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Joan Edwards

Joan Edwards is the Head of Living Seas at The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts.

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Massive loss of life for storm-hit seabirds

Posted: Monday 7th April 2014 by LivingSeas

Puffin- Amy LewisPuffin- Amy Lewis

This winter we have experienced perhaps the worst storm wreck in living memory of seabirds (especially auks and particularly puffins) that were wintering in the NE Atlantic. We remain very worried about its effect on breeding populations of some species such as puffins, especially if the future brings more frequent and more severe winter storms as a result of climate change.

The combined total of all reported affected birds so far from the coasts of France and Spain (Bay of Biscay), Channel Islands, SW England, Wales and other parts of the UK including southern/SE England, Cumbria and Scotland is now in excess of 33,000. This figure should be regarded as a conservative minimum (many other birds will have died unobserved and unrecorded, their bodies lost at sea or on inaccessible shorelines. Many reports confirm that examined birds were in poor bodily condition (underweight/no fat felt over breastbone/no food in their stomachs).

There are 27 recorded storm-wreck affected species: black-headed gull, black-throated diver, Brunnich’s guillemot, common gull, cormorant, fulmar, gannet, glaucous gull, great black-backed gull, great crested grebe, great northern diver, great skua, guillemot, herring gull, kittiwake, lesser black-backed gull, little auk, little gull, Manx shearwater, Mediterranean gull, oystercatcher, puffin, razorbill, red kite, shag, storm petrel and yellow legged-gull.

The greatest impact has been on puffins (more than 15,800 recorded) followed by guillemots (more than 9,000) and razorbills (more than 2,800). More than 1,200 birds have been reported as `auk species’, these are likely to be additional guillemots and razorbills. More than 450 kittiwakes have been reported dead.

More than 400 ringed birds (including more than 100 each of puffins, guillemots and razorbills) have been reported to the British Trust for Ornithology, an abnormally high return that reflects the severity of the incident. This includes birds found in France, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. BTO reports that many of the puffins are from UK and Irish breeding sites including Sule Skerry (40km west of Orkney), the Shiant Islands (Outer Hebrides), the Treshnish Islands (near the Isle of Mull), Great Saltee (off Co Wexford) and Skomer Island (Pembrokeshire).

The Wildlife Trusts are involved in a number of projects on the ground to help ensure their breeding colonies are protected and free of rats. It is also even more important that we ensure that important foraging and rafting areas are protected at sea as part of our ecological coherent network of Marine Protected Areas. These Marine Protected areas are essential to give species and populations resilience to cope with incidents such as storm-wreck and pollution.

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