Allan Whyte: Creating protected areas for seabirds is vital

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A trip to one of Scotland’s seabird colonies is an unforgettable experience.

Whether you are on a clifftop looking out or on a boat bobbing alongside an island teeming with squawking, swooping seabirds, you can’t help but be impressed by the variety and sheer number of birds.

However, over the last 20 years, this remarkable wildlife spectacle has been disappearing, and when you start reading the statistics, a deeply troubling picture emerges. Some of our best-loved seabird species like razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes are in rapid decline, particularly in the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland.

Harsh weather conditions earlier this year have added to the considerable long-term challenges seabirds face, including lack of food due to the impact of climate change on the marine food chain, and poor management of human activities in the marine environment.

Early monitoring from our coastal reserves across the country suggests adult seabirds are arriving late for the breeding season and in poor condition.

Seabird counts on some sites around Orkney indicate an 87 per cent reduction in the number of kittiwakes compared with counts conducted on the same sites as part of the last seabird census in 2000. Razorbills are down 57 per cent from a total of 2228 in 2000 to just 966 in 2013 and guillemots have declined by 46 per cent during the same period.

Meanwhile, seabird counts on Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde suggest a poor season for species like guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes, with the latter declining by 70 per cent since 2000.

Although these declines in numbers of birds present may just be a temporary effect of the bad spring weather, the underlining trend for many years now has been downward.

That’s why the Scottish Government must designate Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for seabirds, and the sand eels they feed on, in order to give them a fighting chance of survival.

Giving seabirds the protection they deserve can help boost resilience in their declining population and allow them to recover after many poor breeding seasons. To find out more about Scotland’s seabirds and Marine Protected Areas, please visit: www.rspb.org.uk/scotlandsealife

• Allan Whyte is RSPB Scotland’s marine policy officer.