Seabird breeding crisis spreads to England

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England's biggest seabird colony is suffering from the global warming-induced severe food shortage that has devastated the birds of the Northern Isles of Scotland.

England's biggest seabird colony is suffering from the global warming-induced severe food shortage that has devastated the birds of the Northern Isles of Scotland.

Bempton Cliffs, the towering 400ft chalk cliffs on the Yorkshire coast near Flamborough Head, where 200,000 seabirds nest, are this year witnessing the same large-scale breeding failure that has hit seabird colonies all over Orkney and Shetland. The spectacular breeding crash in the islands, revealed in yesterday's Independent, is likely to prove the first major impact of climate change on Britain.

But Scotland is not alone. The 45,000-strong colony of kittwakes, (small gulls) at Bempton has just had its worst breeding season ever, reports the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which says that the nesting success rate has been "unbelievably bad," and thinks the failure is for the same reasons as those seen in Scotland.

RSPB wardens estimate that this year there will be fewer than one chick raised for every four kittiwake nests at Bempton. The long-term average is one chick per nest.

The wardens are convinced that the birds are failing because they cannot find enough sandeels, the small silvery shoaling fish that make up the key component in their diet. Sandeel shortages are behind the breeding disaster in the Northern Isles. Stocks in the North Sea have been shrinking in recent years, and research has linked this decline with the rising temperature of the water, which has gone up by 2C in 20 years. This year the Northern Isles sandeel stocks have vanished and they have been seriously depleted further south.

The RSPB said yesterday: "The news from Bempton Cliffs is particularly alarming because, like the canary in the coal mine, the fortunes of kittiwakes are regarded as an important measure of the health of the marine environment. The UK government uses kittiwakes as an indicator of the state of the sea."

Trevor Charlton, the RSPB warden at Bempton Cliffs, said that kittiwakes all along the Yorkshire coast had had an "unbelievably bad" breeding season. "The news from many seabird colonies along the North Sea coast is very gloomy this year," he said.

"It's a strong sign that something is seriously wrong. There is an urgent need for more research into the sandeel situation and continued monitoring of seabird populations. If climate change predictions are correct, then the situation will get even worse in the coming years."

Although climate change is believed to be the cause of the current sandeel decline around Orkney and Shetland - because the cold-water plankton on which the young fish depend have moved northwards - there is a large industrial fishery for sandeels in the central North Sea, carried out by Danish boats.

The Danes catch the oil-rich sandeels in enormous quantities and process them into fish meal for feeding to livestock and farmed salmon. Last year they had an EU fisheries quota of 800,000 tons - but they were only able to catch 300,000 tons of it, said Dr Euan Dunn, the RSPB's head of marine policy.

The time had now come for this quota to be set at a more precautionary level, Dr Dunn said, adding that the RSPB would be looking to the UK Government to take up the case at the EU Fisheries Council this autumn.

Government seabird biologists fear that the widespread breeding failures this year could be the start of a population slide. "Although seabirds such as kittiwakes are inherently 'buffered' against the occasional years of poor food supply - they are long-lived and have a high annual survival rate - continued unproductive seasons will lead to a population decline," said Dr Matt Parsons of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee seabird colony team in Aberdeen.