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Our work at Souter Lighthouse and The Leas

Sand martins at Souter Lighthouse and the Leas, Tyne & Wear
Sand martins at Souter Lighthouse and the Leas | © National Trust Images/Dougie Holden

Souter Lighthouse and The Leas is a haven for wildlife, with species of all types making their homes around this area. Our ranger team works hard with volunteers and local conservation groups to make sure wildlife continues to thrive here. Find out how we've helped three endangered species of birds to find their feet again.

Sand martins at Souter

Sand martins belong to the same family as swallows and house martins. They are impressively agile in the air and feed on insects mainly caught over water. These tiny birds travel thousands of miles from Africa to breed in the UK, where they can be spotted between March and October.

A perilous situation

Over the last 50 years the European population of sand martins has crashed twice due to drought in the birds' African wintering grounds. Their nesting habits can make them very vulnerable too.

Sand martins dig tunnels in sandy, vertical banks such as riverbanks and cliffs, where they lay two clutches of eggs during their breeding season. Nesting tunnels can be up to a metre long and are sadly vulnerable to collapsing. In 2016, 46 nest holes in soft cliffs near the lighthouse were lost this way.

Creating a new nesting ground

Our rangers and the local Coastal Conservation Group collaborated to build an imitation nest bank in Whitburn Coastal Park nature reserve, completed in 2018. The chosen location overlooks a pond, the ideal insect hunting ground for sand martins feeding hungry chicks.

The nesting bank, complete with a green roof and weasel baffles to prevent predators, has 140 holes for breeding pairs. It took a while for the sand martins to trust the building as a suitable nesting site. The first clutch of eggs was laid in spring 2022 and successfully fledged that July. It is hoped that, year on year, local sand martin numbers will increase and the species will thrive in the long term. The building also allows access to the nests from inside, so they can be monitored and valuable data collected and shared.

Funding the work

This project was made possible with backing from the Community Foundation’s Local Environmental Action Fund (LEAF) and the generous help and support of partner organisations, volunteers and local businesses.

Storm petrel
Storm petrel | © National Trust Images/Dougie Holden

Stormies over Souter

During July and August, a small team of passionate ornithologists can be spotted working through the night to ring storm petrels on The Leas, before recording their information and setting them free again. We pass the data to the British Trust for Ornithology, providing vital information in understanding the survival rates, population sizes and movement of storm petrels.

A delicate operation

It takes dedication and cunning methods to capture these elusive birds. To lure them inland once darkness falls, rangers and coastal conservation volunteers transmit the sound of a storm petrel breeding colony out to sea through two high-powered speakers. The birds are then caught in mist nets before being set free again.

Understanding the birds' behaviour

Storm petrels (often known as 'stormies' for short) spend the winter months off the coast of south-west Africa and begin their long journey back to their UK breeding grounds in spring. Birds over the age of four have usually paired up and are sitting on single eggs by early June.

It is thought that most of the birds ringed on The Leas are under the age of four and spend the summer moving up and down the east coast, feeding rather than breeding.

Notable migration data

Monitoring by the Whitburn Coastal Conservation Group has shown some notable results, including one bird which was caught in 2015 having been ringed off the Portuguese coast in 2004, and another bird ringed at Whitburn in 2009 was caught in The Faroe Islands in 2010.

Tree sparrow
Tree sparrow | © National Trust Images/Dougie Holden

Tree sparrows take flight at Souter

Between 1970 and 2008 the population of tree sparrows in the country dropped by a huge 93 per cent, but our work in conservation on The Leas and in Whitburn Coastal Park has seen the species thrive. The birds – with their red-brown crowns and distinctive black-and-white cheeks – are successfully nesting and breeding on site again.

Their decline was largely due to intensive farming methods which left little grain in the fields after harvest to provide food for over-wintering birds like the tree sparrow. Nationally there was concern that bird numbers would never recover.

Providing nest boxes and the perfect diet

Two tree sparrows were spotted on site in spring 2012 and successfully caught and ringed by the Whitburn Ringing Group, followed by two more pairs in 2013. Numbers continued to rise and have been steady since around 2016. The breeding season in 2021 saw 14 pairs nesting, with 10 of those successfully producing 18 clutches between them, resulting in 83 fledged chicks.

We now have 84 nest boxes in place for the tree sparrows, who are fed a specialised diet of red millet, white millet and canary seed. After much experimenting we found that this combination of food appealed to tree sparrows but not to other species, meaning it wasn’t scavenged away from them.

Tree sparrows are regularly known to migrate and British ringed birds have been found in France, Belgium and The Netherlands, just as continental ringed birds have been found in the UK.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

View of the lighthouse, the rock arch and flying birds at Souter Lighthouse and The Leas, Tyne & Wear


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