The National Trust is changing its five-yearly puffin census on the Farne Islands to an annual count amid fears climate change is having an adverse effect on sources of food and puffin numbers.
After 50 years of carrying out the survey, the conservation charity has decided to monitor the threatened seabirds more closely due to a downward trend in global numbers and worries about the reduction in quality and abundance of its preferred food source, the sandeel, and more frequent storms.
Atlantic puffins have traditionally done well on the Farnes thanks to the work of the rangers, increasing protection of the marine areas around the islands, a lack of ground predators and the availability of suitable nesting areas.
The 2018 results revealed that puffin numbers are currently stable, increasing by around nine percent since 2013, from 39,962 to 43,956 pairs of birds.
But the international picture for Atlantic puffins, with huge drops in numbers in more northerly populations due to a shortage of their preferred food source, sandeels, is one of decline.
Tom Hendry, one of the 11-strong National Trust ranger team on the Farne Islands says: “Sandeel populations in the North Sea are being affected by two things; overfishing and climate change – with rising sea temperatures. These factors are driving the good quality plankton which sandeels feed on further north, resulting in a poorer quality of plankton in this area for sandeels to feed upon.
“The risk is that these pressures together with overfishing will eventually ‘squeeze’ the Farnes population, with more and more birds having to travel further for rich feeding grounds. This means they’re more vulnerable to the increasing frequency of winter storms, whilst out at sea.”
Dr Chris Redfern, Emeritus Professor in the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Newcastle University, said: “We don’t know enough yet about the sandeel population around the Farnes. It is therefore very prudent to monitor closely how seabird populations change from year to year to see if trends emerge. That way we have a chance of finding ways to mitigate against any negative effects.”
The team on the Farnes is calling for annual monitoring of the puffins at other sites around the UK to get an even better picture of puffin numbers and the factors which influence them.
Tom continued: “It’s vital that these beautiful ‘clowns of the sea’ are monitored closely as it has been suggested that in 30-50 years’ time, there may be no more puffins on the Farnes.
“Interestingly, what the numbers have been doing on the Farnes in recent years, ie bouncing back from the sudden crash in 2008, suggests that visitors might be helping to contribute towards a recovery in numbers. This is because the presence of visitors helps to discourage predators of the puffins, such as Black-headed Gulls.
“Visitor numbers are strictly monitored and limited to ensure we get the balance right and our visitors to Inner Farne are restricted to walkways, so as to not disturb the breeding birds.”
This year’s census results will be published in the ‘Coastal Wildlife’ report at the end of the year.