Early reports of seabird breeding performance indicate serious continuing problems for Scotland’s internationally important kittiwake population. One breeding colony is now extinct and others are predicted to disappear within three years.
Although one of the world’s most abundant seabirds, kittiwakes are declining at an alarming rate.
Numbers have more than halved since the mid 1980s across the UK, and the Scottish breeding population has declined by almost two-thirds. Figures from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee show that between 1986 and 2011, kittiwakes declined by the following amounts: UK (55%); England (31%); Scotland (66%); and Wales (26%).
Some of the steepest declines have been in the far north of Scotland, particularly in Orkney and Shetland where around one-fifth of the UK population return to breed each year.
Counts by RSPB Scotland and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) of Orkney’s ‘seabird cities’ revealed a staggering 82% decline in breeding pairs of kittiwakes in just over a decade. Populations on the Orkney mainland fell from nearly 11,000 pairs in 2000 to under 2,000 this year.
At Mull Head on the Orkney mainland, the once bustling cliffs were empty this year as kittiwakes failed to return to the colony to breed. The cliffs at Costa Head and Birsay held less than 200 breeding pairs while three other colonies hung on by a thread with fewer than 90 nests each- indicating possible local extinction within the next three years.
RSPB Scotland’s Marwick Head nature reserve hosted most of the breeding kittiwakes with 1,134 pairs. However, numbers were 75% lower than in 1999, when there were 5,400 pairs nesting.
Doug Gilbert, RSPB Scotland Head of Reserves Ecology, says: ‘The counts this year are deeply shocking, especially the loss of kittiwakes at Mull Head. We know that kittiwakes in other parts of Orkney are equally affected, and to think of Orkney without thriving colonies of these fantastic birds is a sad prospect.
‘It now appears undeniable that the declines in kittiwake and other seabirds are being driven by changes in the marine environment related to climate change. The food chain of the North Sea is being profoundly affected, and seabirds, at the top of the chain, are suffering. Everyone with an interest in our seas and their health should be paying attention to this.
‘Seabirds remain largely unprotected at sea and have been marginalised in the identification of new Marine Protected Areas- this obvious gap needs to be filled if Scotland is going to prove it is serious about protecting threatened wildlife.’
Elsewhere in the country kittiwakes are experiencing mixed fortunes.
RSPB Scotland’s Sumburgh Head nature reserve in Shetland reported a poor year with only a small number of chicks fledging. In contrast, the kittiwake colony at RSPB Troup Head on the Moray Firth has experienced its best season in years with over 500 chicks fledging. The charity’s Fowlsheugh nature reserve on the Aberdeenshire coast reported a halt in the long-term decline in kittiwake numbers. The colony had been in freefall – 20 years ago there were over three times as many nests, but the number of chicks raised in recent years is encouraging.
A complete picture of the year’s seabird breeding success will be available in the autumn from RSPB Scotland.
Note 1: The UK Seabird Monitoring Programme partnership (SMP) is currently planning the next full UK seabird census, which aims to count all colonies of seabirds in Britain and Ireland, to provide an update on the last full census, carried out between 1998 and 2002. SMP is an ongoing annual monitoring programme, for 26 species of seabird that regularly breed in Britain and Ireland (http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-1550). It aims to ensure that data on breeding numbers and breeding success of seabirds are collected from a representative sample of colonies, both regionally and nationally, to enable their conservation status to be assessed. The SMP is led and co-ordinated by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) in partnership with others, including the RSPB.
Note 2: The photograph of a kittiwake above is © RSPB Scotland and is reproduced here with permission.