Farnes puffin numbers rally after initial concern in five-yearly survey results

Press release
Published : 21 Feb 2019 Last update : 25 Feb 2019

Results from a five-yearly survey reveal puffin numbers are stable on the remote Northumberland Farne Islands, cared for by the National Trust.

Last May concerned rangers speculated that the initial low numbers from the outlying islands of this threatened seabird[1] were due to the particularly harsh, long winter and a decline in readily available food[2].  The fear was that this could be the case across the islands.  

However, it now seems the lower numbers were an unfortunate consequence of the thriving grey seal population which has resulted in puffin burrows being inadvertently crushed on the outer islands, with more birds therefore nesting on the inner isles.

The final results, which involved checking a proportion of burrows on eight of the 28 island archipelago, show that puffin numbers have stabilised[3] at around 44,000 pairs, nine percent higher since the last count in 2013[4]. 

Numbers of puffins on the islands have increased over the past 25 years.  37,710 pairs were recorded in 1993 with numbers peaking at 55,674 pairs in 2003 before a sudden crash in 2008 when numbers dropped by a third, before slowly recovering.

National Trust ranger, Thomas Hendry says: “When we started the count in the outer group of islands we were very anxious that numbers were down, especially as we know puffins are struggling for survival across the globe.  

“After further investigations on the inner group of islands, numbers seemed to be much more positive.  This could be due to the islands being more sheltered, providing an ideal habitat for the puffins to successfully breed and raise their young. 

“Another factor for the lower bird numbers on the outer islands could be the success of our grey seal population.  We have seen seal pup numbers growing from 1,704 to 2,602 in the last five years[5]. 

“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.”

Dr Chris Redfern, Emeritus Professor in the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Newcastle University, who helped to verify the figures was cautious about the results. 

“The count from five years ago is within the margin of error of the 2018 count.  This is good news and suggests that the population of puffins on the Farne Islands overall is at least stable at the moment.  However, there are indications of some re-distribution of puffins between different islands so we need to be vigilant to ensure that all islands remain in tip-top condition for this seabird to breed successfully in the future.

“However, what is positive is that the results suggest that the marine environment off the Northumberland coast can still support good numbers of breeding seabirds, and indicate that these puffin colonies are not showing the declines recorded in colonies further north.”

Puffins have traditionally done well on the Farnes thanks to the work of the National Trust rangers, increasing protection of the marine areas around the islands, a lack of ground predators and the availability of suitable nesting areas.  

The international picture for puffins, with huge productivity declines in more northerly populations, likely due to changes in their preferred food supply of sand eels, is uncertain. The risk is that climate change pressures will eventually ‘squeeze’ the Farnes population, with more and more birds having to travel further for rich feeding grounds and increased frequency of storms in the winter affecting the population at sea.

As a consequence, the Farnes team will now undertake annual surveys, but more monitoring of seabirds is needed across the country to get a better picture of the causes of seabird declines.

Harriet Reid, one of the 11 National Trust rangers that live on the islands from March to December, says: “Annual monitoring may help us track numbers against likely causes of population change, whether that’s changes in frequency of storms and summer rainfall as a result of climate change, changes in the sand eel population or something else altogether.

“It’s important that we contribute to the worldwide picture on puffins so that we can dig deeper into trends to really discover more about what are the key factors affecting these special birds – so we know what more we can do to help.

“If the root causes of seabird declines are what we suspect, it will require a bigger effort to prevent overfishing, reduce our use of single use plastics and limit our use of non-renewable energy, but it can be done.”

For more information about the Farnes visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/farne-islands. Know someone who loves puffins? The National Trust has launched a special range of donation gifts called Small Wonders - the money spent goes straight back into protecting the charity’s coastal habitats for nature. https://shop.nationaltrust.org.uk/small-wonder-gift-puffins.html 

-ENDS-

Picture and film footage available: 

Images and b-roll footage of the Puffins on the Farne Islands can be downloaded from the link below.  The puffin count results footage contains footage from the count in May, general views of the islands and also interviews with our ranger teams about the results:

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/s4uoa6on13ag4p4/AADyEaPtPlqxfDDpQ9BGScPUa?dl=0

Images and footage must be credited as ©National Trust Images/[photographer's name] unless otherwise specified. Images and footage must only be used to accompany this story.  

Editor’s notes

[1] The Atlantic puffin was given ’vulnerable’ status in 2015 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)[7] when worldwide numbers dropped. 

The most likely contributors to this decline internationally include; climate change contributing to food shortages and extreme weather, overfishing, invasive predators such as rats on some islands and marine pollution, in addition to other threats.  

