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Seabird 2000

by Steve Portugal

Razorbill(right - Razorbill by Colin Bates)
A national survey to assess the status of all breeding seabirds in Britain and Ireland was officially launched on April 12th 1999 at Bempton Cliff's nature reserve in Yorkshire. The project, titled 'Seabird 2000', is a collaboration between the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and is the third national census of all the United Kingdom's seabird colonies (the other two being in 69/70 and 85/86). By using newly developed techniques to monitor the more trickier species such as Storm Petrel's (Hydrobates pelagicus) and Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus), it is anticipated that the results gained from the survey will be the most extensive and accurate record of British seabirds yet. The survey relies on a combination of regional co-ordinators working with skilled volunteers and experts from the funding partners.

Speaking at the launch, Seabird 2000 Project Co-ordinator Dr Ian Mitchell said: "Seabird 2000 is an excellent example of a national initiative that is relying on input from all areas within the UK, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to make it a success".

(left - Shag by Simon Manning)
As well as providing the most accurate record of the status of seabirds throughout the UK, Seabird 2000 will also set a sound scientific basis on which conservation decisions can be made in the new millennium. Once the survey is complete, the results will be published offering the most comprehensive and accurate picture of seabird conservation status in the UK ever available. It will be an invaluable research tool for anyone involved in surveying, monitoring and conserving seabirds."
It is vital that Britain's 24 breeding species of seabird are counted and monitored. There a 4 million breeding pairs spread over 3,300 colonies on 40,000km of coastline. More importantly, Britain supports internationally important numbers of some seabird species. 94% of the world's Manx Shearwater population breeds around the UK, as well as 84% of the worlds Gannets, and 58% for the Great Skuas.

Seabird conservation is of paramount importance as Seabird colonies are under threat through over-fishing, attacks by predators, pollution and climate change. Knowing how populations and species are faring as time passes is vitally important for taking action to protect them. Some British and Irish seabird colonies are protected by international law - as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the EC Birds Directive, or as Ramsar sites under the Ramsar Convention. The British and Irish Governments are therefore obliged by law to monitor seabird populations at these sites on a regular basis. So the JNCC, as the British Government's advisers on nature conservation, must regularly and accurately update their knowledge of the size and distribution of seabird populations, so that changes over time and their causes can be identified. As the Governments main advisors, the JNCC also maintains the Seabird Colony Register, which contains records from all known seabird colonies in Britain and Ireland and co-ordinates the Seabird Monitoring Programme. Under this scheme, regular counts of breeding pairs and numbers of chicks fledged are recorded at selected colonies by conservation organisations, as well as by dozens of volunteers. As 1986 was the last survey date, it could be argued that Seabird 2000 is unnecessary as it likely the numbers will not have changed that dramatically, but another seabird census of this scale will determine whether population trends recorded at local levels by the Seabird Monitoring Programme are representative of national trends and reveal long-term national trends (over the last 30 years) by comparing its findings with those of the two previous censuses.

Arctic SkuaDue to the foot and mouth epidemic that broke out during the summer of 2001, some important elements of the Seabird 2000 survey were either not completed or did not go ahead. One such survey is the Shetland Skua survey. Due to the importance of the Shetland Islands as breeding sites for numerous seabird species and the nature of the terrain, the surveying was to be done by the RSPB and SOTEAG (Scotland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group). The Shetlands, along with the Orkneys, are the UK strongholds of both Arctic and Great Skua species. Previous figures had shown a 31% decline in Arctic Skua (Stercorarius parasiticus) (right by Dave Nurney) numbers on Shetland and a 52% decline on Orkney. Amongst other reasons, the increase in Great Skua (Stercorarius skua) numbers is thought to be a possible contributing factor in the decrease of breeding success of the Arctic Skua. A previous estimate of the total number of breeding pairs of Arctic Skuas in the United Kingdom was quoted as 3,100 and 8,800 for the Great Skua. It's hoped that a complete survey of the Shetland Islands will give an accurate, more realistic picture of the total number of breeding pairs for both species.

Originally the planned completion date of Seabird 2000 was September 2001, but due to the foot and mouth setback it will be some time before the results are published. It is anticipated that the results will be some surprise, particularly where petrels and shearwater numbers are concerned. Population predictions of Manx Shearwater in 1987 were 235,000 breeding pairs, whilst petrol numbers were only described as numbers of colonies (72 colonies for Storm Petrel and 7 colonies for Leach's Petrel). It is hoped that Seabird 2000 will show these figures to be an underestimate, and even a new colony may be discovered.

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Steve Portugal, 22, is a recent marine biology graduate from Aberystwyth. He lives in Dorset and has been birdwatching around the country from a very young age. He is currently working with the RSPB and begins a PhD in Glasgow at the end of the year.