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.
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Photo credits: Oystercatcher by Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)
LOTE Logo credits: Saskia Wischnewski