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 from 2019, they will start counting 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 May 2018, rangers were concerned that the puffin population had been hit by a long, harsh winter and low food supplies. Initial figures showed there were fewer puffins coming from outlying islands, however, they were pleased to discover this was not the picture across the Farnes. 

Puffins at the Farne Islands, Northumbria

Puffin count results 2018

Puffins on the Farne Islands have, for the most part, weathered a cold and stormy winter, but some faced challenges from a thriving grey seal population. Despite rangers’ concerns that seals on the outer islands were rolling over and crushing burrows, they counted 43,956 pairs of birds. This is a 9% increase from 2013. While the results show that numbers during the last five years have stabilised, the population is some way off its 2003 peak, when 55,674 pairs were recorded.

A ranger's view

Commenting on the 2018 results ranger, Thomas Hendry, says that higher numbers of puffins on the inner group of islands at Farnes could be down to more shelter and a better environment for the birds to raise their young. But with seal pup numbers increasing from 1,704 to 2,602 in the last five years there is less space for puffins on the outer islands.  

He says: 'A rather unfortunate consequence of this growth is the seals are competing with puffins for areas to raise their young.  Although the two species are in residence and breed at different times of year, the weight of the seals could be crushing the puffin burrows and eroding surrounding vegetation.'

" 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. 

National Trust ranger Harriet Reid says: 'Annual monitoring will help us track numbers against likely causes of population change, whether that's changes to the weather as a result of climate change, changes in the sand eel population or something else altogether.

'If the root causes of puffin decline are what we suspect, it will require a bigger effort to encourage everyone to think about how we can prevent overfishing, reduce our use of single-use plastic and limit our use of non-renewable energy, but it can be done.'

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.