Seabirds

Puffins, cormorants and other seabirds are a common feature of any visit to Scotland’s coast but they’re also one of our finest wildlife assets.

Caring for 20 properties around the coast of Scotland, from the cliffs of Unst in Shetland to the creeks of Rockcliffe in the Solway Firth, the National Trust for Scotland is a world leader in the conservation of seabirds. Almost a fifth of all of the seabirds breeding in Scotland nest at our places, so we’ve a huge responsibility when it comes to preserving these important seabird colonies.

We count seabirds to give us an indication of the marine ecosystem. Seabirds get almost all their food from the sea and spend most of their time far from land, but they have to come back to the coast and cliffs to breed. Our places play a crucial role in their survival.

We have dedicated conservation experts, as well as a great team of volunteers, that keep a close eye on all our seabird colonies – counting colony numbers and monitoring breeding patterns and trends – so that we know when and why certain species are in decline or on the rise.

If you want to see some of our seabirds, there are a number of great places to visit. Each colony has its own unique mixture of species. The sight of seabirds gathering in their thousands over the tossing waves and rugged cliffs is truly something remarkable to behold.

Key seabird properties

St Kilda World Heritage Site

17 different species of seabird come to breed on this remote archipelago – it’s the home of the largest colony of northern gannets in the world, the largest colony of Leach’s storm petrels in Europe, and the largest colonies of Atlantic puffins and  northern fulmars in the EU.

A company of northern gannets in the air
Northern gannets in the air

Fair Isle

Fair Isle is a birdwatcher’s paradise. There have been 350 different species of bird recorded here, and the island has its own Bird Observatory and Lodge. The Fair Isle seabird colony is the second largest in Britain – you can find Arctic terns, Arctic skuas, Atlantic puffins and black guillemots, as well as a dozen or so other species. 

An arctic tern hovering in the air
An arctic tern hovering in the air

Mingulay

Mingulay and the nearby islands of Berneray and Pabbay were evacuated in the early 20th century. Together, Mingulay and Berneray hold the largest colony of razorbills in the UK, with around 15% of the whole European population nesting here. The south-western face of Berneray holds the largest assemblage of razorbills on a single cliff face in the UK. If you’re a keen rock climber visiting Mingulay, make sure you don’t disturb the island’s birds during breeding season.

Two razorbills perched on the cliff
Two razorbills perched on the cliff

Canna

The cliffs to the west and north of Canna, and on the south of the adjacent island of Sanday, hold around 15,000 seabirds with 14 different species. Of all the species here, the colony of European shags is the most important, as it’s the second largest of its kind in Scotland. You can also find Manx shearwaters – their numbers fell drastically during the 1990s but thankfully we delivered a project which helped this species to recover. Find out about our Seabirds on Canna project.

A Manx Shearwater skimming over the waves
A Manx Shearwater skimming over the waves

St Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve

St Abb’s Head is the ideal place to view a seabird city up close and is barely an hour’s drive from Scotland’s capital city. Walk around the cliffs in May or June and you’ll soon be lost in the sights, sounds and smells of 50,000 seabirds clamouring to raise the next generation. Common guillemots and black-legged kittiwakes are the most numerous, but look out for the pioneering northern gannets - They tried to breed at St Abb’s in 2017 for the first time in living memory.

A kittiwake nesting on the cliffs
A kittiwake nesting on the cliffs

Staffa National Nature Reserve

Staffa is surely one of our most romantic islands to visit; the journey from Iona in an open boat is a magnificent part of the experience. Once here, you’ll be treated to the enchanting spectacle of Atlantic puffins parading outside their burrows in May and June and making the most of the ‘air cover’ (against bird predators) that their human visitors provide.

A circus of puffins on the cliff slopes of Staffa
A circus of puffins on the cliff slopes of Staffa

Seabird facts

  • The UK is home to almost half of the seabirds in the EU, and Scotland is home to 70% of seabirds in the UK.
  • There are 48 Special Protection Areas in Scotland, established either primarily or partially for seabirds.
  • 7 of the Trust’s 20 coastal properties have been named as Special Protection Areas under the European Birds Directive, while 3 of them are National Nature Reserves.
  • St Kilda is home to more than 1 million seabirds – it is the largest seabird colony in the North-East Atlantic and more than double the size of the next biggest colony in the UK.
  • Our places are home to the bulk of the world population of species such as the great skua, the Atlantic puffin and the northern gannet.
  • There are 20 different types of seabird that breed on our properties: Atlantic puffin, black guillemot, common guillemot, razorbill, European shag, great cormorant, northern gannet, mew gull, great black-backed gull, herring gull, black-legged kittiwake, lesser black-backed gull, European storm petrel, Leach’s storm petrel, Manx shearwater, northern fulmar, Arctic skua, great skua, Arctic tern and common tern.
Did you know?

Did you know?

Seabirds are the visible tip of the iceberg when it comes to the vast marine ecosystem. Since they depend on the sea for their sustenance, seabirds reflect the changes in our marine habitats. They can help us to uncover and understand what’s going on beneath the waves, and how climate change is affecting all kinds of other marine species.