Scotland's marine birds need our help

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Scotland's marine birds need our help

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Peadar O'Connell, RSPB Scotland's marine policy officer, brings us this latest blog on seabirds and the problems they're facing in the UK. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has recently held a consultation on ten new Special Protection Areas (SPAs), which protect the locations our marine birds use. Many of you responded to this and for that we say a huge thank you! A new consultation has recently opened on a further five sites and, if you can spare the time, we'd like to ask for you to support these too. Read on to find out how.

Marine birds are pretty incredible. Some nest on inaccessible cliffs, blasted by storm force winds, driving rain and pounding waves... and that’s just in the summer! 

Many travel long distances to find food for their chicks, like puffins which may travel over 100km on a foraging trip, kittiwakes can cover over 900km, while an amazing 2,700km return journey was recorded by a single gannet with a tracker attached in 2016. That’s a very long way to go for your dinner. 

But marine birds aren’t just experts in the air; some can dive to incredible depths as well. The common guillemot for example can dive to depths of over 200m to catch fish. This is even more impressive when you consider recreational divers rarely go any deeper than 30m on a ‘deep dive’. 

You might also spare a thought for the huge numbers of seabirds that spend their winters out in the Atlantic Ocean, where if you thought it was getting cold and wet where you are at the moment, well...

This is all part of day-to-day survival for these birds. They are extremely tough and resilient when you consider they range in weight between about 27g – 3kg from the smallest (storm petrels) to the largest (gannets). For context there is 35g of sugar in a 330ml can of a popular soft drink! So why, despite thriving in harsh environments have seabird populations declined by nearly half in the last 30 years?

There are many reasons for this and they will be familiar to regular readers. Threats such as invasive species, disturbance on breeding and wintering grounds and developments like renewable energy in inappropriate places can all play a part. There is also of course the enormous overarching threat posed by climate change and its impacts on marine ecosystems, where these seabirds feed. 

We shouldn't lose hope though and there are actions we can take to halt and even reverse these declines. This is important because Scotland holds significant proportions of the global populations of species such as the northern gannet, Manx shearwater and great skua, as well as EU populations of the storm petrel and kittiwake.

One of these actions is designating marine Special Protection Areas (SPAs), which protect marine birds and their habitats. At the beginning of 2015 the only marine SPAs for seabirds consisted of a few extensions to cliff and coastal breeding sites. 

What about the areas important to our wintering marine birds such as the long-tailed duck, great northern diver and common guillemot? Or important feeding areas for kittiwake, puffins, skuas and terns? 

An important aspect in protecting these birds is ensuring areas are designated for all important stages in their life, in particular breeding, wintering and foraging areas. This was a huge gap in marine bird conservation in Scotland.

The good news is that the gap has started to close. In July, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) published a list of ten proposed marine SPAs in Scottish waters. A huge thank you to everyone who responded in support of these, your voice will help show the Scottish Government that there is real public support for protecting Scotland’s seabirds. 

The great news is that a consultation on a further five sites opened in October, and there is now an opportunity to show your support for these sites too. The five areas currently open to consultation are the Seas off St. Kilda pSPA, the Seas off Foula pSPA, the Pentland Firth pSPA, the Outer Firth of Forth St. Andrews Bay Complex pSPA and the Solway Firth pSPA.

Please do have a look at the SNH consultation pages (here), and if you support the designation of these SPAs for our marine birds please tick YES on those pages. 

Getting these sites designated is currently the priority, but ensuring they are properly managed, protected and monitored will be the next significant challenge. 

Marine birds are extremely tough, but they are also very vulnerable to many of the changes we have instigated in the marine environment, therefore they need our help to ensure a safe environment to thrive. So, as the days grow cold, the wind picks up and the rain pelts down, help seabirds weather the storms ahead.

To read our previous blogs on Special Protection Areas click here and here

  • Signed. I just wish that the Scottish government would get on with it. There may be a consultation but the science is unequivocal.