Massive loss of life for storm-hit seabirds

Tuesday 4th March 2014

Puffin cpt Roland Gauvain

With record-breaking storms causing massive mortality of birds wintering at sea, The Wildlife Trusts are concerned that, simultaneously, funding for vital research and monitoring is being scrapped.

Natural Resources Wales has withdrawn funding from long-term seabird research which generates critical data, including one 40 year old programme of monitoring Skomer’s guillemots, led by the University of Sheffield.

We are also seeing significant cuts to the funding that supports seabird research and monitoring, just when we need it most

Skomer and Skokholm on the Pembrokeshire coast are home to over 20,000 puffins, around 28,000 guillemots and 9,000 razorbills, which make up the most important colony of cliff-nesting seabirds in southern Britain.  Many birds local to both of these sites are amongst the recent casualties at sea.

Dr Lizzie Wilberforce, Conservation Manager with The Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales, believes the unprecedented combination of threats facing seabirds make them a priority for research. She said:  “We are recording declines in breeding success of many colonies which we believe to be connected to climate change.  Together with storm impacts and pollution events, we have reason to be very concerned for these iconic species.  We are also seeing significant cuts to the funding that supports seabird research and monitoring, just when we need it most.  Natural Resources Wales has withdrawn funding altogether from one 40 year old programme of monitoring Skomer’s guillemots, led by the University of Sheffield, which generates absolutely critical data.

As birds prepare to return to their breeding grounds, the storms are preventing them from being able to feed and many are dying as a result of starvation and exhaustion.  This massive loss of life is described as a ‘seabird wreck’.

Dr Wilberforce continues:  “The timing couldn’t be worse - as storms coming across the Atlantic continue, Europe’s seabirds are fighting a losing battle against these natural events. We really need to understand how birds are reacting to these threats if we are to be equipped to help them.”

 It is of crucial importance that we put in place monitoring mechanisms so that longer term impacts can be realised and understood

Latest estimates suggest that there is a confirmed dead or stranding count over the North Atlantic and North Sea coast of around 30,000 – with the majority being found on French coasts.  Birds from UK and Channel Island colonies, many of which have been experiencing population declines and breeding failures in recent years, have been caught up in this latest disaster.  Dr Wilberforce adds: “Recent research allows us to be confident that many of our birds will have been in the affected area.”

More than 2,300 birds have been reported washed up on UK and Channel Island shores, reaching far and wide, but to date the majority are being found in Wales, the South West and the Channel Islands.  Sightings of birds can be made here.

Joan Edwards, Head of Living Seas for The Wildlife Trusts, said:

“Whilst many of the impacts of the winter storms have been obvious, the impact to our marine wildlife has been less so – until now.  Birds that have been dying at sea are now coming ashore in unprecedented numbers.  Whilst there is nothing we can do to prevent this, it is of crucial importance that we put in place monitoring mechanisms so that longer term impacts can be realised and understood.

“It’s very disturbing that this event has occurred so early this year and so far down into the wintering grounds. These numbers are in excess of the Polyisobutene deaths last year, and the terrible tragedy following the oil spills of both the Brear and Sea Empress. It means that not only will this be a very long run event, but it will take even longer for the birds to recover. With numbers at around 15,000, Puffins seem to be the most affected species, with Razorbills and Guillemots also severely hit.”

Burhou Island - just one and a quarter miles northwest of Alderney - is the centre of the Internationally Important (Ramsar) marine wetland and bird sanctuary and home to 11 species of breeding birds. Today there are just 168 pairs of Burhou Puffins, down from a colony estimated to be between 6-8,000 post-WWII.  It is one of the most southerly colonies in Europe.  The Puffins spend most of the year out in the Atlantic Ocea, returning to land at the end of March, for just three months to breed and raise their young.

Roland Gauvain, Alderney Wildlife Trust’s manager, said:  “When you consider the impact of 30,000 seabirds dead on the beach the scale of this wreck is mindblowing.  

"Here in the islands we have seen more than 1,000 birds dead, almost all of which will belong to colonies from throughout Britain and Northern Europe.  National boundaries are not respected by nature, but when the survivors come to settle and breed they will do so in a country, a county or perhaps even our backyards.  If we cannot provide them with an environment which meets their simple needs the decline in seabird populations is only set to accelerate.

