Positive Conservation News: 7 Recent Marine Success Stories

November 09, 2021


Beside the sea is my happy place, but it's been a while since I was last near the ocean and I'm missing the crashing sound of the waves and the salty, breezy air. So, I am taking us to the seaside for the latest instalment of positive environmental news.

1. This summer, Coquet Island's Roseate Terns population broke breeding records for the 6th year in a row! This year 150 pairs bred, up from 104 pairs in 2016 thanks to dedicated conservation efforts to save Britain's rarest nesting seabird. The island also saw a record breaking season for Common Terns and Kittiwakes.

2. It was another record breaking season at RSPB reserves across the Solent, with 25 little tern and 253 sandwich tern chicks successfully fledged. This is positive news for these birds, who are under increasing threat from human disturbance. The RSPB plan to create and restore habitat in this area to protect these precious breeding sites.

3. Scientists have completed the first map of the world's coral reefs, which features nearly 100,000 square metres of coral reefs around the globe, along with other information about about the ocean and seafloor. It is hoped that this map will help conservationists to save coral reefs, which are under serious threat from climate change, and inspire governments to act to protect them.

4. Numbers of sea turtle nests in Cape Verde have soared in the last 5 years, up to almost 200,000 in 2020 from 10,725 in 2015. Researchers believe this is thanks to improved conservation measures, including beach patrols and stronger laws against killing, trading, and eating turtles. Although this is great news, threats still remain including plastic pollution, entrapment in fishing nets, coastal development, and climate change. A turtle's sex is determined by temperature, so there is a skew toward females due to increasing temperatures affecting reproduction and genetic diversity.

Images: Frank McKenna and Erin Simmons

5. A seabird hotspot was discovered by a collaboration led by BirdLife International which used tracking and population data to map 21 seabird species. This hotspot is used by up to 5 million seabirds from over 56 colonies - the first discovery of seabird concentrations of this magnitude ever document on the high seas. Now, 15 governments and the EU are working towards designating it a Marine Protected Area - the first time one has been designated from tracking data in the high seas.





Life as a Little Tern Night Warden

October 07, 2021

I’m sat in a tent on the beach in East Norfolk, sitting comfortably but chilly in a fold out camping chair with some strong coffee, engrossed in a book. My watch says that 2 A.M. has just crept by, and the sounds of the night reach out to me in my reverie. Waves are crashing softly in the distance, and the tent flaps lazily in a gentle breeze. Sand hoppers - tiny crustaceans with springy tails - scale the walls, falling to the floor as they throw themselves at the solar powered light in a cyclical pilgrimage which will last until dawn. Wailing seals and the hoarse barking of a muntjac deer form an eerie chorus, backed by the low hum of distant ships. Then I hear it: 


The sound cuts through the night and my ears prick up - a little tern alarm call. 


The noise is unmistakable, and although I patrol the colony regularly, the terns are a reliable early warning system. I grab my torch and thermal imaging camera, unzip the tent door, and head out into the dark. As my eyes adjust, I fumble to turn on the camera, and through the grayscale display I can see the colony clearly. Directing it to the source of the commotion I can make out a large blob glowing white with body heat, which from experience could be one of two things - a fox, or a muntjac deer. Whilst both will eat little tern eggs, the foxes will go for chicks and adults, and it’s the latter I'm concerned about at this stage of the season. The colony is surrounded by an electrified fence and poultry netting for this very reason, but nearly all the chicks have now hatched, and they wander freely outside the perimeter. I set off in the direction of the blob, which is casually trotting along the boundary of the colony. The terns are becoming increasingly agitated as more birds join the fray, diving and shrieking at the unknown assailant. 

I trudge across the dunes that back the colony at a swift pace, brushing past dew-dropped marram grass and thistly sea-holly, which has recently erupted into a riot of silvery-blue flowers. The terns have now noticed me, and some direct their outrage at my head. I apologise profusely and assure them that I'm not the problem - if they would bother to listen - and work my way closer to the din. 

When I'm near enough for it to reach, I turn on the torch and shine it in the direction of the blob. If it was a fox, I would catch the glint of its eyes for a split second before it bolted away at full speed - but it isn't. Instead, a muntjac deer squints blearily at me through the beam of light, undeterred by my presence. A disturbance maybe, but no real threat at this point. Not wanting it to jump over the fence, I walk cautiously towards the deer and it sets off at a light jog, before slowing down to its original pace. In this way I escort it gradually to the edge of the colony, and it meanders off over the dunes and into the night. The terns have settled down and I turn back towards the tent, a lonely lamp under a cavernous night sky, the stars glimmering like precious minerals encrusted on its surface. A waning moon is rising behind wispy black clouds, casting an ethereal glow across the beach, and beyond the vast North Sea lies a barely perceptible hint of dawn.

