Stormy weather and a blooming spring: a review of the year so far

Matthew Oates, the National Trust’s National Specialist on Nature, looks back at the year’s weather so far and asks what’s in store for us this summer:

“This winter was one of the stormiest on record, with a succession of powerful storms hitting our shores from 23 December right through until 24 February. So much so, in fact, that in England and Wales it was the wettest winter since 1766.

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Puffins return early to Farne Islands

Puffins have started to return to their breeding grounds two weeks early thanks to the milder spring temperatures.

Puffins on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Rangers on the Farne Islands reported sightings of over 500 puffins on the island just yesterday. It is thought this could be one of the earliest sightings on record.

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Inside the National Trust – behind the scenes of Britain’s largest conservation charity

Starting Sunday 6 October, 12.25pm, ITV

This autumn, broadcast journalist Michael Buerk will rediscover some of Britain’s best loved landscapes, uncover hidden secrets and meet the people behind the scenes of the National Trust in a new 20 part series on ITV.

Europe’s largest conservation charity, welcomes over 20 million people every year to its 300 historic properties and an estimated 100 million to the coast and countryside in its care.  It has four million members and 70,000 volunteers.

Michael Buerk at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire

Michael Buerk at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire

The documentary series showcases six very diverse places, from the wildlife on the Farne Islands and the Lake District, to Georgian life at Wordsworth House and Garden, an insight into the Victorians at Cragside, life on a working estate at Wimpole and introduces the Strickland family who have lived at Sizergh in Cumbria for 700 years.

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Recovery of the Manx shearwater on Lundy. Have the Welsh invaded?

Lundy

Lundy

We are celebrating the recovery of the Manx shearwater on Lundy Island. Owned by the National Trust and leased to the Landmark Trust, Lundy has always been famous for its seabirds. Lundy, in Norse, means Puffin Island and there are puffins there today. But the real gem is the Manx shearwater.  Most of these birds (over 90 %) breed on islands off the British and Irish coasts. Until a decade ago it was doing badly, almost certainly because of predation by rats. With just a few hundred pairs left on the island and their eggs and chicks eaten by rats, there was real prospect of losing them completely, as happened on the island of Canna (Inner Hebrides).

Back in 2002, the Seabird Recovery Project partnership of National Trust, RSPB, English Nature (now Natural England) and Landmark Trust was formed to try to save Manx shearwaters on Lundy. Our priority, removing the brown rats (common) and black rats (ship). Globally both are widespread and abundant. In Britain and Ireland the black rat is only found on a few islands and dockland warehouses – it is really rare.  How could we remove one of Britain’s rarest mammals from one of its few refuges? Our priority – indeed our global responsibility – was to rescue the dwindling population of Manx shearwaters on Lundy.

By 2013, nearly a decade after rat removal, there are now thousands of shearwaters breeding on Lundy, and their burrows are in many more parts of the island than when the rats were present. The speed of recovery has been remarkable. Manx shearwaters spend the first five or six years of life at sea, in the south Atlantic. The contribution of these home-bred birds to the increase must have been small  – it must have involved birds from other colonies. I reckon that shearwaters from the massive colony on the islands off Pembrokeshire have always visited Lundy, and they may have tried to breed. But until the rats went they were always deterred or their eggs and chicks were eaten.

Manx Shearwater (Omarrun)

Manx Shearwater (Omarrun)

Removing rats from islands with shearwater colonies does not always result in a quick recovery of the shearwaters. It did on Ramsey off Pembrokeshire, but it has not happened on Canna where rats were also removed about a decade ago. This is curious. Canna is next door to the huge shearwater colony on the island of Rum. Does Rum have enough birds to export to, and recolonise, Canna? We have high hopes rats will be removed from the Calf of Man (where there really should be lots of Manx shearwaters), and also on Scilly, to allow the recovery of this amazing bird. My hunch is that if  and when the rats are removed from the Calf, the shearwater population will recover quickly. We already know that Welsh island birds spend the later part of the summer in the northern half of the Irish Sea, so are in the area for some of the year. But where would immigrant shearwaters to recolonise Scilly come from? Recovery there may take some time. In the meantime, on islands where rats have been removed you seem to get a recovery of ground-nesting and other birds and large insects such as big beetles, so rat eradication from seabird island – however unpleasant – is an ecological win win.

