By Rich Howells – Richard.Howells@gov.scot
As a Marine Ornithologist for the Marine Protected Area Management and Monitoring Programme (MarPAMM), I recently had the privilege of helping survey the thousands of seabirds breeding along the rugged, but spectacular, coasts of the Isle of Lewis in the outer Hebrides. Over the course of 4 weeks a team of both professional and volunteer surveyors traversed the entire perimeter of the island in search of seabird nests, eggs and chicks. Unfortunately, the initial results suggest that on Lewis there have been considerable population declines since the last census for several breeding seabird species, including fulmars and kittiwakes, although what’s driving these reductions is currently unclear. Additionally, until the UK wide census is completed in 2020, we will not be able to put these local changes in to the wider UK and Scottish context to understand national level changes for individual species.
This fieldwork was part of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) Seabirds Count, which aims to census all breeding seabird colonies throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland during 2018-2020. The UK and Ireland host internationally important populations of breeding seabirds, including puffins, shags and gannets. Recently however, several of these seabird species have shown large declines in breeding success (the number of chicks raised), while the numbers of birds present has also reduced at many breeding colonies. In order to manage and protect these populations effectively, it is vital that we know what species breed where and how they are doing, and the Seabirds Count aims to address this!
The west coast of Scotland, which incorporates a substantial proportion of the MarPAMM region, is vast and comprises hundreds of islands, many of which are uninhabited by humans, but home to thousands of breeding seabirds. However, little is known regarding where these birds go to find their food or where they spend the winter. Over the coming years we plan to study these seabirds in more detail, by attaching tracking devices, which will help us piece together the factors driving their declines and identify appropriate measures to protect them. This will help inform the Scottish Seabird Conservation Strategy, to ensure that our internationally important seabird populations and the habitats upon which they depend are maintained in healthy and sustainable way long into the future.