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
  • Spare a thought for our urban kittiwakes

    Every year thousands of seabirds return to our shores to breed on cliffs and beaches but some of them travel further inland to our towns and cities where ledges on buildings and bridges provide suitable places to nest. Kittiwakes started nesting along the Tyne in 1949 and have been here ever since. The RSPB’s Helen Quayle, Tyne Kittiwake Partnership Chair, tells us more about these unique inland seabird colonies.

    The Tyne kittiwakes create a wildlife spectacle in the heart of the Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside – the most inland nesting location for the species in the world. These unique kittiwakes have captured the hearts of many and become a tourist attraction in their own right. Usually kittiwakes nest at more remote cliff locations but here they can be easily viewed by local people and visitors.

    Kittiwake in Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside (c) Ian Cook

    However, kittiwakes can be noisy and messy which can bring them in to conflict with neighbouring businesses.

    It is worth noting that kittiwakes winter at sea and are only here from late February to August; their return marking the start of spring. Whilst nesting on the Tyne, kittiwakes can make 100 mile round trips out to sea in search of food and do not interact with people.

    In response to concerns regarding noise and mess, deterrents are often used by property owners to prevent kittiwakes from nesting. Over the years, the use of deterrents, renovations and demolition activity has resulted in the kittiwake population shifting as nest sites have been lost. In 1998 a “Kittiwake Tower” was built by Gateshead Council to provide a home for birds displaced by the redevelopment of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Located a short distance downstream of the Baltic, the tower is now designated as a nature reserve.

    The Tyne Kittiwake Partnership (TKP) formed to safeguard the Tyne kittiwakes, ensuring their future as a unique feature of the Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside cityscape. The TKP collaborates to raise awareness, improve our understanding of kittiwakes in an urban environment and respond when nest sites are threatened.

    The TKP includes the RSPB, Natural History Society of Northumbria, Durham Wildlife Trust, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, neighbouring Councils, Natural England, Newcastle University and independent ornithologists – including one who has been monitoring the Tyne kittiwakes for 25 years.

    Every year the TKP responds to planning applications, provides advice on the safe use of deterrents and responds to concerns regarding netting including incidences of trapped birds. Adult kittiwakes, their active nests, eggs and chicks are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).

    Once kittiwakes have started building new nests, or adding to old nests, these nests are legally protected and must not be removed or interfered with. Any action to prevent kittiwakes nesting on ledges must be taken outside the breeding season from September to February. Action taken during the breeding season could constitute a criminal act.

    Deterrents may also be used to protect listed buildings of architectural or historic interest such as the Guildhall in Newcastle. It is worth noting that whilst exemptions can be made under General Licence to manage some gull species, this is only in specific circumstances and does not apply to kittiwakes.

    Deterrents include netting and spikes which are intended to create a barrier between kittiwakes 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 properly maintained, 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.

    Kittiwake with chick (c) Dan Turner

    If you see a live kittiwake trapped in netting please alert the property owner and the RSPCA immediately. Please also report the incident to the TKP (see links below) as it allows us to follow up with property owners to raise awareness and ensure that action is taken to make the net safe. Similarly, we are also able to take action if alerted to deterrents that have been installed during the breeding season.

    Globally, kittiwakes are thought to have declined by around 40% since the 1970s, and were added to the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List in 2015. This was followed by the species being uplisted from Least Concern to Vulnerable in 2017. In the UK, kittiwake numbers have plummeted, particularly in Orkney and Shetland where breeding birds have declined by 87% since 2000, and on St Kilda in the Western Isles where as much as 96% of the breeding population has been lost.

    Climate change and fishing that sets aside too little for the birds are likely causes of serious declines in kittiwake numbers. Over 2,500 kittiwakes were recorded nesting on the Tyne in 2017; we need to safeguard these unique river- nesting colonies as part of the wider conservation effort for kittiwakes.

    The TKP will continue to work with local businesses, developers and neighbouring Councils to safeguard existing nest sites and provide advice on alternatives when this is not possible. The overwhelming response of local people to safeguard the kittiwakes and their nest sites demonstrates the strong affection people have for these birds. We hope that by raising awareness with businesses we can ensure that kittiwakes continue to have a home along the Tyne.

    For more information

    Find out more about the Tyne Kittiwakes including the Partnership and 25 years of kittiwake monitoring here.

    Follow us and share your stories and photos on our Facebook page.

    See the Tyne kittiwakes via Durham Wildlife Trust and Baltic nest camera.

  • 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.