Safeguard our sea life

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Safeguard our sea life

Find out what we're doing around the UK's coasts to help protect our wonderful sea life
  • A tale of two seabirds: kittiwakes and herring gulls in Scarborough

    Gulls have long been associated with coastal towns, particularly herring gulls, however, this proximity to people can lead to conflict exacerbated by misconceptions and ineffective management measures. The RSPB’s Helen Quayle reports on gulls nesting in Scarborough, responds to concern over netted birds and calls for positive action.

    Within Scarborough there are two types of gull; kittiwakes and herring gulls. They might look similar but these birds behave very differently and have a different legal status.

    There are a few key differences between kittiwakes (left) and herring gulls (right) including size, herring gulls being a much larger bird (Mike Langham, RSPB Images). Herring gulls are present all year round whereas smaller kittiwakes are only present on our shores from March to August. Herring gulls have pink legs and a red spot on their beak. Kittiwakes have black legs and a purely yellow beak. Herring gull wing tips have black with white `mirrors’ whereas kittiwake wing tips are solid black as though dipped in ink.

    Kittiwakes are a truly oceanic bird returning to land only to nest and rear their chicks from March to August. These birds feed only at sea, making many long-distance trips fetching food for their young. Kittiwakes nest on the ledges of buildings and bridges – just like they would nest, somewhat perilously, on cliff edges.

    Kittiwakes nesting on a building ledge (Ben Andrew, RSPB Images) and a cliff edge (Andy Hay, RSPB Images).

    Herring gulls are larger birds and can be present in our towns all year round. These birds will feed on human food (provided intentionally or otherwise) and, as good parents, exhibit defensive behaviour towards perceived threats – in the urban environment the perceived threat can simply be people going about their business. This behaviour is very different to that of kittiwakes which do not interact with people. Herring gulls prefer to nest on flat and sloping roofs.

    Kittiwakes and herring gulls are both protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). Kittiwakes (and their nests, eggs and chicks) are fully protected. Herring gulls are one of a few species included in a General Licence that permits authorised persons to remove/destroy their nests and eggs where necessary to preserve public health and safety.

    The area around nesting kittiwakes can be noisy and messy during their stay on land, leading some property owners to install deterrents, usually in the form of spikes or netting. This installation is legal outside the breeding season (September to February) and is intended to create a barrier between the birds and the nesting ledge. However, kittiwakes can build their nests up around and on top of spikes and, unfortunately, if netting is not put up correctly or cared for, it can become a danger to wildlife. Kittiwakes nesting near unfit netting may become entangled and unable to free themselves, often resulting in injury and/or death. It is vital that those responsible for the netting ensure that it is fit for purpose and take prompt action to release kittiwakes should they become trapped. Failure of those responsible to take action when a net is known to trap kittiwakes, could have very serious animal welfare and legal implications.

    Sadly, kittiwakes became trapped in netting during summer 2017 at the Grand Hotel in Scarborough and was reported by the RSPB to the RSPCA and the Police. It is upsetting that these kittiwakes died needlessly, and it’s concerning that no apparent action has been taken by the Grand to release trapped birds promptly and prevent further kittiwakes from becoming entangled. The RSPB has urged the Grand to ensure that the netting does not pose a hazard to kittiwakes returning this spring and that there is a thorough and effective maintenance plan put in place. If this is not possible, the RSPB has advised that the nets be removed.

    It is important to note that netting and other deterrents are extremely unlikely to result in gulls relocating to nearby cliffs. It is much more likely, and has been demonstrated, that kittiwakes will simply nest on adjacent buildings if their previous structure becomes unavailable. Therefore, whilst the installation of deterrents may appear to reduce conflict, it shifts the birds into different parts of town.

