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St Abb's Head National Nature Reserve (image courtesy Liza Cole)
St Abb's Head National Nature Reserve (image courtesy Liza Cole)
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Regular population counts have been carried out at St Abb’s Head since the late 1970s giving an excellent set of data to identify trends in recent times.

Guillemot populations have tripled between 1978 and 1998 although more recent counts have shown a slight decline and levelling off of the population.

Shags also tripled between 1978 and 1992, but then high winter mortality in 1994 caused a population crash back to 1978 levels. The population over the coming years increased to a peak in 2004 then suffered another population crash the following year. The population showed signs of recovery before suffering the lowest population level since recording began in 2013. This is likely to be linked to winter wrecks on the east coast.

Between 1978 and 1989 Kittiwakes almost doubled in number, but have since begun a long pattern of decline, with 2014 figures showing an 80% decrease on 1989 levels.

Unfortunately 2014 marked the first year in which no breeding Puffins were recorded at St Abb’s Head. This follows a long decline since the population peak in 1995 when 106 birds were recorded.

Ecologists have linked long term seabird declines with climate change and it is likely that sandeels are being affected by rising sea temperatures. Lower fish numbers lead to lower numbers of adult birds surviving from one year to the next, and not enough chicks being produced and surviving to replace them.

Research and conservation work

The first population counts were carried out in the late 1950’s, with more regular counting since the late 1970’s. In more recent years, breeding success has also been monitored for some species. The data is used by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee to produce an annual report that summarises the fortunes of seabirds throughout the UK.

Research has also been carried out into the relationship between human disturbance and seabird breeding success. It was found that breeding success for both Guillemots and Kittiwakes was significantly reduced by the presence of people. The report also suggested that nesting birds experienced stress, causing raised heart rates. This resulted in an additional energetic cost to the birds which could lead to nest desertion.

St Abbs
St Abbs is one of the most readily accessible of all seabird colonies.

Human disturbance: people as predation-free predators?
COLIN M. BEALE and PAT MONAGHAN.

Click here to download the pdf document (121kb).