Five go camping to protect colony of threatened terns in Northumberland

The five assistant wardens, all in their 20s, are employed by the National Trust to keep a 24-hour guard on the rare birds from May to August

David Woodfall Little tern and chick at the Long Nanny site in Northumberland
Little tern and chick at the Long Nanny site in Northumberland
Living in tents for three months amid Northumberland sand dunes is about to pay off for five hardy souls.

Chicks from a nesting colony of little terns, which the team is protecting, are about to start fledging.

Obstacles which have been overcome include the threat from high tides which can wash away eggs and chicks from the birds’ beach nesting scrapes.

Then there are would-be egg thieves, natural predators and disturbance from unaware walkers and off-leash dogs.

The colony is at Long Nanny, between Beadnell and Low Newton.

The five assistant wardens, all in their 20s, are employed by the National Trust to keep a 24-hour guard on the rare birds from May to August.

This includes a nightshift from 10pm-6am, when a bright torchlight is used to scare off predators.

There is no electricity or running water, but the team has a garden hut which houses their bottled gas-powered fridge and cooker.

National Trust coastal warden Jane Lancaster delivers water to the site by 4X4 vehicle and takes away the rubbish.

“I also sometimes do a big shop for the team,” says Jane.

Otherwise, it’s a 20-minute walk to Beadnell for basic provisions, which have to be carried back across the dunes.

But nothing dulls the team’s enthusiasm. Jane says: “They live, eat, breathe and sleep the tern site. They absolutely love it.”

David Woodfall Assistant wardens Chris Bridge, Wynona Legg and Nathan Wilkie
Assistant wardens Chris Bridge, Wynona Legg and Nathan Wilkie

Little terns are especially vulnerable because they nest on the beach near the water mark.

They are under threat from rising sea levels and coastal erosion. The beach at Long Nanny is six inches lower than it was last year.

When high tides are due, the team move eggs and chicks on to fish boxes to keep them from being washed away.

Last year, eggs from the region’s other significant little tern site at Crimdon in County Durham were stolen by illegal collectors.

The site is roped off and the wardens guide walkers away from the nesting site, while explaining the situation, and ask that dogs are put on leads.

People can view the birds from a platform equipped with a telescope.

Little terns return to the UK each spring from West Africa but there are only around 1,500 pairs nesting at fewer than 60 sites around the country.

They are the second rarest breeding seabird in the UK.

This year there were 41 breeding pairs of little terns at Long Nanny, with 36 youngsters expected to fledge. They share the site with 2,500 pairs of arctic terns.

There are scores of applications for the five seasonal jobs.

Jane says: “It’s basic living. We are looking for hardy outdoor types with initiative, and a passion for wildlife. It’s a unique wildlife experience. It can be one of those experiences which change your life.”

The nest protection work is part of the Northumberland Little Tern Project, a five-year initiative aimed at helping breeding little terns on the county’s coast.

The project is supported by EU LIFE+ and is a partnership between the RSPB, Northumberland AONB, National Trust and Natural England..

The Long Nanny tern site is also supported by the National Trust’s Neptune Coastline Campaign, to which people can contribute.

It raises funds to manage change on the 742 miles of trust coastline and provide access where possible. The tern site in Northumberland
The tern site in Northumberland

The Long Nanny team members are Wynona Legg, from Cornwall; Chantal Macleod-Nolan, from Glasgow; Chris Bridge, from Ormskirk in Lancashire; Nathan Wilkie, from Dover and Tom Hibbert, of Nottingham.

Ecology graduate Wynona, 24, grew up with nature on the family dairy farm in Cornwall.

She says: “Little tern wardening is a very basic living experience. However, we are living in a beautiful location looking after the birds.

“I love it here. We all work together really well and waking up to the sound of the birds is pretty amazing.

“You get addicted to the birds. You are surrounded by them in what is a special place and you watch them nesting, laying eggs, and the youngsters growing.

“Its great being able to show people the terns because not many people know about the site, But we get really nervous when there is a high tide.”

For Wynona, the best moment of the nightshift is when the sun comes up around 4am.

“You watch the terns wake up and go fishing in small parties. Watching the sunrise can be stunning. You feel like the only person in the world.

“There are also a lot of other birds around and the wild flowers,” says Wynona, who rarely misses an opportunity to sketch what she sees.

She says: “I’ll be sad to leave. None of us want to go. But when the birds move on, it’s time for us to move on.”


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