    In 2017, Scarborough Council trialled a programme of disruption and dispersal to reduce conflict with herring gulls. This work is planned to continue in 2018 extending into Filey and involves the repeated destruction of herring gull nests and eggs. It is extremely important to be aware that such work can only target herring gulls, not kittiwakes, and must be done in accordance with the conditions of the relevant General Licence. A General Licence can only be used to preserve public health and safety when all other measures have proven to be unpractical or ineffective. It is not permitted to undertake lethal control (removal of nests and eggs) of herring gulls for nuisance or damage to property under a General Licence. Additionally, the General Licence does not permit lethal control (removal or destruction) of herring gull chicks or adults. More information about General Licence can be found on the Natural England website. Anyone taking action under a General Licence is obliged to be able to demonstrate, if necessary, that their actions are legal.

    The RSPB recognises the concerns of local people, businesses and visitors in relation to urban gulls and has been calling for long-term solutions that do not damage populations of these red listed species. The severity of the situation, both in terms of the problems faced by people and the implications for kittiwakes and herring gulls, warrants a considered, effective and evidenced based solution that is sustainable in the long-term. The RSPB will keep working with others, including the Council, with the hope of making this aspiration a reality.

    For more information please contact:

    Helen Quayle

    Marine Conservation Officer


  • Blue Planet II and the Albatross task force

    Blue Planet 2 has been the most watched television programme of the year, and for good reason, with its stunning cinematography and charismatic cast of characters. Steph Winnard, International Marine Project Manager for the RSPB, discusses the highlights of the show for her, and why the stories of the human impact are the scenes she won’t be forgetting.

    Over the last few weeks Blue Planet 2 has led us on an incredible journey of discovery of new weird and wonderful creatures from the deep oceans, shown us unknown behaviours like the octopus fooling the shark with its ingenious disguise of shells, and has provided us with new nightmare material in the form of the Bobbit worm! 

    For me and for many other people watching the show the thing that sticks most with me is the story telling around the huge impact we as humans are having on our oceans. I will readily admit to being reduced to tears more than once seeing the pilot whale mother clinging to her dead calf, which had possibly been poisoned by her toxic milk, and last night watching the sperm whale trying to eat a bucket, and the majestic wandering albatross chick killed by a plastic toothpick.

    Albatrosses are one of the most endangered groups of birds in the world, with 14 of the 22 species facing extinction, so losing even a few because of plastic pollution, is really bad news. South Georgia is over 800 miles from the nearest land but still plastic is being found there, and for the albatross of the Pacific Ocean, many live chicks are brought up in nests made of plastics and are fed huge amounts of plastic, mistaken for food by their parents, with sometimes devastating consequences.

    Wandering albatross with chick on South Georgia (c) Stephanie Winnard

    On South Georgia the population of wandering albatross has halved over the last 35 years, and the main cause of this has been interactions with fishing, birds flock to the boats in search of a free meal, but sadly it can be their last. It is estimated that around 100,000 albatrosses are killed every year by longline and trawl fisheries around the world, when they are hooked and drowned, or struck by trawler cables and dragged under the water. This level of “bycatch” is hugely unsustainable for birds that can take up to 10 years to start breeding, and has led to worrying declines in albatross populations across the globe.  

    The RSPB has been working to save the albatross since 2005 when it set up the Albatross Task Force (ATF), an international collaboration of dedicated instructors working directly with fishermen in South America and Southern Africa teaching them simple ways they can avoid accidentally killing albatross.  Measures such as fishing at night when birds are less active, weighting lines so they sink faster and using bird scaring lines to keep birds out of danger areas are all extremely effective.

    The ATF have focused efforts on the ten worst hotspots for albatross bycatch, and have had some huge successes; reducing albatross bycatch by 99% in the South African demersal trawl fleet, getting regulations introduced to protect seabirds in 9/10 of the hotspot fisheries, and developing entirely new ways of stopping birds being killed in nets.  You can find out more detail about our work in our annual report.

    Bird scaring line with giant petrels in Argentina (c) Ruben Dellacasa

    Despite this success, there is still much work to do to ensure that reductions in bycatch are sustainable into the future, and the ATF are still working closely with the fishing industry in many countries to ensure that albatrosses are kept off the hook.

