Critical year for determining how puffins are doing on the Farne Islands as National Trust rangers start this year’s count

Press release
Puffin count on Farne Islands
Published : 24 May 2022

National Trust Rangers on the remote Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland are about to start this year’s puffin count – in what will be a critical year in assessing how these quirky seabirds are faring in light of the complex challenges they face in the North Sea.

With full surveys unable to be carried out in 2020 and 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s figures will be vital for understanding how the seabirds are doing now that the 14-strong ranger team can return to live on the Inner Farne to conduct full surveys across eight of the 28 islands.  2022 is also the fifth year in the count cycle for being able to determine any sort of population trends.  

With puffins nesting underground, the count involves rangers monitoring burrows for signs of whether they are occupied. The birds – which are the size of a small bag of sugar - return to breed each year after spending the winter out at sea, arriving back on the islands in late March or early April. They stay until the last chicks fledge in mid-August.

Puffins have traditionally done well on the Farnes thanks to the work of the rangers, the protection of the marine areas around the islands, a lack of ground predators and the availability of suitable nesting areas.
 
Last year 36,211 breeding pairs of Atlantic puffins were recorded across four islands, compared to 29,546 pairs on three of the islands in 2020. This compares to the 42,378 pairs in 2019 and 42,474 pairs recorded in 2018. Although numbers appear to be relatively stable despite a 15 per cent drop in numbers over the past four years, the 2022 count will be a telling year for these popular seabirds.

Harriet Reid, Area Ranger at the National Trust says: “Although conducting the count over the past couple of years has been more difficult, we put in place a good system of monitoring to ensure vital data could still be collected.
   
“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 sand eels. 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.

“Although numbers appeared to drop in 2021 due to the team being unable to carry out a full survey, it is too early to be alarmed by these figures, making this year’s count particularly critical.”

Globally the puffin population is in decline, largely due to decreases in sand eel numbers driven by climate change and overfishing.

The fear is that climate change will put pressure on the Farnes population, with greater stresses on the food chain and more frequent winter storms affecting the population at sea.
 
Harriet continues; “The regularity of the count means we can react more quickly to any drastic change in numbers, and look at whether there is anything we can do differently in terms of our conservation work which could help puffin numbers recover.

“We think erosion from the extreme wind, rain and the island population of rabbits could also be affecting the birds, particularly on Inner Farne where over the past year we have seen a large increase in the number of bare patches of soil.

“Seals may also be causing changes to the birds’ habitat, particularly on the outer group of islands, where they often use the meadows, where puffins burrow, to have their young. Over time, the pressure of the seals may have a detrimental impact on the puffins’ habitat.

“Puffins won’t build or prepare burrows where there is bare earth as it leaves them too exposed to predators such as large gulls, instead preferring to build burrows in vegetated areas.  We are therefore going to spread seeds such as maritime grasses and sea campion in an effort to fill these gaps.

“Extreme weather events can also impact numbers. We may for instance find that the winter storms have caused increased mortality, meaning fewer birds return to breed on the islands.”

Predators may also have an impact on numbers. Harriet adds; “Large gulls are one of the main predators of the puffin and with the team unable to live on the islands for the past two years and fewer visitors to Inner Farne, it is likely that the gulls have not been deterred as they usually would, causing more havoc than usual.

“This predation by the gulls, combined with the underlying changes in climate, changes in water temperatures, more frequent and severe storms and overfishing make for complex challenges for these fantastic seabirds.”

The data is verified each year by scientists at Newcastle University. Dr Richard Bevan, Lecturer in Zoology says; “The regularity of the count is a really positive step as it provides us with a better insight into the population trends of the puffins.

“By analysing these trends, we are able to see how the puffin population on the Farne Islands are being affected by factors such as climate change or local changes in sand eel availability.
 
“Looking at the data, it is worrying to see that over the last four years we have seen a downward trend. However, these are data for a short time period and compared to the population counts in the early 1990s they are still reasonable numbers. The uncertainty from the last couple of seasons due to Covid is something that is really important to address with this year’s figures.”

Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration of Ecology at the National Trust concludes; “The data from the counts is crucial for understanding how puffins and other seabird populations are faring on the Farne Islands and provide us much greater insights into the pressures they face.

“Our data feeds into the Seabird Monitoring Programme and contributes to the UK Seabirds census run by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). The annual monitoring programme together with the census provides essential information on our internationally important breeding seabird populations.”

For more information about the Farnes visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/farne-islands