Scotland is an internationally important nesting ground for seabirds. Our coasts and islands are home to an estimated five million of them – I like to think of that as one each for every member of our human population. Mine’s a puffin, for reasons I won’t go into.
Places like St Kilda, the Fair Isle, Bass Rock and the cliffs of St Abbs fill up every year with a wide variety of colourful and noisy creatures, jostling for space as they build their nests on precarious ledges and underground burrows. The largest gannet colony in the world is on Bass Rock, while Rum hosts the world’s biggest Manx shearwater colony.
We have 24 breeding species, making up a third of all of the seabirds in the European Union. However, numbers have been dropping since the early 1990s, hitting the lowest ever levels in 2004 – just 70 per cent of 1986 numbers.
The most dramatic declines have been seen in black-legged kittiwakes, Arctic skua, Arctic tern, herring gull, European shag, great black-backed gull and Sandwich tern, and more recently the northern fulmar and common guillemot. The overall number of kittiwakes breeding in Scotland has fallen by more than 60 per cent in the past 15 years. In places like Orkney and St Kilda, a Unesco world heritage site, the news is even worse, with colonies falling to a tenth of their previous levels.
In the past three decades more than half of the 18 species being monitored have shown shrinking populations. Experts are blaming the effects of climate change, including rising temperatures and ocean acidification, as well as scarcity of food and increasing industrialisation of the marine environment for the dramatic losses we are witnessing.
Seabirds are protected on land but have only limited safeguards at sea. Scotland is required under EU law to set out special protection areas (SPAs) to help preserve habitats that are crucial to their survival. A total of 15 of SPAs have been identified by Scottish Natural Heritage and the UK’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee.
Scottish ministers launched a consultation into the proposed sites this summer – but only 10 of them. Five, which have offshore or cross-border elements, have not been taken forward because they require agreement from Westminster. The sites are seas off St Kilda, seas off Foula, Pentland Firth, Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay and the Solway Firth.
The hold-up has raised concern among Scottish environment groups, who fear the lack of action may be condemning some species to extinction. “Without effective protection for these birds, our monitoring amounts to little more than a protracted obituary,” according to Richard Luxmoore, senior nature conservation adviser at the National Trust for Scotland. Alex Kinninmonth, head of marine policy at RSPB Scotland, is also critical of the hold-up. He says: “Right when we should be accelerating seabird conservation efforts, the UK government appears to have pulled the handbrake.”
The situation has prompted members of Scottish Environment Link to write to UK environment minister Thérèse Coffey, urging her to agree to the Scottish Government consulting on the sites without further delay.
A wide range of our precious birds would benefit from the SPAs – including puffins, which are now classified as endangered on the IUCN’s European red list. So come on Westminster, get the finger out and let us try to halt these devastating declines. We need action now – before my puffin becomes nuffin’.