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West Country seabirds top list of most threatened EU birds

Last modified: 03 June 2015

Balearic shearwater in flight

Balearic shaerwater

Image: Kris Gillam

The EU Red List of Birds published today is a groundbreaking study of the continents birds. Carried out over three years it describes the conservation status of over 500 species. At the European level it lists 13% birds as threatened, and a further 6% near threatened.

Of particular concern in the West Country are a number of the region’s seabirds.

Topping the list is the critically endangered Balearic shearwater, a visitor to south west coastal waters particularly in Summer and Autumn. With a population estimated at just 3,200 pairs globally this bird faces threats from predation by introduced mammals where it breeds, and from fishing by-catch. 

There are concerns too for the ever popular puffin – a bird that breeds on the Isles of Scilly, Lundy and occasionally on the mainland in the region. The population in Iceland and Norway, which together account for 80% of the European population, decreased markedly since the early 2000s and, although the population size was estimated to be increasing in the UK during 1969-2000, evidence suggests that it has undergone declines or probable declines since 2000. As a result, the population size in Europe is estimated and projected to decrease by 50-79% during 2000-2065 (three generations). It is thought that puffins are highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, such as sea temperature rise and shifts in prey distribution and abundance.

Despite historical increases over the past hundred years, there are now concerns too for fulmars. These seabirds, relatives of albatrosses, breed on cliffs around the south west coast. Since declines began in the mid-1980s the population size in Europe is estimated to have dropped by more than 40%.They are  highly susceptible to ingesting marine litter and plastics and, like Balearic shearwaters bycatch in fisheries is also a significant threat, with large numbers recorded as caught in longline fisheries in the North East Atlantic and in trawl fisheries.

The decline of kittiwakes in the West Country has been particularly acute, with losses at most breeding colonies. In Europe by 2020 it is expected this dainty member of the gull family is will have declined by up to 49% since the early 1980s. Kittiwakes are particularly threatened by the depletion of food resources, marine oil spills and chronic oil pollution.

Tony Whitehead, speaking for the RSPB in the South West said; “The state of seabirds in Europe is particularly worrying and it’s clear we need to work much harder to provide a well managed and properly protected marine environment as well as providing protection for coastal breeding colonies.”

In the West Country over the past decade conservationists have done much successful work to ensure seabird nesting sites are protected from predators.

Tony added; “We’re very pleased at the response to our partnership seabird projects on Lundy and the Isles of Scilly where nesting seabirds are responding very positively to the removal of rats. On Lundy we have seen significant increases of populations of Manx shearwaters and puffins and we fully expect the same on the Isles of Scilly. We do however remain concerned about the state of the wider marine environment.”

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