Puffin census: Counting one of the UK's most threatened birds

  • Video report and text by ITV News Reporter Martha Fairlie

Managing Ranger Tom Hardy is lying on the ground on Inner Farne with his arm stretched down a puffin burrow.

He's "grubbing" – the technical term for searching for signs of a pair of nesting puffins.

He's part of a team of National Trust Rangers and volunteers who live on the Farne Islands for weeks at a time, taking care of the seabird population.

Right now they're in the middle of their puffin census – counting the number of breeding pairs on eight islands which make up the largest puffin colony in England.

They're only half way through the census, which takes place every five years.

But already the figures are giving cause for concern.

Monitoring the puffin population is notoriously difficult Credit: ITV News

The last puffin census was in 2013. Then, they counted 40,000 breeding pairs.

But so far this year, numbers are down by 12 per cent.

And on one of the islands the decline is as much as 42 per cent.

If final figures show a 12 per cent drop across the Farne Islands, the puffin population will be at around its lowest for 25 years.

Tom Hardy, one of the National Trust Rangers Credit: ITV News

Tom tells me the puffins are a good indicator species that reflect that things might not be so good in the seas.

"There are several factors that can impact on puffins. Overfishing is one of them. There is a global decline in puffins and and its felt that climate change is the driving force behind that.

"Essentially it's a combination of warmer seas which make their food source, sand eels, go further north and more extreme weather as well."

That extreme weather can make burrows wet and cold or even flood them, drowning the puffin chicks – known as pufflings – before they’re ready to head out to sea, where puffins spend the majority of their year.

National Trust Rangers and volunteers live on the Farne Islands for weeks at a time Credit: ITV News

Assistant Ranger Adaica Rodriguez takes us to a rocky spot where dozens of puffins are sitting watching with curiosity as the press pack take photos.

You can’t help but be caught up in a bit of puffin-mania as the colourful little birds pose and jostle for space, entirely unphased by our presence.

Adacia's been helping with the census and shows me some clues like fresh digging, feathers or droppings can indicate a burrow is occupied.

But if they're not sure, she has to check by hand.

"It’s quite an amazing experience because you never know what is going to happen. You can find the latrines, or you can find a puffin just nibbling your hands telling you to go away.

"And it’s a really great surprise when you find an egg – that’s a very positive sign."

The puffin population appears to be in decline Credit: ITV News

Puffins birds are already on the British Trust for Ornithology’s red list.

And there are predictions that they could disappear from the Farne Islands within 50-100 years.

Talking to Gwen Potter, Countryside Manager for the Northumberland Coast Credit: ITV News

Gwen Potter, the National Trust’s Countryside Manager for the Northumberland Coast and the Farne Islands explains it’s essential to take action to stop the decline in puffins.

"Puffins are one of our most threatened birds in the UK. Also knowing that in particular populations like the one in Iceland, their productivity, that is the number of chicks that have been surviving over the past ten years is virtually zero."

"It is one of the most iconic species, people love them more than any other bird on these islands, people feel close to them.

"So that would be the saddest loss. But what it makes us think in the Trust is that we need to solve this problem and we’re going to do everything we can to do it.”

Ten things you didn’t know about puffins:

  • Puffins usually mate for life ... But there is a 7 per cent 'divorce' rate

  • The birds weigh about the same as two cans of cola

  • Puffin bills glow in the dark

  • Puffins shed their colourful bills every year – their winter plumage is a duller grey and black

  • The record bill-full of fish carried by a puffin is 61 sand eels and one rockling, recorded on St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides

  • Puffins dig two rooms in their burrow – a bathroom and a nesting room

  • Puffins usually only lay one egg per year

  • Baby puffins are called pufflings

  • Pufflings stay in their burrow for around six weeks before walking down to the sea under cover of darkness

  • Puffin pairs bond by 'billing' – a ritual where they hit their bills together