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.
Puffins have started to return to their breeding grounds two weeks early thanks to the milder spring temperatures.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
- Dr David Bullock- Head of Nature Conservation at the National Trust
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.
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.
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 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.