        The full article about my summer of night wardening was originally published on the Life on the Edge blog and can be found HERE.

Positive Environmental News: 10 Recent Conservation Success Stories

September 11, 2021


I've been feeling more overwhelmed than optimistic recently, and with what seems like a relentlessly harrowing news cycle, it's not difficult to see why. So, it seemed like a good time to actively seek out some positive news. Not to distract from the bad - it's important to know what is going on so we can support where we can - but to remember that there are still good, helpful people all around the world working hard to create a better future for people and the planet. 

1. After disappearing centuries ago, wildcats are stalking the forests of the southern Netherlands once more. Their return is a result of rewilding efforts, where forest management favours nature over wood harvesting. 

2. In Bolivia, after 16 years of hard work, Asociación Armonía saw the 100th blue-throated macaw chick to fledge thanks to their nest box program. These 100 macaws make up around a fourth of the entire breeding population of this endangered bird, making this a huge victory!

3. Back in 1996, a breeding project was established in England to reintroduce ospreys, and this July, the team revealed the birth of the 200th chick! The project has helped the species to breed in both England and Wales, and is a success that shows us what is possible for nature's recovery.

"Success stories like this prove what's possible and help us to visualize how our countryside could look in the future - with wildlife in abundance, a rich tapestry of habitats, green corridors for species to move through landscapes, rivers and lakes free from pollution, and access to nature for all." - Rob Stoneman, director of landscape recovery for The Wildlife Trusts.


4. A piercing cry or croak could mean you are in the presence of the threatened kiwi. This is the sound that conservationists were so desperate to hear at the kiwi call count in New Zealand, and they were not left disappointed. 50% of sites that were silent in 2016 had kiwi calling in 2021, a testament to the community efforts to save this iconic species.

5. Beaver reintroductions have been all over the news for the past year or so, a cause for celebration as their return has improved water quality and boosted populations of fish, amphibians, and water voles. Now, the UK government is set to give them legal protection in England, which would come into force in 2022.

6. In Indonesia, maleo eggs are considered a delicacy, so are often dug up to be eaten or illegally sold, putting the species in danger of extinction. Local communities were determined to come to their rescue and began to protect nesting grounds from poaching and ensure that the birds could nest naturally and undisturbed, and now, maleo numbers are on the rise.

7. Earlier this month, the RSPB announced that cranes had bred in Oxfordshire for the first time in 500 years! Cranes had been attempting to breed at their Otmoor reserve for the past five years, and this year, efforts paid off and a fledgling has been sighted at the reserve.


9. On the west coast of South Africa, populations of African penguins are on the decline due to lack of food. So, BirdLife South Africa, CapeNature, and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds have teamed up to save this beloved species. Although there is more work to be done to re-establish a penguin colony, there was cause for celebration in June when 30 juvenile penguins were released into the wild.

10. India was once home to an estimated 40 million vultures in the 1980s, a figure which dropped by almost 97% by the 1990s. This is mostly due to diclofenac fed to cattle, which poisons vultures when they feed on the carcasses. The Bombay Natural History Society are hard at work to save vultures and this year released the first captive-bred vultures into the wild with the hope of saving these keystone species.

"Optimism is not soft, it is gritty. Every day brings dark news, and no end of people tell us that the world is going to hell. To take the low road is to succumb. To take the high road is to remain constant in the face of uncertainty. That we may be confronted by barriers galore should not surprise anyone. That we may see worsening climate conditions in the short term should not surprise us. We have to elect to boldly persevere. With determination and utmost courage, we must conquer the hurdles in order to push forward." - The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac 

Dogs and Wildlife – Building a ‘Pawsitive’ Relationship

August 30, 2021

The UK is a nation of dog lovers, with an estimated 12 million pups in UK homes and a large increase in dog ownership since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are also a nation of wildlife lovers, with the RSPB alone having over 1.1 million members, and many choosing to visit nature reserves and local wildlife sites in their free time. The two are by no means mutually exclusive, and dog ownership is a fantastic way to stay active, get outside, and appreciate the natural world. The RSPB encourages responsible dog walking on its nature reserves, and in the wider countryside, but what does this mean for dog owners, and why is it necessary around our wildlife? 

What is responsible dog walking?

