July 14, 2008

Drastic Decline of Scottish Seabirds Prompts Call for Action


LIKE the canary in the coalmine, our seabirds' welfare indicates the health of our marine environment and it has already sounded the alarm, according to RSPB Scotland. Yesterday it urged the Scottish Government to put the environment at the heart of its consultation on Scotland's first marine bill, published on Monday.

According to the charity, early reports of seabird breeding performance on its coastal reserves indicate continuing problems for the country's internationally important populations of guillemots, kittiwakes and other seabirds, with nests abandoned and empty cliffs which should now be teeming with thousands of nesting birds at this time of year.

Doug Gilbert, an ecologist with RSPB Scotland, said: "When you look at the evidence over the last 15 years it is quite startling and cause for serious concern. At our Copinsay reserve on Orkney, the kittiwake population has plummeted drastically since the mid- 1980s, when there were at least 10,000 birds on the cliffs. Today there are just under 2000, a pattern repeated in many areas of Scotland and the UK. This decline is a major conservation problem, as Scotland supports 45per cent of the nesting seabirds in the EU."

He continued: "The declines are primarily being driven by changes in the availability of the fish that these birds depend on. Sandeels, sprats and other small fish are obviously just not available to kittiwakes and other birds in the way they used to be. The adult birds are having to spend more time away from their eggs and chicks to find food and many are just giving up their breeding attempts this year. These changes are almost certainly being driven by changes in the sea environment that we still know little about. Sea birds are indicators of the health of the marine environment and, like the canary in the coalmine, the decline in their fortunes should be a wake-up call to us all that we must pay attention to."

Gilbert said that early in the season many guillemots and razorbills appeared to have given up any attempt to breed at RSPB's Sumburgh Head reserve on Shetland, with eggs left abandoned on the cliffs. Kittiwakes also had serious problems, and although many adults began nest building, significant numbers appeared to give up; others that did lay failed to incubate the eggs to hatching.

Further south, on the Aberdeenshire coast, the picture was slightly more encouraging.

On the west coast, the breeding season had been more mixed.

Kara Brydson, marine policy officer with RSPB Scotland, said: "The Marine Bill must include effective protection for our wildlife, including a robust network of designated protected areas for marine life important to Scotland, and a comprehensive marine planning system founded on sustainable development principles to conserve and restore the marine environment. We also need a Scottish marine management organisation to help deliver the tough targets required for the long-term sustainable management and recovery of our seas, and this has to be integrated with action at a UK and European level."

Originally published by Newsquest Media Group.

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