Annual puffin count starts on Farne Islands in 'critical year' for tracking species

The annual puffin count has started on the remote Farne Islands in what will be a critical year for assessing how the species is faring.

A team of National Trust Rangers set out on their work at this time of year as the birds return to the islands, off the Northumberland coast, to nest after spending the Winter at sea.

With full surveys unable to be carried out in 2020 and 2021 due to pandemic restrictions, this year’s figures will be vital for understanding how the seabirds are doing.

The 14-strong ranger team will also return to live on the Inner Farne to conduct full surveys across eight of the 28 islands.

The rangers look for things like numbers falling or rising, the effects of climate change and their food sources.

The survey involves counting the number of active burrows across the islands - small holes in the ground where the puffins nest. This is done one section of land at a time.

The results give the team vital data to spot population trends.

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."

There are fears climate change will put pressure on the puffin population on the Farnes. Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

Not for the faint-hearted, the team of rangers live on the islands for nine months of the year, in part, conserving the birds, and others on the islands.

The National Trust says globally the puffin population is in decline, largely due to decreases in sandeel numbers which they say is driven by climate change and overfishing.

The organisation fears 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 added: “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.”

The birds – which are the size of a small bag of sugar - will stay on the islands until the last chicks fledge in mid-August.

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