Stop press – Great to see that the puffins on the National Trust’s Farne Islands have recovered from their low count in 2008. A stonking 40,000 pairs!

Granite stacks on the west coast of Lundy.

Granite stacks on the west coast of Lundy.

  • Dr David Bullock- Head of Nature Conservation at the National Trust

Puffin numbers rally after 2008 crash

Results from a three-month survey of puffins on the world famous National Trust Farne Islands, off the Northumberland coast, have shown an eight per cent increase in the number of breeding puffin pairs since 2008 when the last census showed a dramatic fall in numbers.

A team of eleven National Trust rangers carried out a full census of the population, which happens once every five years, across eight islands with the final figures showing that there are just under 40,000 (39,962) pairs of nesting puffins.

2003 was the peak year for puffins on the Farne Islands with over 55,000 (55,674) nesting pairs recorded and numbers had been steadily increasing since the 1960s. However the 2008 survey revealed a dramatic crash in numbers by nearly one third to just 36,835 pairs.

 David Steel, Head Ranger on the National Trust Farne Islands, commented,

“The results of the puffin census come as a real relief following some difficult years for them – with the flooding of burrows last year and a very challenging winter.  We had feared that the numbers of puffins would be down again as has happened on other colonies, including those on the Shetland Islands.

 “The bad weather during recent seasons has had some impact on numbers, but with a good nesting habitat secured by us and a plentiful supply of food in the area, numbers have been recovering pretty strongly, which is great news for the puffins and other seabirds.”

 Extreme weather has had a major impact on puffins in the north-sea in the last couple of years.  The 2012 breeding season was hit hard with the second wettest summer on record flooding many burrows, where puffins live.

Earlier this year, just as puffins were returning to the colonies in March, storms resulted in the deaths of thousands of seabirds along the coasts of north-east England and Scotland. Over 3,500 bodies were collected and ringing recoveries suggested that many of the birds involved were breeding adults from local colonies.

 Professor Mike Harris from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology added,

“The wreck was unusual in that it occurred when puffins were returning to their colonies and were close to land.  It’s likely that a very high proportion of the total number of birds that died were found, therefore exaggerating the severity of the mortality.

 “The Isle of May puffin population, 100 km to the north of the Farnes, has also shown no sign of a decline in numbers following the winter puffin disaster. Puffin survival over the last winter was not exceptionally low, despite fears after the wreck.”

The unmistakeable puffin with its bright beak and slightly comical walk is a much loved symbol of the British coastline. During the survey, which began in May, the rangers put their arms into holes to make sure that the nests are occupied.

Puffin census_infographic

 David Steel concluded,

“The poor spring weather affected the timing of the breeding season, with the birds that did survive, breeding late”.

“However this late start may result in puffins remaining at the colonies until later in the summer than normal, giving people even more opportunity to enjoy watching them.”

 For the first time, nest cameras have been inserted into puffin burrows to record the birds’ behaviour in intimate detail. The footage, along with details on how the rangers are progressing with the 2013 puffin census, can be seen at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/puffins or follow progress on twitter at #puffincensus.

Puffin count begins on the Farne Islands

A Puffin census has begun at the north east’s most amazing wildlife habitat, the windswept Farne Islands, as National Trust rangers attempt to find how many breeding pairs of these iconic birds live on the Islands.

The iconic Puffin

The iconic Puffin

The census takes place every five years and records date back to 1939 when 3,000 breeding pairs were recorded.

Until 2008, each survey since the census began 65 years ago showed a steady increase in pairs of puffins on the Farne Islands, but the last count indicated numbers had fallen by a third.

The 2008 survey recorded 36,500 pairs of puffins across eight islands compared to 55,674 pairs living on the Islands in the 2003 census.

This spring and summer a team of eleven National Trust rangers will be travelling between eight of the Farne Islands to carry out the mammoth task of counting every single bird.

Puffins nest underground in burrows, which means the rangers will have to put their arms into the holes to make sure that the nests are occupied during the comprehensive count.

