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Kittiwakes face uncertain future in Sussex

Last modified: 01 April 2014

Pair of kittiwakes on rock

Image: Andy Hay

The kittiwake colony at Splash Point near Seaford Head in East Sussex faces an uncertain future due to the effects of climate change.

Rising sea temperatures are bringing major changes to the marine food chain. Sea birds like the kittiwake are the top predators in the system and are strongly affected. If they are not able to adapt, they could struggle to survive.

The evidence shows a strong link between rising sea temperatures and reductions in the availability of the kittiwakes’ key food source – nutritious shoaling fish called sand eels. Seabird declines are particularly serious in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The RSPB is currently researching the mechanisms that are driving this decline.

Some colonies in the South East have also been badly affected. In the early 1990s there was a thriving colony of almost 3000 pairs of kittiwakes at Langdon Cliffs near Dover in Kent. Since then this colony has declined alarmingly and in the last few years only a few tens of nests have been recorded on the cliffs of east Kent.

In Sussex, however, the number of breeding birds has not declined in the same way as colonies in Northern Britain, with the main colony at Seaford still containing over 1000 nests. Why this colony has fared better is not yet understood -  it could be that sand eels are doing better in the south east, or the birds may be feeding on alternative prey (as they do off the coast of Ireland where sprats are currently an important food source).

However, the south coast is predicted to have the biggest rise in sea temperatures in the UK, perhaps as much as 3.5 degrees by the end of the century. The effects this will have on the marine ecosystem are very hard to predict.

To give our marine eco-systems the best chance to adapt to changes like these, we need to maximize their resilience by minimising pressures from other sources. That’s why it is so important they are protected from dredging and over-fishing.

As the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is released, the RSPB has issued the stark warning that based on current trends kittiwakes in Scotland face extinction from areas that were once core strongholds.

Paul Walton, Head of Habitats and Species for RSPB Scotland, said: “Ten years ago Marwick Head on Orkney was a thriving seabird city – but now it looks like a ghost town. And it’s not just kittiwakes, guillemots have also halved in number. A few abandoned nests remain in the breeding season on some cliffs, which are now silent and empty, instead of alive with noise and activity as they were just a few years ago.

“Seven colonies across the islands are essentially lost, and another two are heading down the same road. Evidence points to rising sea surface temperatures driving huge declines and species shifts in plankton populations. This is the food of sand eels, and the sand eels are food for the birds. We are calling on the Scottish Government to designate key seabird feeding sites as Marine Protected Areas to offer seabirds and sand eels resilience against the effects of climate change. However, a much bigger challenge is to convince world leaders to heed the warnings in the IPCC report, and do much more to tackle climate change.”

Dartford warblers are found on the heath lands of southern England and are very sensitive to the cold. The species has been steadily moving northwards, scientists believe this is caused by climate change. They are declining on the southern edge of their range in Spain, and in the UK conservationists are working hard to create new Heathland habitat for them to move into.

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: “The latest IPCC report focuses on the impacts of climate change on our planet. Kittiwakes, dotterels and Dartford warblers are three examples of wildlife being affected on our doorstep, but further afield the picture is stark for a whole range of species.

“Climate change will compound the many existing pressures on wildlife including habitat destruction, the introduction of non-native invasive species, over exploitation and pollution. The overwhelming scientific consensus suggests that unless we take urgent action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will commit many species to extinction this century.

“As humans, we have a role as custodians of the natural world.  The UK Government has said that it wants to be the first generation to pass on the natural world in an enhanced state to the next.  It is vital that David Cameron and other world leaders take note and hold their nerve when it comes to pushing through vital reforms to the way we generate energy and use our precious natural resources.


“The silent kittiwake colonies on Orkney should be a warning – one that we cannot ignore.”

Bird guide

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