Puffins in Yorkshire: Iconic birds thrown a lifeline in bid to held colourful animals thrive

Seabirds on the East Yorkshire coast provide one of the most dramatic of natural sights and there is new hope they may soon thrive again. Steve Teale reports.

There is new hope for the puffin in Yorkshire. They are now beginning to arrive on the cliffs on the East Yorkshire coast, ready for the breeding season but the situation is far from healthy.

Around one in four puffins may have been lost from across the UK since 2000 and so RSPB warns much more is still to be done to help these charismatic birds, and other seabirds, amidst the nature and climate emergency.

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It comes as puffins have begun arriving back at RSPB Bempton Cliffs. The nature reserve’s conservationists are celebrating their renewed hope for this most iconic of bird species.

Puffins have been thrown a lifeline in Yorkshire (Credit: Ellen Leach)Puffins have been thrown a lifeline in Yorkshire (Credit: Ellen Leach)
Puffins have been thrown a lifeline in Yorkshire (Credit: Ellen Leach)

Whilst much loved by the visiting public, many people may not know that the puffin is on the red list of conservation concern, which means it is one of our most rare and threatened seabirds.

RSPB Bempton Cliffs is home to the UK’s largest mainland seabird colony, of national and international importance. Around half a million seabirds, including gannets, kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills as well as around 3,000 puffins breed here each year, on the dramatic 400 feet high chalk cliffs.

Bempton’s internationally important seabird population means it has special protection. It is both a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and its European importance is recognised in its designation as a Special Protection Area (SPA).

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puffins gather on average around 10 sandeels in their beaks from a single foraging trip (the record though being 83). These days they carry far fewer.

Now there is new optimism that puffins will once again be returning to their chicks with many more fish packed into their brightly coloured beaks.

Sandeels, the main food source for puffins, are a vital link in the food chain and play an important role in the North Sea ecosystem, but their numbers have been rapidly declining.

Following the much-celebrated announcement by DEFRA to stop Sandeel fishing in UK waters from April 1, conservationists have been waiting with excitement to see these iconic birds arriving back at Yorkshire’s RSPB Bempton Cliffs.

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The puffins will continue arriving throughout April, stay to raise their pufflings (one egg is laid per puffin) and then leave at the end of July. They winter out at sea and whilst it’s not known exactly where, it’s believed they are widely dispersed out in the North Sea and wider Atlantic Ocean.

The most recent seabird census, Seabirds Count, published in November 2023, suggests over the last 20 years that shockingly around one in four puffins have been lost from across the UK since 2000.

Part of the reason for this is thought to be the decline in populations of sandeels, a vital food source for some of the UK’s most vulnerable seabirds, such as the iconic puffin and kittiwakes, also a red listed bird, and marine mammals.

Seen touching down on the chalky Yorkshire cliffs, the return of puffins this year will be a welcome sight, not least to those who have tirelessly campaigned to protect their main food source.

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Tens of thousands of people, including RSPB supporters, called for an end to the fishing of sandeels in UK waters last year. Now, with the sandeel fishing closure in place, seabirds, including puffins, have been thrown a lifeline.

Dave O’Hara, Senior Site Manager, RSPB Bempton Cliffs, said: “RSPB Bempton Cliffs here in Yorkshire is home to one of the UK’s top wildlife spectacles.

“But these populations of seabirds are at the forefront of the climate emergency, and they are in significant decline. puffins’ resilience is being pushed to the limit, which is why we can breathe a sigh of relief that industrial sandeel fishing in UK waters has now been ended.

“This lifeline will help to secure vital food sources for these amazing birds. Whilst many other factors continue to affect our seabird populations, including the impacts of climate change, and bycatch from fishing, we have renewed hope that sandeels will increase in numbers, and help to save our beloved puffins.

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“Healthier Sandeel populations mean fatter healthier chicks, which is brilliant news, and we absolutely cannot take the puffins’ future for granted.”

Whilst the closure of sandeel fishing has been welcomed, it is predicted that the UK’s puffin population could plunge 90 per cent by 2050 if global warming is unchecked. Facing threats to both their nesting sites and their food supply, the climate crisis is sadly only making things worse for these clowns of the sea.

Puffins returning to Bempton Cliffs this month will be heading directly to their same nest to breed. Other seabirds will also benefit from the fishing closure, including Kittiwakes which feed at the surface of the sea and other marine life such as whales, porpoises, and seals.

RSPB’s director for conservation, Katie-jo Luxton, said: “Ending the industrial fishing of sandeels – while a huge win for threatened birds such as puffins and kittiwakes - is just the first step in the efforts needed to safeguard seabirds.

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"We are in a nature and climate emergency, and our seabirds face a barrage of pressures; overfishing and climate change affecting food availability, poorly planned offshore marine development excluding them from key habitats, and, most recently, the devastating impacts of bird flu. We therefore cannot take the arrival of puffins back to our shores for granted.”

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