As the Yorkshire Belle sails again, wildlife experts explain how the seabird colonies at RSPB Bempton Cliffs have adapted and grown - with some using fishing rope and Tesco bags to line their nests

Their raucous cries fill the air, thousands of seabirds whirling about and cramming onto tiny ledges in what was must be one of nature’s busiest and biggest maternity wards.

From the “old tractor” sound made by the biggest birds - the gannets - to the screeching of the guillemots, the noise and guano-tinged air stun the senses.

Among them darting about, rather quietly, are the birds the visitors have come to see.

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The puffins are the smallest, but the undoubted stars of the show, their bright orange legs and feet and multi-coloured beaks making them stand out among the other darker hues.

The RSPB puffin and gannet cruise approaches Bempton Cliffs Picture: Simon Hulme
The RSPB puffin and gannet cruise approaches Bempton Cliffs Picture: Simon Hulme

But their gaudy colours will only last until breeding is over and the plates on their beak - made like our nails from keratin - shrivel and drop off, and they turn back to a dull, rather inconspicuous, bird of winter.

It is such a difference that they used to get mistaken for being an entirely different species.

Although they can be seen from the cliffs above, the best view has to be from on board the Yorkshire Belle which runs RSPB trips regularly over the summer from Bridlington.

The cry goes up “puffins at eight o’clock” as the Belle gently turns into Breile Newk, getting tight up against the cliffs for the breathtaking spectacle of birds carpeting the sea and sitting tight on their eggs on impossible-looking slopes.

The star of the show - a puffin in its colourful summer colours

Now and then, bits of bright blue fishing rope can be seen in the gannet nests - on Queen Rock, which stands tall out of the sea, a herring gull has made its home in a tyre.

“You used to see Tesco and Sainsburys bags (in the nests) - anything brightly coloured. They’ve even found crisp packets and false teeth.

“If they see it floating in the sea they will have it,” says volunteer Steve Rose, adding that is a good sign not to see any bags today. “I think we are all learning from the experts not to dispose of plastic.”

Elsewhere, puffin numbers have plummeted. But at Bempton, figures are reassuringly stable - although at only about 3,500 individuals they are few in number, compared to the tens of thousands of gannets who also come here to breed.

Blue fishing rope ends up in many a gannet's nest

RSPB seabird cruise leader Keith Barrow explained that elsewhere colonies have been struggling through lack of food, mainly tiny sandeels. They get hoovered up mainly by the Danes, who extract their oil and use the solids for fish meal - they used to use them as fuel for power stations.

The Bempton birds, on the other hand, have access to a couple of decent fishing spots off the Humber.

“All we are doing is getting people out there and enjoying themselves and trying to get over how important the colony is and some of the problems we are facing,” said Mr Barrow.

Everything constantly evolves. In 1969, there were only 21 pairs of gannets, while in 2017 there were 13,392.

Guillemots lining the crevices in the cliffs

What were once the homes of herring gulls became that of guillemot, and now they have been ousted by gannets.

Similarly, views change. These days people come and admire the birds, but in the 1850s, shooting parties would set out from Bridlington and kill as many as possible. Kittiwake feathers were very popular in women’s hats.

The vicar of Bridlington Priory was so incensed he got MPs together and the Sea Birds Preservation Act was passed in 1869 - 20 years before the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds came into being.

The decision to delay “Freedom Day” on June 21 threw the spanner in the works for the owners of the Yorkshire Belle, which had to launch a fundraising appeal last winter.

They were hoping social distancing restrictions would be eased allowing them to carry more passengers but will now “have to soldier on for another month carrying just a quarter of our capacity”.

Joint owner Peter Richardson said the costs remained exactly the same, as if they were carrying full loads, and they weren’t building up a reserve for next winter’s maintenance. The hope is that restrictions will be lifted for the start of the summer holidays. If not, their future could again be plunged into doubt.

Gannets on a clifftop - there are now

The RSPB usually runs two trips every week until the end of August. There will be two final ones in September.

For details of all the cruises run on the Yorkshire Belle - from half-an-hour to three hours long - visit www.yorkshire-belle.co.uk.