Responsible dog walking means: 

  • Keeping your dogs close or preferably on a lead in sensitive areas. 
  • Sticking to designated paths to avoid disturbing wildlife or livestock.
  • Researching ahead of your trip to locate dog-friendly or restricted-access areas. 
  • Approaching wardens for a friendly chat if you have any questions or concerns. 
  • Reading and respecting signs in sensitive areas. 

Why is this necessary? 

Dog owners are often passionate advocates for the environment and possess a wealth of knowledge about the wildlife on their local patches where they regularly go for walks. Sadly though, there are times when dogs can cause major disturbances by chasing or attacking wildlife. 

Earlier this year, a ten-month old seal pup well known by locals and nicknamed ‘Freddie’, was basking along the Thames in west London when it was attacked by a dog off its lead. It was rescued by a South Essex wildlife hospital, but tragically its injuries were so severe it had to be humanely put down. The owner was heartbroken and regretted that the dog had not been on a lead but had not thought it was necessary at the time. 

If you are unsure as to how your dog will react around wildlife, especially if they are young or untrained, it is always better to be sure and put it on a lead. This kind of interaction is an extreme example, but this is not the only way in which dogs can negatively impact on wildlife. A far greater problem is that of disturbance

What is disturbance?

For much of our wildlife, humans and dogs are seen as predators, and so they will behave as such when we approach. This is a big problem for ground-nesting birds, who do not feel the safety of being up in a tree or bush. Birds that nest on the ground include our beach-nesting birds, such as little terns and ringed plovers, as well as curlews, lapwings, and oystercatchers. 

When predators, dogs, or people approach, these birds will leave their nests, trying to distance themselves from their eggs or chicks. They might try to lead the threat in another direction, or mob the intruder along with other nesting birds until it leaves the area. These disturbances mean that eggs and chicks are left unattended, making them vulnerable to predation, to thermal stress from being too cold or too hot, or to being crushed as they are very hard to spot. 

Constant disturbance can also use up the energy reserves of the adults, who are working hard to incubate their eggs and feed themselves - as well as their chicks after they hatch. Eventually if there is too much disturbance the birds abandon their nests, and although they may try again, if this is too late in the breeding season a second attempt may often be unsuccessful. Disturbance can also be an issue outside of the breeding season, as birds roosting along the shoreline in the winter are often resting and reserving their precious energy reserves. 

For beach-nesting birds who must share their space with regular beach users as well as the huge influx of people and their dogs on weekends and holidays, this can often be too much. Along with other threats such as predation alongside inundation from high tides and severe storms, increasing disturbance at nesting sites is pushing these species to their limits, with many shorebirds facing declines around the world. 

Dog owners can make a huge difference to the fate of these birds, as recent research by Professor Miguel Angel Gómez-Serrano from the University of Valencia on Kentish plovers suggests that lone, wandering dogs off their leads disturb birds from their nests almost 100% of the time, more than if they were accompanied by their owner and much more than by someone without a dog. This research also showed that sticking to paths and complying with fencing and buffer zones around colonies reduced the amount of disturbance for beach nesting birds. 

Leading the way forward 

There is plenty of room for both dog walkers and wildlife, and simple measures such as keeping dogs under control or on leads in certain areas can have a real impact on the fate of many of our bird species. This is only done in certain places or times of the year when it is necessary, and there will usually be signs or wardens on hand to let dog owners know. 

Space for Shorebirds is a project run by the Northumberland County Council, and one of its main objectives is to reduce the impact of human recreation on bird populations. Part of this involves fostering positive relationships with dog walkers and asks owners to get their dogs to take the Dog Ranger pledge. They share owners’ dogs on social media with the hashtag #dogranger and get them to spread the message about shorebird conservation. Another example is Bird Aware Essex Coast, which aims to raise awareness about coastal birds whilst preventing human disturbance. 

With fantastic schemes such as this, we can all work together to ensure a bright future for shorebirds where we can peacefully co-exist alongside each other. 

This article was originally featured on the Life on the Edge website for the RSPB.

How Birds Use Our Waters – Part 3: The High Seas

June 24, 2021

In this series, I have focused on birds as often overlooked inhabitants of the marine environment, heavily dependent on it as we are for food, the air we breathe, and the regulation of our climate. This time we complete our journey, finally arriving in the ‘High Seas’, the parts of our ocean beyond national jurisdiction which cover a staggering 50% of our planet’s surface area! Along the way we have discovered how a great wealth of bird species rely upon the UK’s coastlines and territorial waters all year round, including our overseas territories, and we have talked about how our country has a huge responsibility to protect globally important bird populations.

