The Scottish Government has recently put forward 10 marine sites to be officially designated as protected areas for the seabirds that use them. A public consultation is open now, to get your views about whether they need to be protected. We will be responding and asking that they are all designated as soon as possible and you can support our call to action here. Read our blog to find out why we think this is the right move.
Scotland’s Seas are full of seabirds. Every spring some five million seabirds arrive at our coastlines, cliffs and islands to breed. 487,010 gannets make their way from a winter spent down the coast of Africa and the Mediterranean, a million puffins cross the Atlantic, and 250,000 Manx shearwaters return from Brazil’s tropical waters.
Places like St Kilda, the Fair Isle, Bass Rock and the cliffs of St Abbs fill up with a suite of stunning seabirds, each filling a unique niche on the noisy, stinking colonies. Whilst guillemots turn the cliffs Dalmatian as they queue up on precocious ledges, puffins favour some safety underground and form huge warrens, while gannets settle on anything they can find and defend it fiercely.
Amongst this vast seabird invasion we also see the arrival of seaducks and divers. Huge rafts of eiders form in the Firth of Forth for courtship and mating, looning divers set up nest on sealochs and fish through the long dusky evenings in places like Hascosay Sound. Even through the winter some of these birds still fill up our coasts; Coll and Tiree are an important refuge for eiders sheltering through the colder months and our coastlines also welcome stunning long-tailed ducks and velvet scoters from their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra.
These birds characterise Scotland’s seas, they play a central role in our marine environment, and our seas are internationally important for them. A third of the seabirds breeding in Europe do so right here. The Bass Rock is the world’s largest gannet colony and Rum is the world’s largest Manx shearwater colony.
Sixty percent of the world’s great skua (called Bonxies in Shetland) breed here on our islands. We have a responsibility to protect them, not only because we have such a huge proportion of the world’s seabirds, but also because these birds are not uniquely ours, they come from all around to breed and raise chicks – an Arctic tern breeding on Rousay in Orkney will finish breeding, fly south to South Africa, pass the Cape of Good Hope and head out into the Southern Ocean. These are the world’s birds, but they are our bairns.
Unfortunately many of our seabird species are declining, and have been for the past few decades. Since about 2000, we have seen a sharp decline in the numbers of seabirds breeding along our coasts. Kittiwakes are often used as the prime example, principally because they are the easiest to count and have fared badly, but similar trends can be seen in guillemots, the terns, razorbills and puffins.
The number of kittiwakes breeding in Scotland has fallen by 61% since 2000. In places like Orkney this has been particularly bad with populations breeding at Marwick Head falling by 90% – 5,000 breeding pairs dropping to 500. The reasons for these declines are complex but appear to be related to the warming oceans which is affecting the plankton communities, this in turn affects the fish communities and results in kittiwake parents not being able to feed their chicks. Kittiwakes are particularly vulnerable to this problem because they cannot dive or swim so rely on there being lots of surface shoaling fish, like sandeels.
Clearly work to mitigate further warming is needed, and RSPB Scotland is investing a great deal into making progress with green energy and transport to combat climate change. However, in the short term, and in the local waters most important for these birds, something else is needed. Luckily not all species are so fussy, others are more versatile and better able to travel long distances. Species like the gannet for example have therefore been able to find other food and continue to breed successfully in Scotland. However, that is not to suggest that they are always safe at sea.
RSPB Scotland has been working to make our seas safe and productive for seabirds for some time now. Over the past few years we have been working with the Scottish Government and its advisors to identify and protect the most important parts of our seas. Back in 2014, the Scottish Government made progress in designating a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to improve the health of our seas, but largely excluded seabirds from the process, overlooking species like eiders, puffins and shags.
In response we put forward seven sites which we knew were some of the most important places for seabirds in Europe and pushed the government to formally recognise the need for their protection. Earlier this year Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) brought forward evidence for 15 areas. Unfortunately two of our proposals dropped out, but a further 10 were added. Amongst them were the seas around St Kilda, holding several thousand fulmars, puffins and gannets, and the Firth of Forth, holding more than 20,000 eiders and 25,000 wintering guillemots.
Finally, earlier this month, the Scottish Government took a welcome leap forward and proposed 10 of those sites for official designation. A public consultation is now open to get your views about whether they need to be protected. This is a really welcome move, and it shows significant leadership from the Scottish Government in taking responsibility for this amazing part of our natural history seriously. The species included in the 10 sites are nearly all the seaducks, the divers and the grebes. So now it’s over to you. SNH are running this public consultation to find out what you think about these sites. We will be responding and asking that they are all designated promptly. You can support our call to action here.
Unfortunately the other five sites, out of the original 15, have all been postponed. The birds that would be protected at these remaining locations include puffins, guillemots, razorbills and gannets. Given these true seabirds are the species most in trouble we are concerned about them being overlooked. Chicks fledging the colonies this year will be heading out into the unprotected seas. That’s why, as part of the consultation, we’ll also be asking that these remaining five sites join the other ten in being considered for official designation soon.