacted as many of those key people around the coast as possible to gather views on pressures impacting on seabird colonies. This is probably the first time such an assessment has been made. Much of this information gathered was necessarily subjective, being based on the opinions of the site managers, and others. However, expert judgement provided by the site managers most familiar with the sites, and their issues, constitutes the best available evidence on issues affecting England’s breeding seabirds.
The process does present a ‘ground truthing’ to compare with other available data sources so that all the available information together can be used as ‘weight of evidence’ to identify the main issues and develop solutions to them. Working closely with colleagues within NE, we then looked to align this rather broad-brush assessment of pressures on colonies with other data sources being carried out to inform other areas of the strategy.
Information was gathered on 222 natural sites (i.e., excluding urban gulls) and covering 24 seabird species – this representing the vast majority of England’s seabirds. Pressures were assigned to predefined categories including disturbance, habitat loss, predation, invasive species, disease, and control. Note that the assessments were carried out before the widespread and serious impacts of Avian Influenza (AI) were recorded in England in 2022.
Overall, the most widespread was disturbance (see below), with both habitat loss and predation impacting on over 50% of the sites. The other pressures were recorded at far less sites, although their impacts at individual sites could be very significant (e.g., invasive species on islands). There are plenty of discussion points emerging from this but below I have pulled out just three.
1. The widespread impacts of disturbance
Disturbance is the most widely reported pressure affecting England’s breeding seabirds impacting on 89% of the coastal sites, all sites supporting species like little tern and Sandwich tern, and 100% of English SPAs with breeding seabird features. Site managers see disturbance as THE rapidly growing issue, and human recreational disturbance at coastal sites is predicted to increase. Disturbance of nesting seabirds is caused by a range of recreational activities – beachgoers, dogwalkers and recreational fishers on land, and recreational watercraft such as jet skis, paddleboarders from the sea. Although disturbance is particularly an issue for ground-nesting birds such as terns and gulls at soft coast sites, I was also surprised how widely it was reported at cliff colonies and even offshore islands where birds vulnerable to disturbance from the sea. Disturbance at nest sites can have significant negative impacts on seabird breeding success through increased exposure of eggs and young to predation and the elements and can lead to the abandonment of nest sites and even entire colonies.
What I see are overstretched, under resourced conservation organisations trying to manage coastal sites where nature conservation should be the priority, but recreational interests prevail. Many areas have wardens to ‘protect’ nesting birds and engage with the public. But without zonation policies and legislation to restrict certain activities, on-site teams of staff and volunteers face an uphill battle, and the birds using these sites face a bleak future.
2. Sea level rise and coastal erosion present an existential threat to some of England’s most important seabird colonies.
Within England, most seabird sites occur on ‘soft coast’ sites – nearshore islands, salt marshes, lagoon islands and shingle banks. These habitats are under massive pressure and the reduction in size and quality of nesting habitat is the second most widespread pressure in England.
Without intervention, 2,000 Ha of protected coastal habitats is predicted to be lost in England by 2060 with even greater areas being functionally lost as breeding habitat due to regular flooding. Previously, these losses were mainly from development and land claim, but the key future threats to coastal habitats are from climate change-related sea level rise, coastal erosion, and coastal squeeze.
Mean sea levels in the UK have already risen by approximately 17 cm since the start of the 20th century and climate predictions show that they will continue to rise under all emissions scenarios until at least the year 2100. Increases in sea level rise are difficult to predict but are likely to be greatest in southern and eastern England where some of the largest colonies are. Rising sea levels mean that more coastal seabird breeding habitat will be lost, and the risk of intermittent flooding of nest sites is also increased. In addition to mean sea level rise, the risks of extreme sea levels and flooding are compounded by increases in storm events. Species that nest on the ground in sand and shingle habitats, such as terns and gulls, are particularly at risk, as large areas of these types of habitats can be lost rapidly with only minor increases in sea level. Many current breeding sites for terns and gulls on beaches and low-lying near-shore islands which are likely to become unsuitable or be lost entirely within the next 10 years. Little terns are particularly at risk because they tend to nest just above the high-water mark and in recent years high proportions of the UK’s little tern nests have been flooded out during spring tides and storm surges.
Short term fixes are in place at many sites. Habitat management to keep sites open, recharge of shingle islands to raise their levels above highest tides but longer-term measures are required to ensure that seabirds have safe nesting sites for future decades not just the next few years. This involves factoring seabird breeding habitat into multi-stakeholder strategic management planning eg Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs), Nature Recovery Networks (NRNs), Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRS)) and the implementation of the government’s 25-year Environment Plan. Breeding seabirds should be considered in full as part of these overarching plans and programmes, to ensure that existing breeding sites are adequately managed, and new breeding habitat is created and maintained, and linked to funding streams like Biodiversity Net Gain.