However, most of these birds are not just tied to one country but are international in their lifestyles. For example, almost the entire world population of Manx shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus) breed in the UK, but they only spend part of the year on our shores. From July to March they migrate and winter in the South Atlantic, mainly off the coasts of Brazil and Argentina. Even during the breeding season they can feed many hundreds of kilometres away if conditions are right, way beyond the national jurisdiction of any country. Whilst we can try to protect birds at their breeding grounds or within territorial waters, in order to ensure a stable future for all bird species this needs to happen in all of the areas which are important for them, including the High Seas.

What exactly are the ‘High Seas’?

The High Seas exist beyond national borders and are a global commons to be used collectively by all nations, although these international waters have been historically hard to govern. The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) tries to regulate specific activities within the High Seas, such as deep-sea mining and overexploitation of fish stocks, but only 1.2% is formally protected. Human rights abuses and illegal activity are rife, and where there is regulation or oversight it is in relation to resource extraction rather than ocean protection. Whilst there is no clear legal framework for the management and development of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the High Seas, what is clear is that these vast and deep waters support an incredible amount of biodiversity, much of which we know hardly anything about!

Birds without borders

At one time the movements of birds throughout the oceans were a complete mystery, with anecdotal evidence of individuals seen by ships or washed ashore providing only small clues as to their movements. The development of ringing schemes began to enlighten us, with birds caught and given unique metal bands which allowed us to identify individuals if they were ever recaptured. It is the staggering pace of development in tracking technology within recent years however which has now given us unparalleled insights into their exact movements at sea, although we have still only scratched the surface.

For example, we now know that Manx shearwaters have a hugely complex migration pattern with many stopovers, travelling south from the UK along the coastlines of western Europe and Africa, eventually crossing over to South America, where they spend the winter in the highly productive waters (see Part 2) off the Patagonian Shelf. After wintering here they then head North, following the coast up to North America before crossing over the Atlantic and back to the UK for the breeding season. Though there is some variation to this route, a Manx shearwater which lived to 50 years old could have travelled around 8 million kilometres in its lifetime, which is roughly ten trips to the moon and back! Another astounding migration is made by one of our rarest breeding birds, the red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus), with only a handful of breeding pairs in Shetland and the Western Isles. In 2012, geolocators revealed that one male bird had left Shetland in August and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Canada, from where it moved down to Florida, crossed the Gulf of Mexico into the Pacific Ocean, and spent winter between the Galapagos Islands and South America until April, when it returned by the same route.

In a comprehensive recent study, an international team of researchers found that some of the more extensively seafaring species, the albatrosses and large petrels, spend almost 40% of their lives in the High Seas – birds such as the Tristan albatross (Diomedea dabbenena), 99% of which breed on Gough Island, a British overseas territory. Though tied to the colony around the central South Atlantic during the breeding season, non-breeders move extensively throughout the southern oceans, using areas off of South America and South Africa, searching for locations with high ocean productivity where food is abundant. Incredibly, increasing evidence suggests that these birds – which belong to the ‘procellariformes’ or ‘tubenoses’ – may be able to smell their way across the oceans, using odours to pinpoint foraging locations and find their colonies.

The importance of a High Seas Treaty

Unfortunately for birds living extensively in the High Seas, this is a large proportion of their lives where they are even more vulnerable to threats such as being caught in fishing gear or losing food resources to overfishing, threats that are easier to deal with in territorial waters. Many of these species are therefore some of the most threatened, and whilst bilateral agreements exist between certain countries to protect birds which occur in their territorial waters, such as between Japan and Australia, the High Seas are the most important at-sea area overall for albatrosses and large petrels. Species breeding in the UK and its overseas territories have some of the strongest links to the High Seas, as well as to countries such as Brazil and Argentina. What is clear is that coordinated cooperation between the UK and other nations to protect birds both within territorial and international waters is the best chance we have of halting and even reversing the path to extinction.

In August of this year, the UN General Assembly will meet for the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) to work on a treaty which will decide on the “…conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction…”. This is a once in a generation chance to modernise governance of the High Seas with a strong treaty which can help to reach the target of 30% protection of the oceans by 2030. Proper protection of important marine areas for birds can help to regulate or even exclude fisheries with damaging practices which are one of the main reasons for the declines in albatrosses and large petrels. This, coupled with other measures such as the eradication of invasive predators decimating breeding colonies will allow populations to become much more resilient in the face of climate change, the effects of which we are already beginning to feel. Whilst it is too much to go into here, there are a lot of great resources explaining the High Seas Treaty and the desired outcomes by the High Seas Alliance and Greenpeace, for example.

