Scots birds’ fate rests on a wing and a prayer

A puffin enjoys some sandeels. Picture: RSPB
A puffin enjoys some sandeels. Picture: RSPB
Share this article
Have your say

OUR offshore species face a bleak future barring a sea change in protection policies, writes Kara Brydson

There is a lot to be said for clichés. “I’ve said it a million times”, “until I’m blue in the face”, “fallen on deaf ears”. How better to explain that your arguments are being repeatedly ignored?

Despite a decade of scientists urging Scotland to act quickly to stem the decline in our seabird populations, when it comes to firm and decisive action by our Government, we’re hitting a brick wall. Sometimes only a cliché hits the spot.

Exaggeration is another matter, and something that RSPB Scotland scientists will never allow. So when experts say that, for example, kittiwake numbers have fallen by 87% in some sites in Orkney, and may be extinct in a human generation, this really should ring alarm bells. Scotland’s seabird ‘cities’ are not only one of the great wonders of the natural world, but bring tourists and their spending money into our coastal communities.

Harsh weather this spring – the coldest in more than 50 years – has compounded the long-term challenges facing our seabirds, including lack of food due to climate change and poor management of human activities. The latter has a 
tailor-made solution: Scotland’s first ever Marine Act gave us the laws to create our new marine planning system and a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Our Government is currently consulting on a network of MPAs in the seas around Scotland. RSPB Scotland and the other environmental charities put our full support behind these new proposals, as MPAs are vital to protect all Scotland’s marine wildlife, from tiny sand eels – seabirds’ main prey – to basking sharks, the second largest shark in the world.

But we’ve been astonished by one glaring omission – other than for the black guillemot (a charismatic inshore bird which, thankfully, is not in decline), the Government has not proposed Marine Protected Areas for seabirds. Despite the Government’s own scientists reporting that 10 out of 18 monitored species have suffered long-term declines. Despite having lost three quarters of Scotland’s arctic skua and tern populations since 1986. Despite the unprecedented ‘wrecks’ of thousands of emaciated puffins washed up on our east coast this spring.

Yes, seabird colonies are protected on land and some protection extends to the water immediately beneath the cliffs. But as soon as a puffin or gannet gets hungry and heads out to sea – where they spend most of their lives – that protection disappears. Without MPAs to protect seabirds’ important feeding ‘hotspots’, their clifftop homes are simply a safe place to starve.

There’s an obtuse argument that European law can protect all our seabirds, but these laws are not designed to protect populations of birds that are of Scottish – rather than international – importance, so our smaller colonies lose out. Anyway, the lack of progress in actually using the European laws means we’re right back to square one there are no MPAs to protect seabirds feeding at sea.

Of course, MPAs alone can’t counteract the effects of climate change, but they can give seabirds a fighting chance against food shortages. Let’s be clear: MPAs for seabirds don’t mean no-go areas for marine industries. Well-managed MPAs will ensure that development is sustainable rather than trashing the healthy environment that both industry and wildlife relies upon. In fact, in May this year, RSPB Scotland and Scottish Environment LINK joined with industry groups from oil and gas, fishing and yachting to write to the Government asking that we follow good science to select MPAs so that multiple benefits can flow from the improved health of our seas.

In the next 12 months the Scottish public will hear a lot about power and responsibility. Scotland is internationally important for seabirds. China has pandas, Australia has the Great Barrier Reef, Scotland has spectacular, noisy and, yes, smelly seabird colonies. Many Scots are rightly proud that our cliffs give the majority of Europe’s seabirds a home.

The Scottish Government has marine conservation completely within its gift. We have one chance to protect seabirds where they need it most … at sea. Let’s not miss the boat.

• Kara Brydson is head of marine policy at RSPB Scotland

• More information on becoming a Friend of The Scotsman