Beneficial use of dredged sediment can be used more widely to provide habitat for nesting seabirds and provide natural sea defences – here 50,000 cubic metres of sediment delivered through @ProjectLOTE working with Harwich Haven Authority, EA and the landowner supports the most important little tern colony in Essex (c) JPullen
3. Avian Influenza and the in-combination effects.
As mentioned above, the assessment was carried out last year before the impacts of AI were recorded in England this summer. Disease was not noted as a significant pressure and has not really impacted on seabirds since botulism on gulls in the past. But the impacts of AI in 2022 have been severe – impacting significantly on the largest UK and England colonies of both roseate and sandwich terns – Coquet and Scolt Head Islands respectively -with 1000s of dead breeding adults and large-scale breeding failure at these colonies. we await a full assessment of the impact of AI on seabirds in 2022 and how it might impact in the future.
But think of the conditions under which AI was able to make such an impact. The ‘in combination’ effects of habitat loss, predation, disturbance have pushed seabirds to the edge – habitat loss squeezing seabirds into fewer and fewer suitable areas, which then become honey pots for predators, and even these few special sites coming under the unbearable pressure of disturbance. All our eggs in fewer and fewer baskets. And then a disease comes along which thrives in conditions where it can spread rapidly amongst individuals in closely packed colonies.
To have seabird populations that can be resilient to AI and other diseases, we need more space for them to nest safely, allowing more colonies to thrive, and allowing more mobility from site to site to respond to changes in local conditions. Building resilience to disease and other pressures, requires spreading the risk – more and bigger sites, better managed. For this we need to rethink how our coast is managed.
The full report is on the documents page of this website.
Lock, L., Donato, B., Jones, R., Macleod-Nolan, C. 2022 England’s breeding seabirds: A review of the status of their breeding sites and suggested measures for their recovery. RSPB and Natural England report.
The report highlights the most important sites and actions for the recovery of seabirds in England.
The recommendations from this report on site management have been incorporated into a wider set of recommendations covering the full suite of seabird ecology -under four categories -breeding, feeding, surviving and knowledge. These recommendations have been made by NE to DEFRA to inform the further development of the England Seabird Conservation Strategy and the implementation of the 25 Year Plan. The Strategy should be available early in 2023.
Through ProjectLOTE we will continue to advocate for these changes and work with stakeholders all-round the coast to deliver what we can to help seabirds.
There are probably few more committed and enthusiastic workers than those managing seabird colonies and they are doing a brilliant job holding the line against growing pressures from all directions. But they need help. For all the above reasons, the England Seabird Conservation Strategy couldn’t come at a better time, and we must all hope that it brings a step change in the priority and resources allocated to management of seabird colonies in England. Over to you DEFRA.
Thanks to all those who contributed information towards this assessment.
Good luck to all of you with your challenges ahead.
By Rachelle Regan, RSPB Hodbarrow Tern Protection Assistant
Another season has begun at RSPB Hodbarrow and preparations for the arrival of the Terns started in March. The lagoon island expansion works that took place over winter 2020-2021 meant an extra 130m of anti-predator fencing that needed some repairs after recent periods of strong north westerly winds. This involves donning chest high waders, requires steading footing and a good amount of perseverance! We hope the birds are grateful.
It is not just the Terns that have benefited from the fencing, but since it’s installation in 2016, Eiders have begun nesting on the island, increasing from 18 pairs in 2018 to an amazing 51 pairs in 2021! Numbers are looking good again this year with the first few nests spotted on the 18th April.
In addition to the anti-predator fencing, we install trail cameras on the island to monitor for predator presence. These may pick up any activity missed or unseen and inform immediate actions and future management. They also occasionally produce some stunning sunset photos!
Another important aspect of the site set up is signage. Myself and the other Tern Protection Assistant, Chris, will be on site as much as possible throughout the season monitoring disturbance and talking to visitors. Signs, however, are vital to inform those we do not get a chance to speak to and clearly mark out the areas that are off limits to allow the birds to nest undisturbed. This year’s signs have been created as part of the LOTE project in partnership with Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Natural England, RSPB and National Trust to help protect ground nesting seabirds and waders along the Duddon Estuary and Morecombe Bay.
As well as chick shelters that provide the Tern chicks with predator protection and shelter from the weather, something new for this year is the installation of Red-breasted Merganser nest boxes made by the RSPB Campfield Marsh volunteers. At least three pairs bred in 2020 and hopefully these nest boxes will encourage them again this year.
Now the preparations are complete the monitoring begins. Nearly 800 Sandwich Terns have already arrived back from their wintering grounds in Namibia and South Africa, joined by the first Common Tern on the 12th April and Little Tern on the 13th April.
This will be my third season at Hodbarrow and my third year living in West Cumbria year-round. The obvious answer to why I enjoy this role is my love of Terns! Their beauty and their energy is captivating, I can watch them for hours on end and never grow tired. In this role I get to spend most of my time outdoors and no two days are the same. The change in weather, tides and seasons mean there is always something to see, from the birds to the insects to the unique flora. You have the sea and Duddon estuary on one side and the mountains of the Lake District on the other, there’s no such thing as a bad view no matter which way you are facing! The Cumbria and Northern England RSPB team are another reason why I enjoy this role and keep coming back, for me the people you work with are just as important as the work itself, and they are excellent team of supportive and knowledgeable people.
I am very much looking forward to another season, hopefully one full of sunshine and Tern chicks!
Photo credits: Oystercatcher by Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)
LOTE Logo credits: Saskia Wischnewski