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2 Mar 2023

Help us save Scotland’s seabirds

Written by Sarah Burnett
A puffin perches on a rocky ledge on a cliff, looking down across a turquoise inlet of the sea.
Iconic seabird species such as puffins, kittiwakes and guillemots are currently facing grave threats, including avian flu and dwindling food stocks. Here are five simple ways that you can support the Trust’s efforts to protect them.

Avian flu has had a devastating impact on seabird populations; tens of thousands of seabirds died from avian flu in Scotland in 2022. 65 dead guillemot chicks were found at St Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve in a single day, and two thirds of the great skua colony on St Kilda was wiped out by the disease last year. Avian flu came at a time of other existential threats to Scotland’s globally important seabird species, include dwindling food stocks and intensifying storms. Both of these factors are linked to climate change and pollution.

As concerns grow about the continuing global spread of avian flu, we’re asking the public to support our conservation charity’s efforts to protect Scotland’s seabirds. Ellie Owen, Senior Seabird Officer at the National Trust for Scotland, explains: ‘As part of the Trust’s activity to care for Scotland’s nature, beauty and heritage, our amazing rangers and other staff will be working relentlessly this spring and summer to give our seabirds the best chance to survive and thrive in our different colonies, including on St Kilda, St Abb’s Head, Canna, Staffa, Mingulay and the Murray Isles. There is plenty the public can do to help us conserve and protect Scotland’s seabirds, so that future generations can marvel at them too.’

“We’d be hugely grateful if our supporters could help us with five simple steps for saving our seabirds.”
Ellie Owen
Senior Seabird Officer
A woman wearing a red helmet and red floatation jacket stands on a rocky ledge beside a sea inlet. Large rock stacks stand just off shore behind her.

With over 1 million seabirds at places in our care, we have identified five things that people of all ages can do to help protect our puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and storm petrels as this year’s breeding season gets underway. Our five suggested steps cover a range of issues, from helping to protect seabird chicks from predators to joining campaigns or citizen science projects.

An adult kittiwake (which looks rather like a gull) sits on a rocky ledge. Its fluffy chick nestles in close.
A kittiwake with its chick

Five steps to save Scotland’s seabirds

  1. Follow the ‘check, clean, close’ rule: Predators like rats or stoats can wreak havoc among seabird eggs and chicks if they arrive in key colonies like St Kilda, Canna or other islands. We are asking visitors to prioritise biosecurity (the practice of protecting places from the threats posed by introducing new diseases or types of plants/animals that do not naturally occur there). All the islands under our care have emergency response plans, but the best way to keep chicks and eggs safe is to stop predators reaching their shores. So, if you’re planning a boat trip, please check your bag and clothes for pests; clean your boots or shoes with disinfectant; and tightly close any food containers shut (since they can attract stowaways onto boats or into bags).

  2. Give seabirds space: Visitors to the Scottish coast can help by maintaining a good distance from nests and birds that are feeding. People and dogs may disturb or destroy the nests or burrows of seabirds that raise their young close to the shore. Dog owners are asked to keep their dogs on a short lead or close at heel when near to any places where ground-nesting birds breed or feed, or even to leave their dogs at home, especially during the breeding season (1 April to 30 September).

  3. Sign up to a campaign: Look out for seabird (or wildlife) focused campaigns you could back, helping to persuade politicians to support higher levels of environmental protection, stewardship and biodiversity. Of particular concern to seabird numbers is the impact of fishing practices that damage the seabed and health of some of the fish stocks (on which seabirds feed). We want better protection for our inshore waters to allow marine wildlife to recover and thrive. You can help us achieve this by joining the Our Seas campaign to bring back the fish.

  4. Become a citizen scientist: You can also help by taking part in the research and monitoring of seabirds, as citizen seabird scientists. In May–August this year, we will be collecting images from the public of puffins carrying food to their chicks. Trained volunteers will analyse the photos to try to spot problems emerging in what puffins at Trust sites are finding to feed their chicks. Keep an eye on our website for advice on how to carefully collect these photos without disturbing the puffins, and how to submit them online. Look out for other seabird-related citizen science projects online as well.

  5. Get involved in National Trust for Scotland seabird activities: We have recently launched a Save our Seabirds fundraising campaign to help us take immediate action to protect our valuable seabird colonies before it’s too late. Money raised will help us to undertake vital monitoring projects to better understand avian flu, invest in innovative biosecurity solutions, and support research on a global response to help seabirds survive dwindling food stocks, avian flu and climate change. If you’d like to support this campaign or find out more about it, visit our Save our Seabirds campaign page.

Of course, you can also visit Trust properties this year to see amazing seabirds and witness incredible wildlife experiences, such as the annual ‘jumpling’ season when guillemot and razorbill chicks are coaxed by their fathers to leap off a cliff edge on their first flight!

Ellie Owen continues: ‘The challenges facing seabirds are very grave, yet every action can make a difference. Back in 2005, the National Trust for Scotland eradicated the brown rat from the Isle of Canna. A non-native species, rats caused havoc on the island ecosystem by eating the seabirds’ eggs and chicks. After Canna was declared officially rat-free in 2008, seabird numbers bounced back, with shag, puffin and guillemot numbers doubling in just ten years. By supporting our five simple actions, our fundraising campaign and other activities, anyone can help to make this type of change happen themselves.’

Philip Long OBE, the National Trust for Scotland’s Chief Executive, said: ‘A Scotland without puffins, kittiwakes or great skuas seems unthinkable. But the threats facing these and other seabirds are so immense that we all have to think of this as a real possibility.

‘When we launched our 10-year Nature, Beauty & Heritage for Everyone strategy last year, we were bold in our ambitions to care for Scotland’s magnificent heritage. That heritage includes the seabirds and other wildlife that shelter, breed and feed at our places. Throughout this year, our staff will be out there in our beautiful coastal places, helping nature to flourish and engaging with the public to help them understand how to take action to help save our seabirds.’

“We hope as many people as possible will support our hugely important work, and take these five simple steps to help save Scotland’s seabirds for future generations.”
Phil Long
Chief Executive of the National Trust for Scotland
A close-up photo of Phil Long, the Chief Executive of the National Trust for Scotland. He is standing in front of Kellie Castle, smiling. He wears a blue suit.

Save our seabirds

Please help us protect our vulnerable seabird colonies.

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