Counting the Farne Island puffins

Puffins sitting on a rock on the Farne Islands

The puffin is one of the country's favourite birds and the Farne Islands are one of the best places to see them up close.

Between April and late July, puffins return to the Farnes to breed and raise their young. Our rangers take this opportunity to count the puffin population levels.

Puffins mate for life, separating over winter and returning to the islands to pair up again in the spring. So for ten months of the year, our ranger team sets up home on the Northumberland islands, caring for puffins and other wildlife including grey seals, Arctic terns, eider ducks, guillemots and kittiwakes.

Puffin footprints

Historically, rangers have undertaken a full puffin census every five years. However, the 11 strong ranger team have begun monitoring the puffin population annually. They will count the puffins every year as part of efforts to stop a downward trend in global numbers. There are fears that climate change and overfishing are making it more difficult for the seabirds to find the sand eels they like to eat.

As puffins nest underground, the rangers have to check whether the holes are occupied or not. By looking out for signs of puffin footprints and fresh digging, our rangers count the feathered occupants living inside the nests.

Once the puffin numbers are recorded, the rangers can tell if there has been a growth or decline of the colony. This information is fed into national data that helps monitor trends and gives an indication of what can be done to help the puffin species survive.

Puffin numbers

Puffins have traditionally thrived on the Farnes, due to our protection of the birds, good sources of food, a lack of ground predators and the availability of suitable nesting areas. In June 2019, rangers were concerned that the puffin population would be affected by heavy rainfall. On 13 June at least 300 young puffins died when 5in (12cm) of rain fell on the islands in just 24 hours. However, the rangers were pleased to discover that this has not had a significant impact on population numbers across the Farnes. 

Puffins at the Farne Islands, Northumbria

Puffin count results 2019

Puffin numbers appear to be stable despite extreme rainfall threatening numbers. There were fears that the population would be affected after devastating rainfall flooded numerous burrows on the islands last year. However, the survey, which involved checking a proportion of burrows, revealed only a marginal decrease in the population, with a total of 43,752 breeding pairs recorded in 2019, less than a 0.5 per cent decrease on the results from the 2018 survey.

A ranger's view

Commenting on the 2019 survey, ranger, Thomas Hendry says: 'When we were hit by such heavy rainfall we were really concerned that numbers would be significantly affected, which given these birds are declining in numbers across the world was a devastating prospect. However, it appears that we had enough pufflings hatch successfully to literally weather the storm, and we can conclude numbers appear to be stable.'

" We already know that by visiting us, donating or being a member of the National Trust, people can help the puffins continue to live on the island."
- Gwen Potter, Countryside Manager

What can be done to help?

2018 marked the 25th anniversary of the Farnes achieving National Nature Reserve status. This helps protect significant areas of nature habitats and opened up additional finance for the protection of the islands, as well as providing resource for research and studies into protecting puffin populations. 

Ranger Thomas Hendry says: 'Switching to the annual survey in 2018 has given us year-on-year data for the first time, and it’s allowing us to monitor the puffin population and breeding behaviour much more closely.

'The annual survey is also allowing the rangers get a better picture of the causes of seabird declines, tracking puffin numbers against likely causes of population change from island-based factors such as seal distribution or predatory gull numbers to changes in the frequency of storms and summer rainfall as a result of climate change or changes in the sand eel population.'

A puffin in flight on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Did you know...

• A baby puffin is called a puffling
• They grow to just under 30cm tall
• Puffins can see UV light, making their beaks glow
• These colourful beaks turn dark in winter
• They eat small squid, herring and sardines
• Puffins are nicknamed 'clowns of the sea'
• They can swim to a depth of 60 metres


Counting puffins

Meet Harriet, one of the Farne Island rangers, as she takes part in the vitally important puffin count.

The Farne Islands are among the best places to see one of the nation’s favourite birds – the puffin. Every five years, the island rangers undertake a full puffin census to count these comical seabirds. Once the numbers are in, rangers can see if the size of the colony has changed since the last survey and make important decisions to help protect the puffins.