But now puffins - and two other once common Yorkshire birds - are running a greater risk of extinction than humpback whales, according to conservationists, who have put them on a global “red” list of endangered species for the first time
Senior conservation officer Tim Melling from the RSPB said they had been horrified to see puffins, turtle doves and pochards - a type of duck - facing the same level of extinction threat as African elephant and lion in the survey by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and BirdLife international.
Mr Melling warned that in the worst case scenario puffins could vanish from Bempton - where numbers appear to be in “freefall” - in just a decade, if global warming continues unabated. And he said it is now a struggle to find a pochard - a species of duck once a common sight in places like Fairburn Ings - while turtledoves - have “almost vanished” from Yorkshire.
Ironically the last bird to become globally extinct was the great auk, a close relative of the puffin.
The last full count of the notoriously difficult to count puffins at Bempton was in 2008 Then they counted 958 birds - or around 450 pairs. It’s a huge drop from 1987, when there were around 3,500 pairs.
Mr Melling said puffins came to Bempton for the inaccessible cliffs which protect them from predators including badgers and foxes, as well as being close to their main source of food, sand eels. But the eels have been shifting northwards - and puffins are not able to simply up sticks and follow them.
He said: “As the temperature has risen in the sea just a few degrees, the cold water copepods (plankton which the sand eels feed on) move north and warm water ones take their place - but they not as nutritious and abundant and their breeding cycle is not in synch with the sand eels.
“The sand eels move north but the puffins can’t move to Aberdeenshire because of the lack of nooks and crevices.”
And it’s not only puffins that are suffering from the lack of sand eels at Bempton, with kittiwake numbers also “tumbling”, he said.
Numbers of wintering pochards, which escape freezing Scandinavia and Russia for the milder climes of the UK, are also going down. “We are not sure why,” said Mr Melling. “It is another really worrying one.”
There has also been a 90 per cent decline in turtle doves since the 1970s.
Mr Melling feared turtle doves could go the same way as passenger pigeons whose migrating flocks used to darken the sky for hours.
“They were everywhere, but then as their habitat was destroyed and they were shot in huge numbers, 50 years later they were globally extinct. The last one - a female called Martha - died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.”
Their decline appears to be related to the loss of large mature hedgerows from the countryside and changing practices, including the planting of winter sown arable crops which mean there is less bare ground for weeds to grow in the Spring. They are also slaughtered in huge numbers as they travel through southern Europe.
The largest numbers of puffins in the UK are found on St Kilda off the Outer Hebrides, as well as Shetland, Orkney and the West Coast of Ireland. The bulk of the world population is in Norway, Iceland and the Faeroes.