“Here on the outskirts of the British Isles, where we are subjected to the actions of our large European neighbours with little chance of influencing them, we understand the desperate need to act to create robust marine protected areas is very evident.  Perhaps in the aftermath of the storms we might just find it creeps a little closer to the top of the agenda for once.”

Notes for editors:

The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales
Research is vital in understanding and solving the problems seabirds are facing.  Skomer and Skokholm Islands, both managed by The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, have uniquely in the UK provided decades of high quality, internationally recognised monitoring, that has generated the data that help us understand and protect our marine wildlife.  One of the most important features of this work is continuity over time.  Studies of the Guillemot on Skomer led by Professor Tim Birkhead of Sheffield University now provide over 40 consecutive years of continuous data.  These long-term datasets are absolutely critical to our understanding of environmental change, underpin our decisions in marine planning and help us prevent future harm. Skomer and Skokholm are of particular importance because so far, they have demonstrated more resilience to change than seabirds in the North Sea, and understanding this is vital to their conservation across the UK.  Despite the critical importance of this information funding for long-term Guillemot studies has been completely withdrawn.  Other long term studies on the islands of the survival and breeding success of seabirds and seals will also come under increasing threat with reduced funding.  To give to The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales please visit

Alderney Wildlife Trust (AWT)
The Alderney Wildlife Trust has operated and managed the Alderney West Coast and Burhou Island’s Ramsar site on behalf of the island’s government for the last nine years (the only NGO to undertake this role anywhere in the British Isles).  AWT’s work is funded through limited government contributions and donations, with most of the work being undertaken by experienced volunteers and staff.  At a little over 16km2 Alderney’s Ramsar site is arguably the best understood set of seabird colonies within the Channel Islands and, thanks to close links to Liverpool University, this work is being expanded to include an innovative cross-species tagging study including altimeter, barometer and GPS tagging of the sites two main Gannetries.  These colonies are home to approximately 8,000 pairs of Northern Gannet and will shortly be the site of Britain’s newest live wildlife webcam.  You can find more details about the site, discover more about the research and learn more about the unique LIVE-teaching through Nature on Alderney Wildlife Trust’s website here.

Burhou and the surrounding Ramsar site have 11 species of sea and shore bird: Puffin (largest in English Channel or Le Manche region), Storm Petrel (regionally important, only one in the Channel Islands, Lesser Black Backed Gull (nationally important colony), Greater Black Backed Gull, Herring Gull (population declining rapidly), Shag (regionally important colony), Cormorant, Fulmar, Gannet (internationally important) Tern, Ringed Plover (last fixed breeding site in the Channel Islands). To give to Alderney Wildlife Trust, please visit  Roland Gauvain will swim from Braye Harbour to Burhou, across one of the most famous tidal races in the world, the Alderney Swinge.  Find out more here.  

The Wildlife Trusts (TWT)
As part of the 2014 seabird wreck monitoring effort The Wildlife Trusts are accepting sightings of beached seabirds (dead or alive) from all UK coasts. The Wildlife Trusts greatly value wildlife sightings made by UK residents, visitors and volunteers. Sightings will be digitised as records and will be passed on to local Wildlife Trusts to help them monitor bird populations around the UK. 

There are 47 individual Wildlife Trusts covering the whole of the UK.  All are working for an environment rich in wildlife for everyone.  We have more than 800,000 members including 150,000 members of our junior branch Wildlife Watch.  Our vision is to create A Living Landscape and secure Living Seas. We manage around 2,300 nature reserves and every year we advise thousands of landowners and organisations on how to manage their land for wildlife.  We also run marine conservation projects around the UK, collecting vital data on the state of our seas and celebrating our amazing marine wildlife. Every year we work with thousands of schools and our nature reserves and visitor centres receive millions of visitors.  Each Wildlife Trust is working within its local communities to inspire people about the future of their area: their own Living Landscapes and Living Seas. 

Tagged with: Living Seas, Seabird wreck