The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust is encouraged by news that at least ten pairs of kittiwakes are showing signs of nesting on the island of Gugh, after an archipelago-wide absence of breeding attempts in 2021.

Gugh, which is attached at low-tide to the bigger island of St Agnes, has previously hosted several nests of kittiwakes, but last year there was a complete absence of nests from these special seabirds across the whole Isles of Scilly. Whilst the birds are showing signs of a more successful year in 2022, the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust is clear that this is only a temporary reprieve, and many seabird species around the islands are showing a worrying downward trend.

The islands are home to breeding populations of thirteen seabird species, but overall, the number of pairs around Scilly have declined by 9.8% since 2006 and by nearly a third (31.5%) since 1983. Data from annual surveys shows that kittiwakes show the most concerning downward trend, with an 89% decline between 2006 and 2016. They are one of five species whose populations have fallen by more than a fifth in this time, including common terns, lesser black-backed gulls, herring gulls and shags.[i]

Kittiwakes are a dainty species of gull, so named for their distinctive, nasal ‘kitti-wayke’ call. They have an elegant appearance, with a small yellow bill and a dark eye. In summer plumage, the wings are all-white apart from the very tips, which look they have been 'dipped in ink'.

In recent years, the sub-colonies of kittiwakes around the Isles of Scilly have gradually been lost, with just one group remaining in 2020. In 2021, a handful of pairs showed interest on the east side of Gugh, but breeding was not attempted at all. This was the first year that kittiwakes completely failed to nest on the Isles of Scilly, down from 266 pairs in 2006, just 15 years previously.

The most recent nesting attempts have given hope; however, the local wildlife charity wants to impress how severe the situation is. Kittiwakes are an IUCN Red-Listed species showing an alarming drop in numbers. Globally, the species is thought to have declined by around 40% since the 1970s. Elsewhere, for example in Orkney and Shetland, the birds have declined by 87% since 2000, and on St Kilda as much as 96% of the breeding population has been lost.[ii]

Dr Vickie Heaney, Seabird Ecologist for the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, said: “Whilst we hope that kittiwakes have received a temporary reprieve this year, we’re still a few weeks away from seeing if the nests are successful. We have everything crossed that they are, but even so, the next few years could make or break some of our seabird populations.”

Seabirds on Scilly have faced mixed fortunes in the last two decades. For example, the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project (2013-2017), a partnership project led by the RSPB, saw the removal of brown rats from St Agnes and Gugh and led to a huge increase in nesting Manx shearwaters and European storm-petrels. However other species are growing increasingly vulnerable.

Dr Heaney continued: “Climate change is perhaps the biggest threat to our seabirds. We suspect that warming seas are changing the behaviour and availability of small fish species like sandeels, making it much harder for adult birds to find food. Kittiwakes, and other species like terns, are key barometers of ocean health; when their populations crash, we know that something is badly wrong. Smaller populations are more vulnerable overall, so are less resilient in the long term against bird flu, predation or disturbance. We can’t lose sight of the real and much bigger threat though, which is undoubtedly climate change.”

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Notes for editors

For more information, contact Lucy McRobert, Communications Manager, Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust
07532 344933 [email protected]

The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust is a locally-run conservation wildlife charity that champions, values and manages our island landscapes for the benefit of current and future generations. Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust Limited. Reg. Charity No. 1097807 Reg. Company No. 04726698.

The Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project ran from 2013-17. The partnership, led by the RSPB, included the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, Natural England, the Duchy of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and supported by the Isles of Scilly Bird Group. In addition to generous support from LIFE, the EU’s programme for financing key environmental schemes across the continent and the UK’s own Heritage Lottery Fund, the Seabird Recovery Project was also supported by the Isles of Scilly’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Sustainable Development Fund and the Isles of Scilly Bird Group.

Images are available here © Ed Marshall for one-time use only in association with this story.

[i] Heaney, V., Seabird Monitoring and Research Project Isles of Scilly 2021 (IoSWT, 2021)