Puffin census returns to Farne Island to see how much-loved seabird fared over Lockdown
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For the first time since the pandemic, the dedicated National Trust rangers who monitor the area’s seabirds have been able to carry out their annual puffin census.
The remote Farne Islands is one of the best places in the country to see the beloved creatures, its lack of ground predators, ideal breeding areas and rich feeding ground of seaeels making it a playground for puffins.
Although the native birds, and the many other seabirds who breed on the 28 islands, such as shags, kittiwakes, guillemots, fulmar, Arctic terns (perhaps the noisiest of the residents known for swooping on visitors’ heads) and more, have been monitored throughout the pandemic, this is the first time the official census can get back to normal.
After the survey area reduced in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, this is a critical year for the return of the census, with latest figures from 2021 appearing to show a 15 per cent dip in breeding pairs compared to 2018.
Climate change and the challenges of the North Sea is the most likely factor in reducing numbers, due to extreme weather events and warming sea temperatures forcing their food source, sandeels to seek cooler water further north, but regular counts mean the rangers can react quickly to any significant changes in numbers
With full surveys unable to be carried out in 2020 and 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s figures will be vital for understanding how the seabirds are doing now that the 14-strong ranger team can return to live on the Inner Farne to conduct full surveys across eight of the islands. 2022 is also the fifth year in the count cycle for being able to determine any sort of population trends.
For the census, the rangers monitor burrows for signs of whether they are occupied. Puffins, who pair for life, are excellent diggers and nest underground.
The quirky puffins return to breed each year after spending the winter out at sea, arriving back on the islands in late March or early April. They stay until the last chicks – known as pufflings – fledge in mid-August.
For nine months of the year the rangers live on the islands, making regular trips back to Seahouses for days off and supplies – there’s no running water on the islands – and, in breeding season they spend half their time monitoring the birds and guiding the visitors from the daily boat trips.
It’s a dream job for assistant ranger Alex Burgess who’ll be on the island until October.
"It’s a really special place,” he said. “The reason why the animals allow you to get this close is because a lot have been chicks who were born on the Farne Islands, so they are used to people.
"So there is that slight habituation, but it’s not a bad thing as it means people can come to the Farnes and get a real connection with wildlife.”
Since National Trust took on the care of the Farnes in the 1920s, rangers have monitored its native species, and were among the first groups in the world to do so.
It’s thought that the presence of humans has actually been beneficial to puffins as it helps to keep large predators such as gulls away who feast on chicks.
"This job is a dream come true for me,” said Alex. “Because I’m here five days on and two days off you get a real connection with the wildlife, you get to know their personalities, and that’s something I was seeking. I do love the puffins but the shags are my favourite because they’re just so comical to watch.”
Last year 36,211 breeding pairs of Atlantic puffins were recorded across four islands, compared to 29,546 pairs on three of the islands in 2020. This compares to the 42,378 pairs in 2019 and 42,474 pairs recorded in 2018. Although numbers appear to be relatively stable despite a 15 per cent drop in numbers over the past four years, the 2022 count will be a telling year for these popular seabirds.
Harriet Reid, area ranger at the National Trust says: “Although conducting the count over the past couple of years has been more difficult, we put in place a good system of monitoring to ensure vital data could still be collected.
“Puffins literally live on the edge in every sense, mostly living on remote, ground predator free islands and are very picky when it comes to food, preferring sandeels. In order to track how puffins are doing, our counts are particularly important so that we can analyse population trends to see if they are increasing, decreasing or stable.
“Although numbers appeared to drop in 2021 due to the team being unable to carry out a full survey, it is too early to be alarmed by these figures, making this year’s count particularly critical.”
Globally the puffin population is in decline, largely due to decreases in sandeel numbers driven by climate change and overfishing.
The fear is that climate change will put pressure on the Farnes population, with greater stresses on the food chain and more frequent winter storms affecting the population at sea.
Harriet continues; “The regularity of the count means we can react more quickly to any drastic change in numbers, and look at whether there is anything we can do differently in terms of our conservation work which could help puffin numbers recover.
“We think erosion from the extreme wind, rain and the island population of rabbits could also be affecting the birds, particularly on Inner Farne where over the past year we have seen a large increase in the number of bare patches of soil.
“Seals may also be causing changes to the birds’ habitat, particularly on the outer group of islands, where they often use the meadows, where puffins burrow, to have their young. Over time, the pressure of the seals may have a detrimental impact on the puffins’ habitat.
“Puffins won’t build or prepare burrows where there is bare earth as it leaves them too exposed to predators such as large gulls, instead preferring to build burrows in vegetated areas. We are therefore going to spread seeds such as maritime grasses and sea campion in an effort to fill these gaps.
“Extreme weather events can also impact numbers. We may for instance find that the winter storms have caused increased mortality, meaning fewer birds return to breed on the islands.”