Counting the Farne Island puffins

Puffin on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

The puffin is one of the country's favourite birds, and the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland are home to one of the largest colonies in the UK.

Puffins have thrived on the Farnes for decades thanks to good sources of food, a lack of ground predators and the availability of suitable nesting areas. That’s not to mention the dedicated care of our ranger team, who set up home on the islands for ten months of the year to look after the puffins and other wildlife including grey seals, Arctic terns, eider ducks, guillemots and kittiwakes.

Puffins mate for life, separating to spend the winter out at sea before returning to the islands to pair up again in the spring. Between April and late July the puffins stay on the Farnes to breed and raise their young, and our rangers take this opportunity to count the puffin population levels.

Puffin count 2022

The 14-strong ranger team who live on Inner Farne have begun their annual count of puffins across eight of the 26 Farne Islands.

This year’s count, which will take until the end of July to complete, will be vital for understanding how the seabirds are faring following two years of restricted surveys due to coronavirus. 2022 is also the fifth year in the count cycle for being able to determine any sort of population trends. 

Puffins begin to return to the Farnes from late March, but the islands are now at full capacity with rangers witnessing first-hand their courtship displays, burrow clearing and general preparations for the breeding season.

Area Ranger Harriet Reid says: 'Puffins literally live on the edge in every sense, mostly living on remote, ground predator free islands and are very picky when it comes to food, preferring sandeels. In order to track how puffins are doing, our counts are particularly important so that we can analyse population trends to see if they are increasing, decreasing or stable.'

Why conduct an annual survey?

Historically, the Farnes rangers have undertaken a full puffin census every five years. However, since 2018 they have been monitoring the puffin population annually, as part of efforts to stop a downward trend in global puffin numbers.

Ranger Thomas Hendry says: 'Switching to the annual survey means we now get year-on-year data, which allows us to monitor the puffin population and breeding behaviour much more closely.

'We can also get a better picture of the decline in puffin populations by tracking numbers against likely causes of population change. These could include island-based factors such as seal distribution or predatory gull numbers, variation in the frequency of storms and summer rainfall as a result of climate change, or changes in population of the sand eels that puffins feed on.’

Did you know...

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

How do you count puffins?

As puffins nest underground, the rangers have to check whether the numerous burrows across the islands 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.

Puffins on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Puffin count results 2021

Although conducting the puffin count in 2020 and 2021 has been more difficult, rangers put in place a good system of monitoring to ensure vital data could still be collected. In 2021 36,211 breeding pairs of Atlantic puffins were recorded across four islands, compared to 42,378 pairs across eight islands in 2019.

Globally the puffin population is in decline, largely due to decreases in sandeel numbers driven by climate change and overfishing. Although numbers appeared to drop in 2021 due to the team being unable to carry out a full survey, the 2022 count will be a telling year for these popular seabirds.

Video

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 year, 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.

" By being a member of the National Trust, donating or visiting us once lockdown restrictions are lifted, people can help the puffins continue to live on the Farnes."
- Gwen Potter, Countryside Manager