Through this series, I hope that I have managed to convey just how connected the fate of the birds which call our shores home are to the health and protection of the entire ocean, not just our own waters. Protecting the incredible abundance and variety of these species depends upon dealing with threats both where they breed and spend their time at sea, and I hope that future generations will be able to marvel at their incredible lifestyles as I do, as I hope now you will too.

Nature Nearby: Fighting for Equal Access to Nature

June 01, 2021

Fresh air, sea-salty wind, crunchy leaves under wellies, green trees as far as the eye can see, sunsets and rises, the whoosh of the ocean - experiences in nature are good for the soul, and it's backed up by evidence!

 The benefits we experience from spending time in nature are no secret, and I think many of us can appreciate them more than ever since our world got much, much smaller and quieter through the pandemic. Whether the reduced traffic meant we noticed the birds singing more, or extra time meant we spent longer exploring our local woodland, nature was there for us when we needed her.

Research shows that time in nature can reduce our blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels, help us to sleep better, reduce anxiety, and boost our mood. It's also good for creativity and improving emotional and cognitive development.

The problem is, although everyone should have access to nature, it isn't currently the reality in the UK. Easy and safe access to high-quality green and blue spaces should be a right, not a privilege.

Research shows that those on low income are less likely to have access to public natural space, and children from poorer families are less likely to spend time in nature than other children. People from ethnic minorities are less likely to live within a 5-minute walk of a green space when compared to white people, and also less likely to have access to good walking routes.

This inequality continues when private green space is taken into account, as 12% of people in the UK don't have access to a garden, a figure that rises to 21% in London, with black people almost four times less likely to have access to a garden than white people.

Feeling unsafe in nature is also a barrier to access. Women and girls report feeling unsafe outdoors, with women who identify as disabled or LGBT more likely to feel this way. The risk of racist abuse or harassment also prevents people from ethnic minority backgrounds from spending time in nature. People with disabilities are often unable to access natural green and blue spaces, for example due to lack of accessible paths, parking, or toilets.

UK Youth for Nature are working hard to turn this around by engaging with the UK governments and asking them to act now to ensure that everyone has access to safe, high-quality green and blue spaces. The more voices we have, the more likely they will have to listen and take action! So how can you help?

  1. Sign the petition here to the governments of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
  2. Write to your local politician. I know this can feel a bit daunting, but there is lots of information here to make it quick and easy to do!
  3. Shout about the lack of access to nature! And share the campaign with friends and family.

How Birds Use Our Waters – Part 2: UK Territorial Waters

May 28, 2021


In my last post in this series, I looked at how our coasts are crucial in supporting a huge diversity of bird species all year round. This time, I travel further out into our territorial waters, to see how the fate of the seabirds which call our shores home is inextricably tied to the health of our oceans.

What do we mean by territorial waters?

The term ‘territorial waters’ is often used as a broad term to encompass the seas which are under the jurisdiction of a government. This includes the territorial sea, which extends 12 nautical miles from the coastline, and the Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends a further 200 nautical miles out – unless there is another country within these limits. In the UK’s territorial waters, the government has control over all economic activity including fishing, mining, and energy production. It also has a responsibility to protect the incredibly diverse wildlife which calls these waters home, to make sure that we are surrounded by thriving, healthy seas.

It might surprise you to find out that the UK has the fifth largest Exclusive Economic Zone in the world, as it is responsible for the waters surrounding its overseas territories as well. This includes such far flung places as South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Saint Helena, Gough Island, Tristan de Cunha, and the Pitcairn Islands. These overseas territories hugely increase the UK’s influence over the oceans, as well as the wildlife it is responsible for – a responsibility which is shared with the local governments of these territories. This also vastly increases the number of seabird species which occur in waters under UK jurisdiction, giving us an even greater role on the world stage in protecting them. For example, these territories are home to a quarter of the world’s penguins and a third of the world’s breeding albatrosses!

Why are our territorial waters important for seabirds?

Most seabirds are hugely dependent on the ocean as a source of food and are drawn to ‘hotspots’ of high productivity where prey is more abundant. These ‘hotspots’ are especially important during the breeding season, as seabirds need to have plenty of nutritious food within close range of their colonies so that they can provide enough for their hungry, growing chicks. The distances and locations they travel to find food will vary depending on the species, and even between individual birds, but seabirds must be able to balance feeding their chicks with their own energy needs. If they cannot, the adults must prioritise their own survival over that of their chicks, opting to try again the next year. Therefore seabirds thrive and successfully raise chicks in colonies where they can access abundant, reliable sources of food that they can travel to without exhausting themselves completely. The seas around the UK are highly productive, and this combined with the wide range of suitable habitats along our coastlines support the huge numbers and diversity of seabirds which live here. This is also true for UK overseas territories, with places like Gough Island supporting large colonies of breeding seabirds, including endangered sooty albatrosses, Atlantic yellow-nosed albatrosses, and the critically endangered Tristan albatross.

