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29 May 2019

Trust counts on puffins’ welfare

A puffin sits high above the sea on a cliff ledge on Staffa.
We’ve just completed our first-ever bird count on the Inner Hebridean island of Staffa.

Staffa is world-famous for the olivine basalts of Fingal’s Cave, which inspired 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn. The island is owned and protected by the National Trust for Scotland and is home to a significant colony of puffins.

Many of the 120,000 visitors who make the often-choppy sea voyage to Staffa each year are able to enjoy up-close-and-personal views of these highly colourful seabirds. In recent years, around the waters of the British Isles, there have been concerns about the stability of puffin populations and whether or not rising sea temperatures and weather extremes linked to climate change were having an effect.

A group of puffins perch on the cliffs of Staffa.

The National Trust for Scotland’s Senior Nature Conservation Advisor, Dr Richard Luxmoore said:

‘Puffins make their home on Staffa during their short breeding season. Until now, we’ve never known how many actually nest on the island because they dig their burrows on slopes that are too steep to access safely. We’ve therefore had to make do with estimating the population and we’d thought it was somewhere between 150–450 pairs.’

Cue an intrepid team supervised by Staffa’s newly appointed ranger, Peter Upton.

A surveyor, with the aid of ropes, undertakes a proper count of the puffin colony for the first time.

Surveyors trained in rope techniques were set to work in filling in the missing piece of the jigsaw by undertaking a proper count of the colony for the first time.

Over the course of 20–21 May, they lowered and swung themselves over the steep, rocky slopes to search for the birds’ burrows.

Richard Luxmoore said:

‘They succeeded in confirming that there are 637 apparently occupied puffin burrows – much higher than we’d hitherto suspected – and now we have the highest and most accurate estimate we’ve ever had of an otherwise well-known colony.’

An intrepid surveyor, with the aid of ropes, undertakes a proper count of the puffin colony for the first time

‘With this success, we now plan to use the same techniques in a much larger survey of puffin burrows later this summer on St Kilda. We’ll be able to obtain an accurate estimate of numbers in some of the more remote islands of the archipelago. 

‘Getting an accurate count like this is vital if we’re to gain a true picture of how one of our favourite seabird species is coping with climate change and other factors resulting from human activity.’

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