Living under canvas to protect rare birds

Ranger tents on the beach at the Long Nanny, Northumberland Coast

The Long Nanny tern colony on the Northumberland coast is home to one of the rarest seabirds in the UK, the little tern. To protect the birds, a dedicated team of five of our Rangers live at the site in tents, and undertake a 24-hour watch.

‘Sea bird conservation is very important,’ says Kate Bradshaw, ranger at Lindisfarne Castle, The Farne Islands and Northumberland Coast.

‘These birds are generally in decline around our coasts and the tern in particular has suffered a real drop in numbers. At Long Nanny we can do something about that.

‘One of the big problems is that they are ground nesting birds. They build their nests on beaches and actually like being in quite open locations, which makes them quite vulnerable.

The peaceful Long Nanny, before the Little Terns arrive to breed
The Long Nanny burn on the Northumberland Coast
The peaceful Long Nanny, before the Little Terns arrive to breed

Busy beaches

‘Also, these areas are getting busier and busier. There are more people, more dog walkers. All this activity can be very disruptive.’

As well as protecting the birds, staff at Long Nanny also monitor the breeding success of the colony, and welcome visitors to the site. ‘We show them the birds through telescopes and talk to them about importance of the Trust’s work,’ says Bradshaw.
But it’s no easy task. From May to August staff live in tents on the sand dunes. They watch the area 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in eight-hour shifts.

‘It’s a very busy beach, with lots of visitors, dog walkers and kite surfers,’ says Bradshaw. ‘If someone gets too close we can explain the situation to them.

Arctic Tern
Arctic Tern
Arctic Tern

Guarding against predators

‘We also need to look out for predators. This year we have had problems with a stoat and a kestrel. But in previous years we have had foxes, otters and even barn owls.’

The staff members camping on the beach have access to a hut with a gas cooker and a gas fridge. There are also compost toilets.

‘If anyone wants to have a shower, or use the washing machine, then they need to go back to our office, which is about a mile away,’ says Bradshaw.

It’s certainly a challenge living on site, and not just because of the lack of facilities.

Intense experience

‘It can also be quite an intense experience,’ says Bradshaw. ‘Your whole life is focused on protecting the terns. If something goes wrong, even if you are not on shift, you are bound to get involved.’

But there are signs that the hard work is paying off. When we began to look after the site in 1976 there were only three pairs of little terns and no arctic terns. By 2012, we had 40 pairs of little terns and 1500 pairs of arctic terns.

‘It’s still an ongoing battle,’ says Bradshaw. ‘We need to stay vigilant.

‘For example, one of the new problems we face is that the nature of the beach has changed over time. And as a result more and more terns are nesting in areas exposed to the spring high tides.

‘In order to stop the nests being swept away we actually have to raise them up and put them on fishing crates.

‘But the birds don’t mind. They seem to have got used to it!’