The availability of prey can be influenced by numerous factors which often interact in complex ways, such as ocean temperature, ocean currents, the topography of the seabed, and the time of year. Seabirds must time their breeding efforts for when conditions are just right and there will be plenty of food to raise their young. This means that their populations are highly sensitive to any changes in the marine environment that might affect how much prey there is, where it will be, and when it is around.

Our territorial waters are not just important during the breeding season, with some seabirds staying through the winter months whilst others disperse out into the open ocean or migrate to other shores. The birds that stay need to be able to find food to sustain them through the cold winter months, and whilst they are not tied to feeding their chicks at the colonies, stormy weather can rapidly deplete energy supplies and affect their ability to feed, with exhausted birds dying from hunger and exposure. These seabird ‘wrecks’ can be particularly bad in some years, such as in 2014, when thousands of dead birds washed up on our shores. Bad weather in winter can also have knock on effects in the breeding season, with storms in late winter and early spring influencing the ability of seabirds to get in prime condition for courtship and the demands of raising young.

Threats in our waters

What is clear is that seabirds require healthy, biodiverse, and productive oceans in order to give them the best chance of breeding and surviving all year round, and we therefore have a responsibility to ensure that this is the case where we have jurisdiction. However, some of our internationally important populations of seabirds, such as northern fulmars, European shags, Arctic skuas, and black-legged kittiwakes are declining alarmingly.For other species the picture is mixed, with Atlantic puffins doing poorly in places like Shetland and the Isle of May in the Northeast but faring better at Skomer and Skokholm Islands in Wales. Whilst the causes are often unclear as to exactly why these trends are occurring, with complex interactions between multiple stressors, we can identify some key factors in these declines:

Climate change

Warming oceans are affecting the availability of some prey species, such as sandeels, which are heavily relied on by birds like puffins and kittiwakes during the breeding season as a source of plentiful, nutritious food. Climate change is also increasing the incidence of severe storms, resulting in more seabird ‘wrecks’. The European shag is suffering this fate, being a coastal species which does not venture far from its colonies and having plumage which is not as waterproof as other seabirds it finds it difficult to escape bad weather and is therefore more susceptible to death by exposure. Climate change is going to be difficult to deal with, but the best way to ensure resilience against it is to deal effectively with other threats, such as overfishing, which are easier to deal with.


Commercial fisheries, especially those which target specific species, can be devastating for seabird populations which rely on these species. For example, in Scotland, commercial sandeel fisheries were found to be creating food shortages for kittiwakes by depriving them of this crucial resource during the breeding season. In this case, a seasonal ban was introduced on fishing during this time, demonstrating that we can act accordingly when we understand the causes of declines, although food shortages are still an issue as a result of climate change. Overfishing is also thought to have contributed to the decline of naturally nesting populations of Herring gulls, combined with changes in fisheries practices such as a reduction in discards, and this species has started to find more reliable food sources in our towns and cities. Over exploitation of fisheries is also happening in overseas territories, with populations of sooty terns on Ascension Island plummeting as a result.

We can deal with overfishing and other damaging economic activities by introducing bans and limits at certain times or year or by creating Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s). However, whilst nearly a quarter of the territorial waters around the UK are designated MPA’s, this is often in name only, with harmful activities such as fishing, bottom trawling and dredging still allowed. We therefore need immediate strengthening of these protections.

Fisheries bycatch

Like many other marine animals, such as dolphins, sharks, and turtles, seabirds can end up being killed unintentionally by fishing vessels. Birds such as albatrosses are particularly vulnerable, getting caught on the baited hooks of longline fishing vessels and being dragged underwater, for example. Whilst progress is being made in reducing bycatch by developing new technologies, increased monitoring, and education, dealing with this problem requires international cooperation as these species often roam large distances through the territorial waters of multiple nations.

Invasive species

Though not strictly a marine problem, invasive alien species such as mice, rats, and cats are a massive problem for seabirds, with chicks and incubating birds often helpless against predation, and they can decimate populations on some islands. Removal of invasive species will be one of the most effective ways to prevent seabird declines across many colonies, with restoration projects such as the one currently being undertaken on Gough Island hopefully improving their prospects. On Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, rats were eradicated in 2006, and since then the seabird population has more than trebled, proving the effectiveness of dealing with this threat.