 David Steel, Head Ranger for the Farne Islands told us:

“We’ve been monitoring a small section of the Farnes every year since the last census in 2008 and have seen a small increase in numbers in this area. We’re hoping to see an increase overall numbers this year but you can’t tell after the winter we’ve just had.”

 Factors for why the Puffins continue to flourish on the Farne Islands include better protection, good sources of food, a lack of ground predators and the availability of suitable nesting areas. However rangers on the Farne Islands fear that the extreme cold weather this winter which has led to a higher than average mortality rate may effect numbers.

David Steel continued:

“This March was the coldest on record since 1962 and this could impact on breeding numbers. The extreme winds affected the puffin’s ability to feed as they made their way back to their summer breeding grounds. It will be interesting to see the results of the puffin census which we will have available to share in July.”

For the first time, nest cameras have been inserted into puffin burrows to record the birds’ behaviour in intimate detail. The footage, along with details on how the rangers are progressing with the 2013 puffin census, can be seen at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/puffins or follow progress on #puffincensus.

Latest on ship run aground at Farne Islands

An 80m long ship that ran aground on the Farne Islands on Saturday morning remains stranded but in a stable position, National Trust rangers who look after the wildlife haven said.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is handling the salvage operation, said there was no fuel leak from the MV Danio after it hit rocks on the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast at 4.30am on Saturday.

It is anticipated that an attempt will made to tow the boat in the next two weeks when weather conditions are the most appropriate.

The National Trust is working closely with the salvage team and is optimistic that the boat can be safely removed without any environmental damage. 

The Trust’s local management team will continue to monitor the situation closely and are in full co-operation with the relevant authorities.

David Steel, the National Trust’s head ranger for the Farnes, told the Press Association: “We got lucky.

“The birds are not back and there does not seem to be any damage to the ship, so we got away with it.

“The Farnes are internationally-important for nesting sea birds. We have 80,000 pairs of sea birds including 37,000 pairs of puffins.”

Follow David and the team on the Farne Islands blog or on Twitter @NTsteely.

Time for slugging it out

Last year was a difficult year for much of our wildlife, especially winged insects which struggle in wet summers.  It set 2012 up poorly.

This year, a dry winter and sunny March ushered in widespread hose pipe bans – the only effective rain dance yet devised by mankind.  Sure enough, we endured the wettest April to June period on record, and the first half of July has been equally dire.  A nine day hot spell in late May brought some respite.

The bird-nesting season has at best been poor, though individual birds live long enough to be able to miss the odd breeding season.  On the Farne Islands, many puffin burrows have been drowned, and nests of other sea birds have been swept off cliffs.  At Strangford Lough, in Northern Ireland, arctic, common and sandwich terns may fail to raise any young this year.  On swollen rivers, nests of moorhens and swans have been swept away, and kingfisher and sand martin holes flooded.

It hasn’t been much better for our garden birds, with parents abandoning nests due to bad weather or failing to find enough food for nestlings.  Bats and insect-feeding birds have been particularly badly affected, due to shortages of caterpillars and winged insects.

Butterflies, bees, hoverflies and other beautiful or beneficial insects have all been scarce.  Small isolated colonies of such weather-sensitive insects are likely to die out this year, and recolonisation may take one or two good summers.  Few insects are visiting the garden buddleia bushes at present.

There are always winners and losers though, and this summer the main winners seem to be slugs, and nettles, and surprising, some of the orchids.  It has been a particularly good summer for the exquisite bee orchid.  Plagues of midges and mosquitoes may appear if the weather warms up.

The great hope now, of course, is that the Olympics will generate lovely weather – when people are indoors glued to their TV sets.

By Matthew Oates, a naturalist for the National Trust

National Trust statement on low flying jets near The Farne Islands, Northumberland

A National Trust spokesperson said: “We were very concerned about recent low flying aircraft over the Farne Islands and the disturbance these kinds of incidents can cause nesting birds. We have been working with the RAF to investigate this.

“The RAF have been very helpful and supportive and have worked hard to find a quick solution. We can now confirm that a no-fly zone is now place around the islands for the remains of this year’s breeding season and the colonies are therefore no longer at risk. The National Trust and the RAF will continue the dialogue to ensure a long term solution is in place for future years. We are grateful to the RAF for their acknowledgement of our concern and their speedy resolution.”