Rangers gear up for first full count of Farne Islands’ puffins in five years

Rangers on the Farne Islands are gearing up for their first full puffin count for five years, amid hopes that the key breeding site is free of bird flu.

The National Trust, which looks after the islands, said 2024 is a critical year for the annual census of the internationally significant puffin colony off the Northumberland coast, after monitoring was curtailed from 2020 to 2023.

Counts were limited in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid pandemic, which led to the islands having to close and rangers only able to work as and when restrictions allowed, and then by outbreaks of bird flu in 2022 and 2023.

Puffins Farne Islands
This year’s puffin count on the Farne Islands will be the first full census since 2019 (Owen Humphreys/PA)

That means 2024 will be the first full count since 2019, with eight of the 28 islands being surveyed for an overall picture of numbers of puffins, which are red listed as vulnerable to extinction globally.

Limited sample surveys across only two to four islands over the last four years indicated the average number of breeding pairs was fewer than 40,000 compared with nearly 44,000 in 2019.

So this year’s count will help obtain a more complete picture of how the birds are faring, the National Trust said.

So far, rangers say, there have not been any signs of the bird flu that devasted the islands’ seabird populations in recent years, which has raised hopes of growing immunity among birds to the virus.

But while bird flu has not emerged as an issue so far this year, the National Trust warns it looks as though it might still be a challenging season for seabirds on the Farnes, and around the country, in the wake of the disease and extreme weather.

Tom Hendry, area ranger for the National Trust on the Farne Islands, said: “All the seabirds which return here to breed, as well as the ones that live here all year round, have been through an incredibly rough time these past few years.

“We know over 9,600 seabirds perished on the islands due to bird flu – with thousands more likely to have died at sea – but, thankfully, as yet we have not seen any signs of the disease since the seabirds have returned to breed.

“As we start this year’s count, the fact that bird flu has so far been absent is extremely welcome, and we’re really hoping that the puffins, and all our seabirds, will have a successful breeding season.”

Puffins Farne Islands
The National Trust, which looks after the Farne Islands, said 2024 is a critical year for the internationally significant puffin colony (Owen Humphreys/PA)

The puffins return to breed on the Farnes in late March or early April each year, after spending the winter out at sea, nesting underground in burrows and staying until the last chicks – known as pufflings – fledge in mid-August.

Rangers closely monitor burrows for signs of whether they are occupied, including looking for activity such as scratching, signs of fresh digging or loose soil, and sometimes putting their arm into the burrow to carefully check for occupants.

This year the team are also considering using endoscope cameras to check burrows for the fist time to further minimise any disruption to the birds.

Puffins Farne Islands
The National Trust warned other seabirds on the Farne Islands appear to be suffering stark declines (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Other seabirds on the islands appear to be suffering stark declines, the Trust warned, with shag numbers only about 15% of what would be expected, following autumn storms which would have restricted their ability to feed and caused many to die.

Arctic terns have also arrived later and in small numbers, probably affected by the unsettled and wet spring, while guillemot numbers are down by nearly a half as colonies struggle to recover from bird flu, the National Trust said.

Mr Hendry said: “Although there haven’t been any signs of bird flu so far, it’s looking like it might still be a challenging season for seabirds on the Farnes and around the country.

“Two seasons of bird flu and challenging weather conditions with many storms have certainly taken a toll on the colonies, and numbers of certain populations are less than what we’d have hoped for.”

Ben McCarthy, head of nature conservation at the National Trust, said: “Our breeding seabird colonies are internationally important, but are being impacted by many pressures such as food availability and climate change.

“The ongoing pressures the birds face each year is a sombre reminder of the work that still needs to be done to restore nature.

“Our monitoring efforts are a crucial piece of the jigsaw in understanding how efforts to conserve these birds are faring and just how much work is still left to do if we want to achieve the international targets of 30% of our seas being restored and healthy for nature by 2030.”