Long Nanny colony turns the tide with best numbers since 1990

Little tern fledglings

A colony of one of the UK’s rarest breeding seabirds has had its most successful season in almost 30 years thanks to National Trust rangers who camped out for three months to protect its nesting site. The little tern has been in serious decline since the 1980s, with fewer than 2,000 breeding pairs now left in the UK.

Last year, no little terns fledged from the Trust’s Long Nanny shorebird site after Storm Hector brought high winds and torrential rain to the Northumberland coastline - forcing the 40 breeding pairs of birds to abandon their nests.

But 2019 has seen a welcome boost to the threatened species, with 54 fledglings leaving the beach to start their long migration to West Africa.

A combination of round-the-clock watches by rangers, spells of favourable weather conditions and the creation of a high spit over the winter has resulted in the highest number of little tern chicks since 1990.

Since May 7, five National Trust rangers camped out in tents next to the breeding site - enduring high winds, torrential rain and record-breaking heat to conduct a 24-hour watch on the site.

Predators including foxes, peregrine falcons, crows and gulls were kept at bay by the rangers who used a thermal scope to detect intruders before warning them off with a torch or by simply shouting and waving their arms.

National Trust rangers camp at the site from May to August
Ranger camp among the dunes at the Long Nanny site
National Trust rangers camp at the site from May to August

As well as scaring away predators, their role on the site also involved educating visitors on the little and Arctic terns and ringed plovers and collecting data to feed into a national report on breeding seabirds.  

" We've had a fantastic year for little terns at the Long Nanny Shorebird site. From keeping predators at bay to dealing with high tides, we have protected the site night and day for almost three months. We're extremely proud to have such a high number of fledglings and hope to see them again in a few years when they return to breed."
- Fey Young, Assistant Ranger at Long Nanny

34 breeding pairs were counted this year at the Long Nanny shorebird site, giving a productivity of 1.59 chicks per pair – the highest ratio since 1985.

Results were positive too at Blakeney Point in Norfolk, a second little tern breeding site cared for by the Trust.

Little terns are one of the UK’s smallest seabirds, measuring less than 25cm in length and weighing roughly the same as a tennis ball.

They feed mostly on sand eels and young herring, plunge-diving to catch their prey, and tend to lay one to three camouflaged eggs on the beach, often close to the high water mark.

For the last 42 years, the Long Nanny shorebird site at Beadnell Bay has been protected by the National Trust.