Puffin numbers stable despite last summer’s wash-out as sufficient pufflings successfully hatch on Farne Islands

Press release
Puffins on the Farne Islands, Northumberland
Published : 21 Feb 2020

Puffin numbers on the remote Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, appear to be stable despite extreme rainfall threatening numbers, a National Trust survey has found.

There were fears that the population would be affected after devastating rainfall flooded numerous burrows on the islands last year. 

On 13 June at least 300 young puffins - called pufflings - died when 5in (12cm) of rain fell on the islands in just 24 hours.  

However, the survey, which involved checking a proportion of burrows, revealed only a marginal decrease in the population, with a total of 43,752 breeding pairs recorded in 2019, less than a 0.5% decrease on the results from the 2018 survey.

National Trust ranger, Thomas Hendry says: “When we were hit by such heavy rainfall we were really concerned that numbers would be significantly affected, which given these birds are declining in numbers across the world was a devastating prospect.

“However, it appears that we had enough pufflings hatch successfully to literally weather the storm, and we can conclude numbers appear to be stable.”

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

Numbers on the islands have increased over the past 26 years, with 37,710 pairs recorded in 1993. Numbers then peaked at 55,674 pairs in 2003 before a sudden crash in 2008 when extremely low numbers of sandeels – their preferred food supply - meant the number of breeding pairs dropped by a third, before slowly recovering.

Globally however, the population is in decline, largely due to declines in sand eels.
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.
To gain better understanding of what’s happening, the 11 strong ranger team have begun monitoring the puffin population annually, having previously carried out the survey once every five years.

Mr Hendry continued: “Switching to the annual survey in 2018 has given us year-on-year data for the first time, and it’s allowing us to monitor the puffin population and breeding behaviour much more closely.

“The annual survey is also allowing the rangers get a better picture of the causes of seabird declines, tracking puffin numbers against likely causes of population change from island-based factors such as seal distribution or predatory gull numbers to changes in the frequency of storms and summer rainfall as a result of climate change or changes in the sand eel population.”

Dr Chris Redfern, Emeritus Professor in the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Newcastle University, who helped to verify the figures said “It is great to see consistency between the first two annual counts since the new method was introduced in 2018. The effects of summer storms are a concern and suggests that as well as counting the number of breeding birds we should continue to monitor how many pairs are successful in raising chicks each year.”

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