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Press release

See-sawing fortunes for seabirds on the Farne Islands as puffin count gets underway

Puffin emerging from nest hole, Farne Islands, Northumberland
Puffin emerging from nest hole on the Farne Islands, Northumberland | © National Trust Images/Dougie Holden

For the first time since 2019, rangers on the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast, cared for by the National Trust, are gearing up to carry out a full puffin census, surveying eight of the 28 islands to get a vitally needed and critically overdue picture of the red-listed seabird’s numbers.

Counts in recent years have been adapted and carried out amid severe disruptions, firstly due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021 - which resulted in the islands having to close with rangers limited to working as and when restrictions allowed – and subsequently due to outbreaks of avian influenza in 2022 and 2023.

As a result, this year’s full count will be pivotal for obtaining a complete picture of how the quirky seabirds are faring, with limited sample surveys across only two to four islands over the last four years, indicating the average number of breeding pairs as under 40,000 compared to nearly 44,000 back in 2019.

Tom Hendry, Area Ranger for the National Trust on the Farne Islands said: “All the seabirds which return here to breed, as well as the ones that live here all year round, have been through an incredibly rough time these past few years. We know over 9,600 seabirds perished on the islands due to bird flu – with thousands more likely to have died at sea – but thankfully, as yet we have not seen any signs of the disease since the seabirds have returned to breed.

“As we start this year’s count, the fact that bird flu has so far been absent is extremely welcome, and we’re really hoping that the puffins, and all our seabirds will have a successful breeding season.”

Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature Conservation at the National Trust said: “Our breeding seabird colonies are internationally important, but are being impacted by many pressures such as food availability and climate change. The most recent Seabirds Count national census (2015-2021) provides clear evidence of the fate of many of these species and the importance of the Farnes Islands as a key site for England and the importance of our conservation work.

“The on-going pressures the birds face each year is a sombre reminder of the work that still needs to be done to restore nature. Our monitoring efforts are a crucial piece of the jigsaw in understanding how efforts to conserve these birds are faring and just how much work is still left to do if we want to achieve the international targets of 30% of our seas being restored and healthy for nature by 2030.”

The puffins (affectionately known as the clowns of the sea) – 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.

With puffins nesting underground, the overall welfare and number of the Farnes’s puffin population is not immediately evident to the naked eye and requires close monitoring of burrows for signs of whether they are occupied, using a random stratified sampling technique. This method involves dividing the islands into grids, which in turn are checked for ‘apparent occupied burrows’, which denotes burrows that show signs of recent puffin activity such as scratching, signs of fresh digging or loose soil. If the rangers are unsure of whether a burrow is or isn’t occupied they will sometimes put their arm down the burrow to carefully check for inhabitants.

This data is recorded and shared as part of the Seabird Monitoring Programme (SMP) to allow the conservation charity and its partners to monitor and report on seabird populations across Britain and Ireland.

Although the count is carried out with as little disruption to the birds as possible, this year the team are also for the first time considering the use of endoscope cameras to investigate the burrows to further minimise any intrusion.

The absence of bird flu to date raises hopes of growing seabird immunity to the virus, as some of the birds returning this year are likely to have been exposed to the virus in previous years and survived, in a similar way that immunity is now widely accepted in gannets. Some gannets spotted on the islands, now have completely black eyes – which scientists think could be a possible sign of a previous avian influenza infection.

Coupled with an overall reduction in the virus, this could indicate vital progress in the battle against the epidemic compared to previous year’s and rangers are hopeful these are the first signs of the birds adapting to life with the disease.

However, despite seemingly positive news regarding bird flu and initial sightings of puffins seeming healthy, other species on the islands, which at their peak are home to 200,000 seabirds each summer, seem to still be struggling.

Tom continued: “Although there haven’t been any signs of bird flu so far, it's looking like it might still be a challenging season for seabirds on the Farnes and around the country.

“Two seasons of bird flu and challenging weather conditions with many storms have certainly taken a toll on the colonies, and numbers of certain populations are less than what we'd have hoped for.

“Shags in particular seem to be having a truly catastrophic year; faced with more extreme weather, it looks like many of them perished in the storms last autumn which would have restricted their ability to feed and we are seeing only about 15% of these birds attempting to breed that we have come to expect.”

Many other species, including the Arctic terns, have also arrived later and in smaller numbers than typical, likely affected by what has been a particularly unsettled and wet spring.

Guillemot numbers also appear to be down by 46%, showing large gaps on the cliff in areas which were very crowded before the avian influenza outbreaks as colonies struggle to recover.

To help tackle these varied challenges, rangers have been working hard to create an optimum habitat for the birds, which includes expansive vegetation management as well as the creation of additional habitat for terns by creating nest patches using sand and gravel and placing decoy birds to attract them. This work was also supported by the volunteer conservation team from the Northumberland Coast National Landscape, and the Space for Shorebirds team.

Ian Clemmett, Countryside manager for the National Trust on the Northumberland Coast added: “After the devastating impacts of avian flu we have been delighted to be able to keep the islands open so far this year so we can hopefully finally get a full, up-to-date picture of how our birds are doing.

“There are not many places like the Farne Islands in the world, and being able to open our doors to the outside world again and to give visitors the chance to see these fantastic species up close has been tremendous, for the visitors and for the team as well.”