Chesil Beach Little terns have excellent breeding season
Bright idea sparks improved breeding success for Chesil Beach‘s Little terns
October 2013. Conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts are celebrating this week with the news that the little terns on Chesil Beach in Dorset have had an excellent breeding season, partly thanks to some innovative thinking from local wildlife experts.
Breed on beaches
Little terns are small, graceful seabirds. They were once numerous but over the past 100 years have suffered huge declines nationally. Their current breeding population is showing signs of recovery where colonies are protected, but they still only number around 1,900 pairs in the UK. They migrate from Africa in the spring to breed in small colonies on beaches.
Predation by foxes, crows and kestrels
The colony on Chesil beach is the only one in south west England. One of the main threats to little tern colonies is predation by foxes, crows and kestrels as well as accidental disturbance from beach users. To give the birds the best chance, the Chesil beach site is both fenced and closely protected by a dedicated team of conservationists, many of whom are volunteers.
However, experts this year also wondered if the site where they were choosing to nest was also causing problems. John Dadds, RSPB species protection officer, said: “Little terns have been nesting on Chesil Beach for a long time. Back in the late 1990s we had around 100 pairs breeding at Chesil, which at the time was five percent of the UK population. However, following persistent breeding failures, within a decade this had fallen to just ten pairs.
When populations of birds fall to low numbers, disturbance and predation can become a problem. So, in response the RSPB and its partners set up the current protection scheme in 2009 to exclude predators from the colony and reduce disturbance as much as possible.
“This has paid off, and the colony is on the increase again. However, watching the birds closely, day in day out, I realised that the birds might have another problem. Most terns nest on sandy beaches but Chesil Beach is made of big pebbles. These pebbles allow the wind to whip through and chill the eggs and youngsters. With the run of cold summer weather we have had, the hatching rate has been very low.
“So I had the idea of putting small patches of sand on the beach, sunken into the pebbles in ordinary hanging basket liners. This would give extra insulation and give the terns a warmer, less draughty, place to settle in to.
Much improved nesting
“And it has worked. We had 25 pairs this year, compared with 21 last year, 18 in 2011 and 12 in 2010. About three quarters of the birds nested on the sand and 90% of their eggs hatched, compared to only 23% from those on pebbles. By the end of the season we have seen an average of 1.2 chicks per nest surviving to fledge, the best since monitoring started in the 1970s. We are absolutely delighted!”
The job of protecting the colony has been made possible by a coalition of organisations including The Crown Estate which owns the beach, the Portland Court Leet, Chesil and Fleet Nature Reserve, Natural England, MOD, the Dorset Wildlife Trust and RSPB.
Allan Drewitt, Senior Ornithologist at Natural England said “Chesil Beach is internationally important for its breeding little terns and their recent recovery in numbers is excellent news and a great achievement for those dedicated and resourceful individuals who work hard to protect the colony”.
Fiona Wynne, The Crown Estate’s Marine Stewardship Manager, said: “The Crown Estate is committed to supporting efforts that help improve the marine environment and the species and habitats that have a direct connection to our foreshore and seabed. We have been delighted to provide funding for the little tern conservation project.”
“The success of this year’s breeding season is fantastic news and testament to the hard work and dedication of both the professional and volunteer conservationists involved.”
Marc Smith from Dorset Wildlife Trust said: “It’s been a great year for the little terns. Chesil Beach Centre volunteers and visitors were very lucky this summer as we could watch this wonderful story unfold on our live cameras. The team’s hard work and inventive thinking really paid off and we are glad we could offer support through the use of our newly refurbished centre. We are hopeful that this is the turning point for this charismatic little bird which is as much a part of Chesil as the pebbles themselves.”
In 2013 the project has been funded by the PANACHE Interreg project, The Crown Estate, Portland Court Leet and Dorset Biodiversity Fund.