Little Terns: One of UK's rarest seabirds enjoys best breeding season for years

People living near Chesil Beach in Dorset are celebrating a successful year protecting one of the country’s rarest sea birds.

Little terns have declined in recent decades but a volunteering effort near Portland and Weymouth has helped roughly 45 fledglings fly off for the winter.

Now RSPB conservationists hope it will help the breeding colony to grow, when the newest little tern fledglings mature into adults and join the other breeding pairs.

The project sees an area of the beach sectioned off from the public, which helps protect the birds from people and predators.

The colony’s success depends on a team of volunteers who work around the clock to protect each year’s chicks.

It's led by the RSPB, in partnership with Crown Estate, Portland Court Leet, Chesil and Fleet Nature Reserve, Dorset Wildlife Trust, and Natural England. 

Tara Watson, project officer at the RSPB, said: “Our trail camera monitoring gave us some interesting insights on nesting behaviour and helped us build a picture of how predators such as foxes and hedgehogs interact with the colony.

"It's been great to share this footage for everyone to see how special and sensitive beach-nesting birds are."

Little terns are ground nesting birds and fledglings face several threats Credit: Morgan Vaughan

Hedgehogs may not be the first threat that springs to mind, but some near Chesil Beach were caught on camera searching for little tern eggs.

This year the RSPB partnered with charity, Hedgehog Friendly Portland, to design a hedgehog protection fence.

Tara Watson said: “It’s important to remember that whilst the impact of these predators on the little tern colony at Chesil Beach is a risk, hedgehogs are also a protected species experiencing population declines, and we want to work to help protect them too.” 

The little tern is one of the UK’s smallest and most vulnerable seabirds, weighing no more than a tennis ball.

The UK little tern population has been declining since the 1980s, and their numbers have dropped by almost a fifth since 2000.

They face coastal flooding - exacerbated by climate change - declining food availability, and disturbance from people, dogs, and predators. 

The project team are looking forward to potentially expanding the breeding area shortly and switching to solar power for the electric fence next spring.

Richard Archer, RSPB Conservation Officer, said: “The protection of the little tern colony on Chesil Beach takes a huge amount of time and effort.

"This is because there simply isn’t enough undisturbed coastal habitat for the species in the UK anymore.

"Little Tern colonies such as this one, are very vulnerable and we need to make more space on the coast for little terns and other sensitive species to thrive once more.

"The RSPB is working with partners to do this, on our own nature reserves (in the Solent for example) and elsewhere. This is the only sustainable solution for the long-term survival and growth of our special seabirds.” 

Chesil Beach is a vital stronghold for the last little tern colony in the south-west.

Tara added: “Returning to Chesil for another breeding season has been so exciting. It's been brilliant to see the volunteer team grow, with lots of new wardens joining the project, and the success of this project is down to the hard work, passion, and dedication of these amazing volunteers.” 

Penny Rowe, a new RSPB volunteer in 2023, said: “The project has been an amazing experience and I have learned such a lot.

"It has been a life-affirming experience being a small part of the little terns' journey to hatching and adulthood.”