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Farne Islands puffin count 2022 is under way

Puffin on the Farne Islands, Northumberland
Puffin on the Farne Islands, Northumberland | © National Trust Images/Ian Ward

The 14-strong ranger team who live on Inner Farne have begun their annual count of puffins across eight of the 28 Farne Islands. This year’s count, which will take until the end of July to complete, will be vital for understanding how the seabirds are faring following two years of restricted surveys due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Farne Islands' puffin colony

The Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, are home to one of the largest puffin colonies in the UK. These comical seabirds have thrived on the Farnes for decades thanks to good sources of food, a lack of ground predators and the availability of suitable nesting areas.

Their success is also supported by the National Trust’s dedicated ranger team. The Farne Islands' rangers set up home on the islands for 10 months of the year to look after the puffins and other wildlife including grey seals and Arctic terns.

The importance of a puffin census

Every year, between April and late July when the puffins stay on the Farnes to breed and raise their young, the rangers undertake a full puffin census. Once the numbers are in, the team can see if the size of the colony has changed since the last survey and make important decisions to help protect the puffins.

'Puffins literally live on the edge in every sense, mostly living on remote, ground predator free islands and are very picky when it comes to food, preferring sand eels. In order to track how puffins are doing, our counts are particularly important so that we can analyse population trends to see if they are increasing, decreasing or stable.'

– Area Ranger Harriet Reid

Puffin count 2022

Puffins begin to return to the Farnes from late March, and the islands are now at full capacity. Rangers are currently working hard to conduct this year's survey.

The census of 2022 is the fifth year in the count cycle for being able to determine any sort of population trends.

Why conduct an annual survey?

Historically, the Farnes rangers have undertaken a full puffin census every five years. However, since 2018 they have been monitoring the puffin population annually, as part of efforts to stop a downward trend in global puffin numbers.

The worldwide decline in the puffin population is largely due to decreases in sand eel numbers driven by climate change and overfishing.

'Switching to the annual survey means we now get year-on-year data, which allows us to monitor the puffin population and breeding behaviour much more closely.

'We can also get a better picture of the decline in puffin populations by tracking numbers against likely causes of population change. These could include island-based factors such as seal distribution or predatory gull numbers, variation in the frequency of storms and summer rainfall as a result of climate change, or changes in population of the sand eels that puffins feed on.’

– Ranger Thomas Hendry

How do rangers count the puffins?

As puffins nest underground, the rangers have to check whether the numerous burrows across the islands are occupied or not. By looking out for signs of puffin footprints and fresh digging, rangers count the feathered occupants living inside the nests.

Once the puffin numbers are recorded, the rangers can tell if there has been a growth or decline of the colony. This information is fed into national data that helps monitor trends and gives an indication of what can be done to help the puffin species survive.

Puffin count results 2021

Although the pandemic made conducting the puffin count in 2020 and 2021 more difficult, rangers put in place a good system of monitoring to ensure vital data could still be collected. In 2021, 36,211 breeding pairs of Atlantic puffins were recorded across four islands, compared to 42,378 pairs across eight islands in 2019.

Numbers appeared to drop in 2021 due to the team being unable to carry out a full survey. However, it's anticipated that a return to a full census in 2022 will lead to a more accurate picture. This year's count is therefore a very important one for these popular seabirds.

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