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Ready and waiting - sustainable plastic islands for terns

Last modified: 23 April 2012

RSPB Belfast Lough reserve

Image: Andy Hay

The colony of terns at RSPB’s Belfast’s Window on Wildlife is one of the most accessible in the UK and Ireland. These islands are excellently placed for great views and more importantly, perfect nesting sites for these birds who are literally the star terns in the summer months.

“Terns are one of the most widely travelled birds in the world,” said Chris Sturgeon, RSPB’s Belfast Lough Warden. “The common terns come all the way from west Africa, while the Arctic tern comes from the Weddell Sea in Antarctica to this part of the world to breed. The common terns have nested in Belfast Harbour Reserve for many years as the RSPB specially built islands for them. Now up to 190 pairs of common tern as well as 25 pairs of Arctic tern breed each year.

“The islands sit in water which is partially saline and they deteriorate each year which means they have to be repaired and maintained each season before the terns return. We have been planning to create a structure that will withstand the harsh environment, require minimal maintenance and last for a long time.”

Thankfully, with money from Biffa Award last year, the wildlife charity was able to employ the latest in green technology and use recycled plastic to construct tern islands which have a shelf life of up to fifty years.

“We were not only able to improve on the durability of the island, but on its design as well,” explained Chris. “The birds can be exposed to predators as the water in the lagoon is quite shallow. The new design means that foxes, rats and stoats will find it nearly impossible to breach the barricade, making it a much safer place for the birds to breed and raise their young.”

Gillian French, Programme Manager at Biffa Award, said, “The conservation that takes place at the RSPB’s Belfast’s Harbour Reserve is not only very important, but unique as well. It demonstrates that nature can co-exist with industry with some very slight adjustment. Despite the reserve adjoining a busy shipping port, and airport, it still manages to look after some of the most endangered birds in this part of the world. It is for this reason that Biffa Award supports the project.”

The terns will be returning in a few weeks time and May will be the peak of the breeding season.

“If you want front row seats to some of the best views of breeding terns in the UK without getting your feet wet, come along to our reserve,” said Chris.

For directions to the RSPB’s Belfast Window on Wildlife, go to or call 028 9049 1547 for directions.

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