Farne Islands' wardens count cost of poor weather on Puffin population

It will be a nippy time for wardens on the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast – and not just because of the cold weather

Puffins on the Farne Islands
Puffins on the Farne Islands

It will be a nippy time for wardens on the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast – and not just because of the cold weather.

They have started a census of the puffin population across eight islands, an exercise which is carried out every five years.

Puffins nest underground in burrows, which means the National Trust wardens have to put their arms into the holes to make sure that the nests are occupied during the comprehensive count.

And that often earns them a painful nip from any resident birds.

The count should show any impact from severe weather in March, which saw many hundreds of dead puffins washed up on North East beaches.

It is thought that offshore gale-force winds, high seas and extreme cold prevented the birds from feeding.

The census dates from 1939, when 3,000 breeding pairs were recorded. Until 2008, each survey since the census began showed a steady increase in pairs of puffins on the Farne Islands, with 55,674 pairs counted in 2003.

But the last survey in 2008 recorded only 36,500 pairs.

David Steel, Farne Islands head warden, said: “David Attenborough recently said that the Farnes during the breeding season is his favourite place in the UK to see magnificent wildlife and, with thousands of puffins with their black and white feathers and colourful beaks, you can understand why.

“We’ve been monitoring a small section of the Farnes every year since the last census in 2008 and have seen a small increase in numbers in this area. We’re hoping to see an increase in overall numbers this year but you can’t tell after the winter we’ve just had.”

Factors favouring puffins on the Farne Islands include better protection, good sources of food, a lack of ground predators and the availability of suitable nesting areas.

But David said: “This March was the coldest on record since 1962 and this could impact on breeding numbers.

“The extreme winds affected the puffin’s ability to feed as they made their way back to their summer breeding grounds. It will be interesting to see the results of the puffin census, which we will have available to share in July.”

For the first time, nest cameras have been inserted into puffin burrows to record the birds’ behaviour in detail.

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