Oil pollution can ruin the waterproofing of seabirds feathers, affecting feeding and thermoregulation and eventually resulting in death by exposure. Plastic pollution is a growing menace, within many species consuming large amounts of plastic and feeding it to their chicks. To them, as well as looking like food, plastic can also even smell like food, picking up a compound called dimethyl sulphide which is usually given off by some microorganisms when they break down, such as when they are being eaten. The seabirds can use this smell to detect prey which are eating the microorganisms, an amazing instinct which is unfortunately resulting in many deaths when birds eat the wrong things. Whilst plastic pollution is not a major cause of population declines at the moment, more and more plastic enters the oceans every day and production keeps increasing, and so it is vital to curb this threat now.

Next time, join me for the final part of this series, where I will be looking at the ‘High Seas’, the oceans beyond national jurisdiction which cover around 50% of the planet! Here there is often a crucial lack of protection for seabirds, with some species spending a large proportion of their time in these waters. The threats I touched on in this article are often much worse in the high seas, where there is usually no oversight, monitoring, or legal protection. I’ll be looking in depth at this overlooked part of our oceans and show that in order to halt drastic seabird declines, the UK needs to be a key player in the upcoming negotiations for a ‘High Seas Treaty’, which will ensure a legally binding commitment to conservation and sustainable development in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

How Birds Use Our Waters – Part 1: Coastal Birds

May 20, 2021

When thinking about animals which use the marine environment, birds might not be the first to come to mind. However, the UK is responsible for globally important numbers of birds which use our shores and seas in some way. In this three part series, I’ll be journeying from our coastlines, into territorial waters, and finally beyond to the high seas, to show how birds rely on these environments, as well as the threats they face. This time, I’ll be looking into the species which live along our shores. With over 31,000 kilometres of coastline, there is plenty of habitat available for our coastal birds, and they are alive with activity all year round.

Seabird Cities

The coastlines of the UK are the perfect home for seabirds, where they jostle for space amongst our rugged cliffs and islands every spring and summer. These seabird cities are some of our most spectacular natural wonders, with places like the Farne Islands, Skomer Island, or the Isle of May being hugely popular wildlife attractions. It’s not hard to see why, as we are graced with a great variety of seabird species, some of which breed here in internationally important numbers. For example, the UK hosts 90% of the world’s population of Manx shearwater, a secretive seabird which returns to its underground burrows at night and migrates to South America and back each year. A few of the other species which breed here include the clownish Atlantic puffin, prehistoric looking European shags which sport iridescent plumage and snazzy head crests in the breeding season, dapper black and white razorbills, European storm-petrels which dance across the waves in stormy weather, and the bruisers of the skies, the great skuas. Seabirds in the UK are largely protected at their colonies, with many of our most important sites being free from human disturbance and free of invasive predators which can decimate their populations. However, this does not mean they are not threatened, with many of our seabird species in decline as a result of climate change and overfishing in our waters, issues I will delve into deeper next time.

In recent decades some of our seabird species, such as the herring gull and the kittiwake, have increasingly begun to nest in our cities, swapping the rocky cliffs for concrete ones. These are in fact two species which are declining alarmingly, both being Red listed in the UK as species of the highest conservation priority. Gulls receive a lot of bad press, which is often just scaremongering to grab attention, and we need to learn to be able to live amongst them.

Beach Nesters

Whilst many of us are aware of our seabird cities and the birds which breed there, there are a number of bird species which nest on our beaches, where they regularly come into close contact with humans. Species such as ringed plovers, oystercatchers, and little terns make small scrapes in sand or gravel, where they lay their eggs. These can often be very hard to see, and so it is important to take great care when walking on the beach. Beach nesting birds are also very vulnerable to disturbance, using precious energy trying to fend of threats. Dogs off their leads are one of the major sources of disturbance, so by placing dogs on leads where birds are nesting, you can do a great deal to give these birds a helping hand. 

There are a number of sites around the UK where beach nesting birds receive 24hr protection during the breeding season in order to ensure them the best chance of success, with dedicated wardens educating the public to decrease disturbance and to ward off predators such as foxes, badgers or domestic cats. Some threats are harder to deal with however, with climate change leading to rising sea levels and increased stormy weather, threatening to wash these beach colonies away.

