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Cliff-nesting seabirds in precipitous fall - but Seaford colony is holding strong

Last modified: 23 August 2012

Pair of kittiwakes on rock

Image: Andy Hay

Dramatic changes in the marine environment, particularly those fuelled by climate change, are believed to be responsible for the dramatic collapse in the numbers of one of the UK’s most engaging seabirds.

The numbers of the kittiwake – a dainty type of cliff-nesting gull – have more than halved since the mid 1980s across the UK, and populations in Scotland have crashed by almost two thirds.

In contrast, the East Sussex cliff-top colony at Splash Point Seaford, made up of around 1100 pairs this year, and is up from 800 pairs in 2011, has become increasingly significant in recent years as kittiwakes struggle to breed in strongholds along the coast of northern England, Scotland and Wales.

One of the South East’s last remaining kittiwake colonies, Splash point saw chicks hatching at the beginning of June, which hopefully indicates another successful year for this important seabird colony.

In July the RSPB ran one of its popular Date with Nature projects at Splash Point, where visitors were able to get close-up views of the kittiwakes as they raised their young.

Kate Whitton, Date with Nature project officer at RSPB South East, said: “Sussex’s kittiwake colony seems to be doing well, which is welcome news, especially as another local colony at Newhaven, which has been steadily decreasing over the last few years, had no nesting kittiwakes at all this year.”

Early reports of seabird nesting performance from across the UK this summer indicate continuing problems for the kittiwake population with one breeding colony now extinct and others predicted to disappear within three years. Counts of the average number of chicks per nest also seem to be reducing too. These declines are being linked to changes in the marine environment.

Dave Burges, conservation officer for the RSPB in the South East said: “It now seems beyond doubt that the decline of the kittiwake is being driven by a slump in the availability of sandeels – a staple food for this and many other seabirds.

“It is almost certain that the crash of sandeels is linked to the warming of the sea and subsequent changes in plankton availability. In other words, changes at the microscopic level are wreaking havoc at the other end of the food chain.”

Although one of the world’s most abundant seabirds, kittiwakes are declining at an alarming rate, particularly in Orkney and Shetland where around one-fifth of the UK population return to breed each year.

Dave Burges added: “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 we’re going to prove we’re serious about protecting threatened marine wildlife.

“It is vital to maintain the current tight restrictions on the North Sea’s industrial fishery for sandeels to ensure it doesn’t add to the wider pressures on sandeel stocks.”

In other parts of the kittiwake’s range, there is evidence from Iceland, Greenland and Norway of its population declining.

In 2008, the kittiwake was added to an international watch list of threatened species, under the Ospar – Oslo-Paris – Convention, set up to protect the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic.

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