The puffin is also on the British Trust for Ornithology’s Red List for species of conservation concern in the UK.  The puffin, with its striking orange, yellow and dark blue beak (which goes dark in the autumn and winter) grows to just under one foot tall.  Puffins mate for life but most likely separate over winter, coupling up again on returning to the islands to pair up again.  

[2] Sand eels make up the highest proportion of the puffin’s diet on the Farne islands although they will also eat small squid, herring and sardines.

[3] The ranger team have conducted the puffin count across eight of the Farne Islands 28 islands every five years.  

The rocks that form the Farne Islands are dolerite, forming the very end of the Great Whin Sill, which runs to Alston and joins Hadrian’s wall. At low tide there are 28 ‘islands’ visible and 14 at high tide.  The largest island is Inner Farne at around 6.5hectares (depending on the tides).  

[4] Final results of 2018 puffin count

Inner Group

Outer Group

 

Inner Farne

West Wideopen

East Wideopen

Brownsman

Staple

North Wamses

South Wamses

Big Harcar

Total

2013

11271

4768

1459

10047

11151

691

515

60

39962

2018

16541

6685

637

6868

12380

464

357

24

43956

Change (AOB)

(+5370)

(+1917)

(-822)

(-3179)

(+1228)

(-227)

(-158)

(-36)

(+3394)

Change %

(+32%)

(+29%)

(-56%)

(-32%)

(+9%)

(-32%)

(-31%)

(-60%)

(+9%)

As puffins nest underground, rangers monitor burrows to check whether the holes are occupied or not, surveying the eight most populated islands using a grid to determine locations and keeping plot selections random. 

A minimum of 30 plots per island are monitored, with all burrows within a 5m radius of the centre of the plot checked. 

Signs of occupation include birds returning to nests with fish in their beaks, an indication the burrows are occupied with a hungry puffling, and external signs around the burrow that puffins are using it, such as fresh digging, puffin footprints, clearance of vegetation, hatched eggshells, or fish or guano in the entrance.  

If rangers are unsure if a burrow is occupied, they’ll put their arm down the burrow to gently and carefully feel for any occupants.

[5] Over the last five years the overall number of seal pups have increased by 50 per cent on the Farne Islands to 2,602 indicating a positive picture for this intriguing mammal.  

The grey seal is a protected sea mammal with global numbers estimated to be around 300,000 half of which live in British and Irish waters.

Puffins are at risk: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22694927/0  The Icelandic populations are massively struggling with very low productivity for a sustained period of time, and populations further south could suffer in the future due to the threat from climate change.

The puffin is a red listed bird.  See: https://app.bto.org/birdfacts/results/bob6540.htm Red listed birds are of the highest conservation concern, with species needing urgent action.

Red list criteria includes: 

• Species is globally threatened.

• Historical population decline in UK during 1800–1995.

• Severe (at least 50%) decline in UK breeding population over last 25 years, or longer-term period (the entire period used for assessments since the first BoCC review, starting in 1969).

• Severe (at least 50%) contraction of UK breeding range over last 25 years, or the longer-term period.

BTO carries out surveys, research and analysis to produce the facts and figures about birds and other wildlife that organisations use to help influence conservation policy. BTO is a completely independent and impartial organisation, so its data can be used by Government, policy makers, industry and other conservation organisations.

Farnes puffins census – facts and figures

• The rangers carry out the survey in accordance with the BTO census methodology.

• Adult Puffins arrive at the breeding colonies in March and April and the last puffins usually leave around mid-August.  Puffins live on fish, especially sand eels.

• Most successful puffin mating occurs on the water rather than on land – puffins are true seabirds.

• Similar to most birds, puffins can see UV light and their beaks glow in the dark.

• Chicks/youngsters in the burrows are called pufflings. They learn to swim before they can fly.

• Puffins can perform up to 400 wingbeats per minute and swim to depths of 60 metres, though they normally swim to around 20 metres.

About the National Trust

The National Trust is a conservation charity founded in 1895 by three people who saw the importance of our nation’s heritage and open spaces, and wanted to preserve them for everyone to enjoy.  More than 120 years later, these values are still at the heart of everything the charity does.

Entirely independent of Government, the National Trust looks after more than 250,000 hectares of countryside, 780 miles of coastline and hundreds of special places across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

More than 26 million people visit every year, and together with 5.2 million members and over 61,000 volunteers, they help to support the charity in its work to care for special places for ever, for everyone. 

For more information and ideas for great seasonal days out go to: www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Puffins on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Farne Islands 

Rocky islands, habitat for seals and many species of seabird