Protected gulls face year-round danger of hitting wind turbines

One of the UK’s best known seabirds birds faces a significant danger of crashing into wind turbines while migrating and during the winter months as well as in the breeding season, new research suggests.

Photo by FLPA/Shutterstock (3252094a)
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Photo by FLPA/Shutterstock (3252094a) Lesser Black-backed Gull

As part of the study, by scientists from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), lesser black-backed gulls breeding at three major UK colonies were fitted with state-of-the-art satellite tags to track their movements throughout the year.

By combining data from the tags with information about onshore and offshore wind turbine locations, the researchers were able to establish how vulnerable the species might be to collisions.

The tags recorded how fast and how high birds fly, as well as the time they spent in particular areas.

The information was used to estimate the risk of birds colliding with wind turbines when flying at similar altitudes to turbine blades.

The results showed the gulls are vulnerable during the breeding season, when they must stay close to their nests in order to feed chicks.

Many colonies are also in the vicinity of wind farms.

But the scientists also found the birds continue to be at risk when the breeding season is over and they head south to Spain, Portugal and north Africa to spend winter.

There are now estimated to be more than 341,000 wind turbines installed across the globe as part of worldwide efforts to tackle climate change, but there is a lack of knowledge about their true impacts on wildlife.

Lead researcher Dr Chris Thaxter, senior research ecologist at the BTO, said: “We knew that lesser black-backed gulls were at risk of colliding with wind turbines, but what we didn’t know was where and when birds from specific breeding colonies may be most vulnerable across their annual life cycle.

“The fact that we have been able to answer some of these questions is testimony to the advances in tracking technology we have seen in recent years. Mapping vulnerability to collision risk in this way can also help identify where may be best to site new wind farms in the future to minimise any harm to wildlife.”

The lesser black-backed gull is found only in Europe.

The UK is a global breeding stronghold, with 40 per cent of the total population – although more than half of these are found at fewer than ten sites .

The species is amber-listed and protected by law.

Co-researcher Dr Viola Ross-Smith added: “We were surprised to see how vulnerable lesser black-backed gulls could be to collision at some of their wintering destinations.”

Despite declining numbers, the gulls can be unpopular in seaside towns due to their habit of stealing people’s food.