    You can join the fight to save the albatross by helping us raise funds by sending in your Christmas stamps. Each stamp has a very small value but we can sell them to collectors in bulk to raise funds for our vital work. Last year we raised over £20,000 from stamps allowing us to give the albatross a brighter future. To find out how to send your stamps in click here.

    RSPB has been working in collaboration with the Government of South Georgia and the South Shetland Islands to conserve albatross, and a new first day cover set of albatross stamps has been produced to raise funds. There are available to buy this week from the RSPB’s ebay store here.

  • Blue Planet II and protecting our green seas

    Jonathan Hall, RSPB Head of UK Overseas Territories Unit, talks cheeky penguins, kelp forests and marine reserves in our latest sealife blog.

    The ‘green seas’ featured in the latest spell-binding episode of Blue Planet II were dazzling. And the fact that many of these habitats, from shimmering sea-grass beds to epic underwater forests of kelp, are actually found in British waters is amazing.

    This isn’t necessarily around the UK, but rather in the vast waters of our Overseas Territories, which collectively make up the fifth largest marine zone on the planet. And it is in these waters that the RSPB is working to hard protect some of the species and habitats shown, including green turtles and sea-lion filled kelp forests.

    Our Overseas Territories marine programme has long been focussed on Ascension Island, home to the second largest green turtle nesting population in the Atlantic. Standing on one of the island’s beaches at night you can be surrounded by hundreds of large female turtles huffing and puffing as they dig holes to lay their eggs in. This provided an easy bonanza for sailors wanting fresh meat in the nineteenth century, but today the species is protected on land and its numbers are booming.

    Ascension and the UK Government have now gone further and also pledged to protect at least 50% of Ascension’s rich waters in an ocean sanctuary the size of the UK by 2019. This is a visionary pledge and one we have been working to help make a reality through science and illegal fishing monitoring support.

    Green turtle nesting on Ascension Island (c) Sam Weber

    We are also focussing on supporting the remarkable community of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic to help protect their kelp forests and surrounding waters.  This, the world’s most remote inhabited island, is home to a remarkable ocean ecosystem, with vast kelp stretching like the pillars of a cathedral up from the sea floor to the surface. In this magnificent silent jungle one finds huge shoals of fish, cheeky Northern rockhopper penguins and the most important Subantarctic fur seal population on the planet.

    These kelp forests are the basis for an entire community of species, but perhaps most significantly are also the habitat for the unique Tristan rock lobster upon which the 270 Tristanians so heavily depends for their livelihoods. Their sustainable fishery is already Marine Stewardship Council certified, and we are working to help them further understand their lobster populations via a UK Government-funded Darwin Plus project so that they can manage them as well as possible. We are also studying the endangered penguins which call these forests home in order to help understand the potential reasons for their decline.

    Over 80% of the world population of Subantarctic fur seals breeds in the Tristan da Cunha group, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic that is working towards a large-scale marine protection regime (c) Scott Hamilton

    Most impressively, the Tristan da Cunha community has made its own visionary pledge to place its entire 750,000km2 marine zone into a marine protection regime by 2020. This will safeguard these inshore green seas for future generations of Tristanians, as well as protecting a vast area of ocean for sharks, albatrosses, seals, whales and dolphins. In order to help the community better understand their waters and inform their marine protection, we partnered with National Geographic Pristine Seas earlier in the year to conduct a joint expedition to the island, returning with new discoveries such as the fact that Tristan’s waters are a previously unknown blue shark breeding area.

    The beautiful kelp forests of Tristan da Cunha being explored on the National Geographic Pristine Seas – RSPB marine expedition earlier this year (c) Roger Horrocks

    So how can you help protect our incredible overseas green seas? Well the RSPB is part of a coalition called ‘Great British Oceans’, which this week has launched a campaign calling on the UK Government to take this unique opportunity to protect our blue planet, including by supporting the visionary marine protection pledges of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.

    These will both need continued UK Government political and financial support, but will protect some vast and amazing areas of ocean at very little cost. We are asking MPs to show their support for these marine protections by signing up to a Blue Belt Charter. Could you please take a minute to visit and show your support for our overseas green seas?