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

Every five years, the rangers undertake a full puffin census. 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.

Numbers in decline

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. However, initial figures for this year reveal that numbers may be down by an average of 12 per cent on the last count in 2013, when 40,000 breeding pairs were recorded. The puffins were also a month later than usual setting up home on the islands, due to the prolonged, harsh winter.

" 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 marks 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 preventing further decline.

As Tom Hendry, Farne Island ranger, says, ‘If the causes of puffin decline are what we suspect, [thought to be largely due to the impacts of climate change], it will require a bigger effort to encourage everyone to think about how we can reduce our use of single use plastics and limit our use of non-renewable energy.’

The results of the full census will be announced in October.

A puffin in flight

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 quid, herring and sardines
• Puffins are nicknamed 'clowns of the sea'
• They can swim to a depth of 60 metres

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 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.

Puffins on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Discover 

Find out about the daily life of a ranger, a stout-drinking donkey and much more; written by retired Farnes ranger, John Walton, the Farne Islands guidebook is an essential guide to these magical islands and the wildlife you'll find there.