RSPB Conservation Officer, Sarah Sankey,  tells us about the challenges facing Orkney's seabird cities...

The Orcadian seabird story

Orkney was, until recently, famed for its seabird spectacles. Today, as I ascend the cliffs of Marwick Head reserve, instead of a growing sense of awe and excitement, I walk with a heavy heart and a deep sense of foreboding. I remember that just ten short years ago, as I left the car and rounded the corner towards the cliff, the air would be pungent with guano and the sound of thousands of seabirds like an orchestra would fill my ears. It would take a further 10 minutes of walking to actually catch sight of the seabirds but their presence could be felt at quite a distance!

Today, the orchestra has dwindled to something more like a quartet. Over the last ten years the seabird cities of tens of thousands of birds have become mere villages. Makes me wonder if the loss of seabirds from the islands of Orkney will be a legacy of the 21st century.

Marwick Head reserve was once the mightiest seabird city of the Orkney mainland. However, ten years of poor breeding success has seen kittiwake nests disappear from some of the cliffs. Guillemot numbers have also been hit hard and nearly halved since 2000. The end result of such massive loss of birds, is that when gazing across our characteristic cliff faces, the first thing that strikes you is not the birds present but the large areas of ledges exposed, areas of white guano-stained rock all too clearly displaying the ghosts of recent past.

Once the telescope is set up, the picture becomes even sadder. As well as the empty sections, I can now see abandoned, not even properly made, nests of kittiwakes- many with no young. The following pictures show how dramatic these changes have been. The kittiwake colony was taken first in 1997 and then again this season, at the same site. This year, only 2 pairs attempted to breed here and these nests have failed already. The unthinkable is happening – our kittiwake colonies are going extinct. We have lost 7 colonies across the island, and another 2 that are rapidly heading in that direction.




Now is the time to shout out for the depressing state of Orcadian seabird populations and to look closely at how we can best stop these losses. Here at Marwick, based on current trends, kittiwakes could disappear in as little as two years. In 2004, 2007 and 2008, monitoring revealed that not a single kittiwake chick fledged from Orkney breeding plots. In time, recruitment to historical colonies is reduced until, as in the case of these colonies, there are no birds returning to breed.

These pictures of guillemots at Marwick also show clearly how dramatic the changes have been in the past ten years. In recent times, this part of the colony has not fledged a single chick for several years in succession and this year looks to be another devastatingly poor one. Sadly, it comes as no surprise that we are finally seeing a large reduction in numbers of guillemots returning.



We brace ourselves for bad news again this year, as breeding productivity is on track to be extremely low. Why is this happening? There are fundamental changes occurring in our seas around Orkney that are hitting our seabirds. They are sensitive to a marine food web which produces the sandeels that are so crucial to their breeding success. Sandeels are an incredibly nutritious meal for chicks and are the key food item during the breeding season and they are simply no longer here in any numbers. Birds are forced to make huge trips out of local waters, far down the coasts of mainland Scotland or across the waters to Scandinavia to find food. Unsurprisingly this is leaving the adults in poor condition and the chicks behind,exposed on the ledges.

As I pack up my gear and descend the cliffs again, there is one certainty in my mind, it is time to speak up about this tragic situation before our cliffs empty completely. I fear the day when I climb these cliffs and find nothing but flowers and rock but that day is drawing nearer. We must help our seabirds at sea and protect the delicate ecosystem that they are so intrinsically linked to.

The Scottish Government has launched a consultation on Marine Protected Areas but has only proposed sites that protect black guillemot – ignoring the rest of Scotland’s seabirds that are struggling to cope. Please take part in our online action telling the Government you want MPAs to protect the rest of Scotland’s seabirds – click here.