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Seabird numbers in Northumberland hit by spring storms

Arctic tern at Long Nanny. Picture by National Trust Images/Stephen Morley
Arctic tern at Long Nanny. Picture by National Trust Images/Stephen Morley

Numbers at one of the UK’s most important seabird breeding sites have fallen due to strong spring storms, despite the efforts of National Trust rangers.

The Long Nanny, south of Beadnell, is an important breeding site for little terns, Arctic terns and ringed plovers.

The little tern is the UK’s second rarest seabird, with only around 1,900 breeding pairs.

The birds return to the Long Nanny from Africa to breed every May, but the combination of devastating gales, high tides and hungry predators has led to no chicks fledging this year.

The birds have been nesting at the Long Nanny since the 1950s, when there were only three pairs. The National Trust started managing the site in 1977.

Since then, the colony has grown and is now a nationally important site for the species, with between 30 and 50 pairs – approximately two per cent of the UK population – choosing to nest at the site annually.

Thirty-eight pairs of little tern nested at the site in 2017 and despite a promising start to the breeding season this year, with 42 nesting pairs and seven chicks recorded, the combination of 50mph winds brought by Storm Hector and high spring tides in excess of five metres resulted in the majority of the nests being deserted or washed out to sea.

However, it wasn’t all bad news. Arctic terns had a productive year despite the high threat from predators, with almost 1,800 breeding pairs and 428 fledglings recorded.

This year also saw high numbers of nesting ringed plover, with 22 nests and five fledglings recorded.

Ranger, Jane Lancaster, said: “Seabirds are affected by climate change and little terns in the UK are also impacted by lack of available habitat. Although the summer has been very pleasant for many of us, extreme weather is continuing to impact on many species and unfortunately, spring storms devastated the site at a crucial time, with 14 hours of 50mph winds during Storm Hector in June.

“All of the little tern nests and approximately half of the 1,800 occupied Arctic tern nests were abandoned.

“Some of the little terns returned to rebuild nests. Over the course of the season 119 little tern eggs were laid with 18 chicks hatching. Unfortunately, despite a dedicated watch from rangers who live on the site, all chicks were lost as a result of predation or starvation.”

In the UK, little terns nest exclusively on the coast favouring open, sandy nesting locations which are often popular with people and dogs.

The sandy beach and open vistas at Long Nanny makes it a perfect breeding location.

Between May and July, National Trust rangers live on site, giving up their home comforts to camp in the dunes and provide a 24-hour watch for the nesting birds.

As well as protecting the birds from predators such as weasels, foxes and kestrels, the rangers carry out feeding surveys, egg and nest counts and welcome visitors to the site who flock to see the colonies that make the remote stretch of coastline their home during the breeding season.

Before the birds arrive, rangers and volunteers work to set up the site, erecting fences, putting up signs and placing decoys along the beach to encourage the terns to nest away from the shoreline.

In 2017, the National Trust acquired 200 acres of land at Tughall Mill, just north of the Long Nanny site, to expand the protection of the shorebird breeding site and restore important wildlife habitats including saltmarsh, woodland, hedgerows, farmland and sand dunes.

Jane said: “This year we temporarily diverted a short stretch of beach at Tughall so walkers wouldn’t disturb the birds that now use the area as a breeding ground. We have seen over fifty sand martins taking advantage of this undisturbed area and have even spotted an otter visiting the site.

“The local community and a dedicated group of volunteers is really proud to have such an important shorebird breeding site on their doorstep and most visitors have been very supportive in helping us to protect this special location, keeping dogs on leads while the birds are present and enjoying the spectacular new views on the short diversion that we’ve set up to help these birds breed and raise their young.”

The National Trust is partners in an RSPB-led EU LIFE+ Project, which aims to help little tern recovery in Britain.