A leading conservationist has warned that the “catastrophic losses” of seabirds are crippling the tourism and fishing industry of the Scottish isles.
Uwe Stoneman of the RSPB claims birds such as the Kittiwake are now “practically extinct” on Orkney and that, as a result, the island’s culture has been changed dramatically.
Seabirds are a major tourist attraction for the islands, drawing bird watchers from all around the world. They also help fishermen, who use the birds to lead them to their catch.
Mr Stoneman has now set up the Orkney Seabird Heritage Project to discover how much the decline of seabirds is affecting the island’s economy and culture.
He said: “The project aims to document current and historic signs of people’s cultural and personal relationship with seabirds on Orkney and document their reaction to the current seabird decline.
“One such species is the Kittiwake which formerly had a population of tens of thousands in Orkney and now you’ll be lucky to see one or two. It has become practically extinct as a breeding species.”
Around 45 per cent of Europe’s seabirds breed in Scotland, but the number of seabirds breeding around the country has decreased by 46 per cent since 1986, according to a recent Scottish Natural Heritage paper.
This includes Common Guillemots, which have decreased in numbers in Orkney by 41 per cent since 2000. Orkney’s former breeding strongholds, such as Marwick Head, now lie completely barren.
Mr Stoneman said: “We have seen decline in other breeds such as the Arctic skua which used to breed on the Northern Isle of Papa Westray. If you now go there in summer during the breeding season, there are virtually no birds there.”
Mr Stoneman will document the effects of the decline in seabirds in an art-based project, and the resulting work will be displayed in September at the Tent Gallery in Edinburgh.
He said: “As an artist, I am usually interested in drawing as a way to observe, learn from and translate nature’s processes. Some of my work explores what happens when nature becomes part of the creative process. This is a new way of working for me.”
A Scottish Natural Heritage spokesman said: “Recent declines have been severe and all the Northern Isles have witnessed extreme declines, particularly of Kittiwakes. Changes in the availability of their food have also led to seabirds struggling to find enough to eat. Seabirds are a vital indicator to the health of our seas and their numbers crashing this way indicates there are problems.”
Sarah Sankey, RSPB Orkney manager, added: “Our seabird cities are now little more than villages, and some species are on the road to local extinction.”