19th July 2018
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Seabirds are still struggling to breed

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By MIRIAM BRETT

SEABIRDS such as guillemots and kittiwakes are struggling to breed again this year at places like Sumburgh Head, according to the RSPB.

The conservation charity said early reports of the breeding performance of these important species indicated that they were having another poor year at its nature reserves around the Scottish coast.

Guillemots and razorbills are experiencing a shortage of fish, mainly sandeels, while kittiwakes have begun nesting but have failed to incubate their eggs. This has resulted in a massive decrease in the number of seabirds breeding in and around Sumburgh head. Nests have been left completely abandoned and cliffs that usually teem with nesting birds are now found to be empty.

RSPB statistics show that in the mid 1980s there were around 10,000 Kittiwakes nesting on Orkney cliffs. Today there are fewer than 2,000. This trend is repeated throughout reserves across the country and is a cause for serious concern as Scotland hosts 45 per cent of the nesting seabirds in the EU.

Doug Gilbert, an RSPB Scotland ecologist, stated that “poor breeding performance of our internationally important seabird colonies is now, regrettably, an annual theme”.

The RSPB is urging the Scottish Government to make the environment “the heart” of new legislation to try and overcome the problem of the ever decreasing population of seabirds along Scottish coasts.

Asked what effect the proposed new Marine Bill would have on the problem Martin Heubeck, an ornithologist at Aberdeen University, said: “It’s very hard to say. It is not apparent how it will help the breeding colonies at the moment.”

He added that we needed to try and deter people from going near the nature reserves to keep disturbance to a minimum.

Mr Heubeck stated that in the extreme long term, the birds may adapt to feeding with different kinds of fish. Because of this, we would see weaker chicks as they are not receiving as many nutrients as they would previously have done.

However, there has been some success. Arctic terns are currently thriving on the Aberdeenshire coast and are finding plenty of food, giving them time to attend their nests. Mr Heubeck said this was due to different feeding grounds being available in various places. It was also down to the type of fish and how the birds feed. For example, guillemots can only catch one fish at a time whereas puffins can catch several. This makes the feeding process quicker and more efficient. Mr Heubeck added that “to help the problem, better sea management needs to be put into place”.

Mr Heubeck said he believed that the main reason for the severe lack of fish was climate change.

Traditionally, most seabird species in Shetland fed on sandeels which rich in oil and come in vast shoals.
However in recent years sandeels have become scarce. In some places small herring can be found with nearly the equivalent nutritional value of the sandeel, although not in Shetland waters.

This means birds here have to feed at a much higher rate than usual as to make up for the missing energy content.

The Shetland Sandeel Agreement began in the 1980s. It states that no overfishing of sandeels is to take place, and no fishing at all during the breeding season.

Mr Heubeck also pointed out that if the parent birds cannot eat properly, they will not be in good enough condition to produce eggs. He continued by saying that, during the breeding season, the seabirds use up their body reserves by working extremely hard. Because birds are not feeding as they should be, we have seen an increase in the range of species that are not breeding.

Mark Avery, the RSPB’s conservation director, said: “These changes are almost certainly being driven by changes in the sea environment that we still know little about. Seabirds are indicators of the health of the marine environment and, like the canary in the coalmine, the decline in their fortunes is a wake-up call that we must heed.”