Nature Studies: We’re denying help to our seabird communities when they most need it

The timing couldn’t be worse. Thousands of birds have died in the storms

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Some truths are strongly counter-intuitive. For example, you simply would not think, would you, that seabirds can be killed by the sea? Creatures which have spent millions of years evolving in a particular environment, you might assume, would long ago have learned to deal with any difficulties which that environment might throw up. And you would be right. On the whole.

But there can be circumstances for which evolution has not quite prepared some living things, and the recent exceptional spate of Atlantic storms has been one of them. Not only did it bring flooding and destruction to parts of the human environment in Britain, especially in the West Country; it is becoming clear that British seabirds, in the Western Approaches particularly, have suffered a parallel natural disaster.

Tens of thousands of birds – particularly auks such as puffins, guillemots (pictured) and razorbills – have died as a result of the seemingly endless gales of the last two months. Their remains are now being washed up on the coasts of Wales, Cornwall and the Channel Islands, and even more so on the Atlantic coast of France – that is, the beaches of the Bay of Biscay, which is where large numbers of British puffins and their auk cousins spend the winter.

It is one of the largest “wrecks” of seabirds ever witnessed and bears comparison with the huge bird mortalities caused by the oil spills from tanker disasters of recent years, such as the Amoco Cadiz in 1978 and the Erika in 1999, both off the coast of Brittany, as well as the 1993 spill of the tanker Braer off Shetland and the 1996 spill of the Sea Empress off south Wales.

And counter-intuitive though it may be, it is indeed the sea that’s killing them. The birds are dying because this winter, they have had to expend too much energy fighting big waves and big winds over a long period at a time, when food is harder than ever to find, since fish shoals are broken up in the storms. Latest estimates from the Wildlife Trusts partnership suggest a confirmed death toll of around 25,000, which is expected to rise steadily as more corpses are washed ashore.

This natural disaster only serves to underline how vulnerable our seabirds are to other threats, such as the oil spills, and increasingly to two more dangers – climate change, and overfishing. Seabird colonies in northern Britain, in areas such as Orkney and Shetland, are doing increasingly badly – in some, only a fifth of the breeding birds are raising chicks – and this has happened because their food, largely small fish called sandeels, has disappeared. It may be because of too much trawling, or it may be because in rising water temperatures the sandeels have moved north – but they’re no longer available, and fears are growing that all British seabird colonies may similarly suffer.

Yet just at this very moment, the single most sophisticated tool for monitoring seabird populations in Britain is being thrown on the scrapheap by a new Welsh quango. Natural Resources Wales, set up last year to incorporate the old Countryside Council for Wales with the Welsh sections of the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission, is abolishing the funding for the long-term monitoring of the large guillemot colony on Skomer island – it has more than 20,000 pairs – off the coast of Pembrokeshire.

Carried out by the University of Sheffield under Professor Tim Birkhead, this has been going on for 40 years and is so detailed that it can detect real (as opposed to apparent) influences on the colony’s population very quickly. There is nothing else quite like it in Britain – yet it’s being scrapped “so that we can provide best value for money”. It strikes me as crazy. The funding is peanuts in corporate terms – £12,000 a year. Hedge funders spend more on a single bottle of wine.

“This programme generates absolutely critical data,” said Dr Lizzie Wilberforce, conservation manager of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. “The funding is being withdrawn just when we need it most. The timing couldn’t be worse – we really need to understand how our birds are reacting to these threats if we are to be equipped to help them.”

As you look at the images of dead seabirds, then, remember the name:  Natural Resources Wales. It’s a moderately obscure new quango, and the chairman, Professor Peter Matthews, and the chief executive, Dr Emyr Roberts, have had hardly any national publicity. But they’re going to get some now, for one of the most irredeemably stupid decisions that a body supposed to have the protection of the natural world at its heart could possibly take.

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