‘High hopes’ for Arctic terns dashed as lockdown and extreme weather hampers conservation work

Press release
Arctic tern at Long Nanny
Published : 08 Sep 2020

Arctic terns at one of the UK’s largest breeding sites have failed to fledge young for the first time since the species started breeding at the site in 1980, after lockdown restrictions and extreme weather hindered conservation efforts.

The Arctic tern, which has the longest migration of any bird in the world, returns annually from Antarctica to nest on the Long Nanny shorebird site in Northumberland. In recent years, it has been watched over 24 hours a day by a team of five rangers and seven volunteers. In 2019, over 400 chicks fledged the site.

Rangers had high hopes for the Arctic terns again this year after a high sand spit formed to the south of the estuary during winter, expected to provide defence against high tides.

But this year saw a breeding season fraught with adversities. Exceptionally high tides in June, exacerbated by strong onshore winds, washed away half of the nests.

Many of the remaining nests were preyed upon by rats and stoats as rangers were unable to provide their usual round-the-clock care due to travel restrictions imposed by the lockdown.

By the end of June, the remaining Arctic terns started to desert their nests at dusk. The Trust’s rangers believe this was caused by predators and disturbances from people walking through the colony, and a loose dog is thought to have been the final straw, seeming to cause the Arctic terns to desert the site entirely.

Countryside Manager, Gwen Potter said: “Lockdown made our conservation work with the terns so much more difficult this year, but the team did everything they could within the restrictions.

“It has been really sad to see our Arctic terns abandon the site, but we’re hopeful they’ll be back next year. They are an amazingly hardy species, with an epic migration, but as ground-nesting birds they’re also extremely vulnerable.

“It goes to show how important this conservation work is in protecting our declining species.”

Little terns fared better, with up to six chicks having left the site to begin their long migration to West Africa.

Instead of their usual 24-hour care, a skeleton team carried out daily surveillance and a few essential night shifts to try and protect the terns from disturbance and predators.

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.

The little tern has been in serious decline since the 1980s, with fewer than 2,000 breeding pairs now left in the UK.

Gwen continued: “We’re so pleased to see our work paying off as the little terns have fledged.

“During the past few months we’ve observed some unexpected impacts on the colony, both good and bad. In the absence of people during April and May, the little terns were able to take advantage of the deserted nesting site to breed and raise their young.

“But we’ve seen far more rats in the countryside during the pandemic. We think that they moved out of nearby urban areas while there were less food sources available and came to prey on our terns. Though we’re pleased to report that we saw the birds successfully chasing predators away on several occasions.”

Rangers at the site hope to resume their round-the-clock presence next year.

On Saturday the Trust launched an appeal to raise awareness of the importance of protecting nature and enhancing people’s connection with the natural world, and to raise funds for conservation projects. The #EveryoneNeedsNature campaign will run for six weeks.

The Long Nanny has been cared for by the National Trust for over 40 years. The viewing platform is usually open for everyone to visit but the National Trust is urging people to help protect these rare nesting seabirds by not disturbing the animals and by keeping dogs on leads on signed beaches.