Step up for Scotland's declining seabirds

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Scottish Nature Notes

Keep up to date with the latest wildlife and nature news in Scotland. Regular blogs from RSPB Scotland's conservation teams across the country. Writing about Scotland's amazing wildlife & natural environment.

Step up for Scotland's declining seabirds

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A trip to one of Scotland’s many seabird colonies is an unforgettable experience. Whether viewing from a clifftop vantage point or out on a little boat bobbing alongside an island teeming with squawking, swooping seabirds, you can’t help but be impressed by the variety and sheer number of birds.

However, over the last 20 years, this remarkable wildlife spectacle has been diminishing. A visit can still inspire that sense of awe but when you start reading the statistics, a deeply troubling picture emerges.  Some of our most amazing seabird species are in rapid decline, particularly in the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland.

Let’s start with Arctic terns- these birds are the jetsetters of the seabird world, undertaking mammoth migrations each season from their Antarctic wintering grounds, sometimes flying 70,000km in a lifetime. 2012 counts of Scotland’s “seabird cities” conducted by RSPB Scotland reveal a poor breeding season for these birds.  Arctic terns experienced low productivity (low number of chicks raised successfully to fledging), even where numbers of adults at colonies were stable.


An Arctic tern taking a well-earned break. These birds complete the longest migration of any animal on Earth!

And it’s not just Arctic terns, kittiwakes were in the news this summer as their populations continue to plummet at our seabird colonies, particularly on the Orkney mainland where counts by RSPB Scotland and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee showed numbers have fallen from 10,932 adult birds on nests in 2000, to just 1,965 this year- that’s a crash of 82%.

Fulmars, graceful birds with an unpleasant defence mechanism that involves projectile vomiting oil, are also struggling- with populations from Shetland to Dunnet Head in Caithness, to Tiree in the Western Isles experiencing declining numbers and low productivity. At Dunnet Head alone, there were only 181 adult fulmars on nests, down from 205 in 2011.


Wouldn’t want to get in the middle of this argument- Fulmars are known to projectile vomit in defence!

Arctic skua have been hit hard as well. Scotland is home to the UK’s entire breeding population of these remarkable birds. At RSPB’s North Hill reserve on Orkney, a mere 22 pairs were counted down from just 44 in 2010.  This is really a species on the edge in Scotland.


Arctic skua are becoming an increasingly rare sight in Scotland.

Guillemot numbers have increased at several colonies including at Marwick Head on Orkney, Dunnet Head on the mainland and at our Mull of Galloway reserve.  However, this is against a backdrop of historic declines and numbers remain well below previous records, particularly at Marwick Head. Unfortunately, the overall guillemot population remains in decline, for instance, Fowlsheugh reserve in northeast Scotland reported a total of 44,920 guillemots this season- significantly less than the 50,556 recorded at the last whole colony count conducted in 2009.

So, what’s happening you ask? Evidence suggests that seabird declines are being driven by climate change, particularly the impact of warming seas on the marine food chain. This results in birds having less to eat and therefore producing fewer chicks.

That’s why we are fighting to ensure seabirds are given adequate protection on land and at sea. To date these fascinating species have been largely marginalised in the process of designating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and we are left disappointed that ‘hotspots’ out at sea where seabirds congregate to feed will remain unprotected.

We need your help to give seabirds a fighting chance. Please take action by emailing Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, and telling him that you support Marine Protected Areas for seabirds now.

*All figures taken from RSPB Scotland Reserve Annual Reports and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee website.



  • Interesting if sad overview of population numbers, thanks.

    To make full use of the power of the blog it would be nice if statements like "Evidence suggests that seabird declines are being driven by climate change, particularly the impact of warming seas on the marine food chain" was accompanied by a reference to the evidence you're referring to, or just a link if available.

    Many Thanks, Phil

  • We also need to make sure we do everything we can to halt climate change. Asking the Scottish Government to put in place a credible suite of policies to cut our emissions is important. We must aim to meet the annual GHG reduction targets in Scotland and never again miss one as we did in 2010.