Puffins ‘early victims of climate change’

Puffins on the Farne Islands are one of two coastal species of birds that could be at risk as climate change takes effect on the nation's coastline

Puffins on the Farne Islands
Puffins on the Farne Islands

Puffins are one of two coastal species in the region which could be “seriously affected” by erosion and climate change, a conservation charity is warning.

The bird, along with little terns, are among six species the National Trust believes could be at risk as rising sea levels, warming water and increasingly unpredictable weather change the nation’s coastline.

The trust says the UK coast is already affected by rising sea levels, projections suggesting seas could be half a metre higher than now by 2100.

Warming seas and more unpredictable weather as a result of climate change could also have a major impact on coast habitats and wildlife, it adds.

Puffins have one of their strongholds on the Farne Islands, off Seahouses in Northumberland, with about 37,000 breeding pairs there.

The survey reveals that the bird’s main prey, the sand eel, has been replaced by the bony and indigestible snake pipefish, which is moving North as a result of overfishing and warming seas. Last year’s washout summer also hit the burrow-nesting birds, and cold and spring storms are said to have led to the worst “bird wreck” in 50 years.

The 2013 five-yearly survey of the Farnes population nevertheless found numbers up on 2008, though not as high as in 2003.

The Northumberland coast is said to have two per cent of the national breeding population of little terns, with strongholds at Long Nanny near Beadnell as well as at Crimdon beach in County Durham.

The trust is warning that because the birds nest in colonies on sand and shingle beaches just above the high tide line, they are vulnerable to exceptional high tides and summer storms, likely to become more frequent.

Matthew Oates, wildlife specialist at the trust, said: “Climate change could change the face of our coastal flora and fauna. With rising sea levels, our rich mud flats could simply disappear.

“Wildlife which relies on the gradual erosion of soft rock cliffs or lives on loose sand and shingle habitats could be caught out by an increasingly mobile landscape as a result of extreme weather.” He said weather extremes would be a big factor in how wildlife fared, with extreme heat, cold, drought and wet months on the cards.

“We are likely to see the boom and bust of more specialist plants and animals, as they suffer from increased flooding, salt deposition or drought stress. Unfortunately there may be more bust than boom,” he said.

David Bullock, trust head of nature conservation, said: “The coast is at the forefront of how a changing climate will affect wildlife in the UK and is very vulnerable to the forces of change.

“Our six coastal ‘canaries in the mine’ indicate how plants, animals and ourselves will have to live with an increasing rate of environmental change.”

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