Wintering Birds

The seabird cities and other coastal breeding sites go quiet at the end of the summer, with many birds heading out to sea or migrating to other shores to wait out the winter. Our coastlines now become important for a different reason, with hundreds of thousands of birds using our shores during these months as stopping off points on their migrations, using our coastal salt marshes and intertidal landscapes of sand and mud as feeding stations to refuel before continuing on their journeys. Many of them decide to stay for the whole winter, with birds from the Arctic and Scandinavia joining our resident birds which migrate to the coast from their inland breeding sites. One of our most important wintering sites, the Wash estuary in East Anglia, hosts up to 400,000 of these birds in the winter, and is internationally important for species such as curlew, redshank, knot and dunlin. Human development is threatening some of these crucial coastal areas, which can also provide natural defences for flooding caused by climate change.

As you may now be aware, the extensive UK coastline is home to a huge number of bird species which use our shores in many different ways. Next time I’ll be looking at how the fate of many of these birds is tied directly to the health of our territorial waters, where they are facing numerous threats. 

Banking on a Better Future: Why You Should Switch to an Ethical Bank

March 25, 2021

While changing my lifestyle to be kinder to the environment, banking never crossed my mind. I've seen enough films with greedy, unethical banker characters in them, but didn't connect the dots that my money may be being lent to dirty companies and projects. That is until last year, when I read The Joyful Environmentalist by Isabel Losada, and the Bankrolling Extinction report, which made me uncomfortable with what my money may be financing and encouraged me to find out more. What I found was shocking, and encouraged me to make the switch to an ethical bank. Here, I share some research on what banks are using our money for, and what an ethical bank is.

What could banks be using our money for?

I very naively used to assume any money I had in the bank just sat in my account until I made a purchase or withdrew it. This is obviously not the case, and the reality is much more complex. Banks use our money to lend and invest. We don't have control over this, and it can include funding companies and projects that harm people and the planet.

Funding the climate and biodiversity crises:

Bankrolling Extinction revealed that in 2019, the top banks invested over $2.6 trillion into sectors that are driving the destruction of nature through mining, fossil fuels, deforestation, dirty transport, and pollution. Banking on Climate Change found that the 60 largest commercial and investment banks invested a total of $3.8 trillion into fossil fuels from 2016–2020.

Dirty Profits 6 investigated banks that fund mining and extractive companies. These industries are complicit in horrific environmental and human rights violations, and despite being aware of this, banks continue to invest. The 10 banks investigated, including UK banks HSBC and Barclays, were found to have provided over €100 billion to 10 mining and extractive companies.

Investing in nuclear weapons and the arms trade:

The 2019 report 'Shorting our security - Financing the companies that make nuclear weapons' by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) revealed that between 2017 and 2019, financial institutions invested $748 billion in top nuclear weapon producers.

Banks also contribute to funding the arms trade to the Middle East and North Africa, and are therefore linked to the human rights abuses that occur in countries within these regions. Ten banks known to invest in global arms companies were investigated in the 'Dirty Profits 7' report, which found that the total finance provided amounted to roughly €24.2 billion between 2015 and 2018. Of banks in the UK, Lloyds Bank was the largest provider, loaning €4.1 billion to arms companies.

How do I know if a bank is ethical?

While we can't choose what our bank does with our money once it is in our account, we can choose a bank that commits to using it to drive positive change. In order to choose an ethical bank, Ethical Consumer advise you to ensure they:

  1. are clear about how they will invest your money.
  2. pay their fair share of tax. This is important as many banks operate subsidiaries out of known tax havens.

Ethical Consumer and BankTrack both have extensive information on individual banks, including what they invest in and whether they pay tax. Triodos Bank, which I chose to switch to, are Ethical Consumer's 'Best Buy' for Current Accounts. There are alternative ethical banks listed in their guides, so it is worth considering more than one to find the best fit for you.

Bank of Scotland, Barclays, First Direct, Halifax, HSBC, Lloyds, M&S, Natwest, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Santander all rate poorly for their environmental and social ethics.

I don't have much money - is it still worth switching?

Yes! I don't have much in the bank either, but I see it that I wouldn't even spend £10 at a company that I knew to be harming people or the environment, so banking isn't much different. If many individuals put a small amount of money into an ethical bank, collectively all of our money adds up and makes a difference. Ethical banks will choose to support positive projects, one example is Triodos Bank have invested £8.2 billion into projects across Europe benefitting people and the planet - wouldn't you rather support that than fossil fuel companies?

How do I switch banks?

Government regulation in the UK has forced banks to make it easy for customers to switch, and it takes as little as 7 days. Info on how to switch here.

Helpful resources:

Bankrolling Extinction
Ethical Consumer
Facing Finance - Dirty Profits
Rainforest Action Network - Defund Climate Change

Nature's Good News