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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.



Overfishing




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.


Pollution


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:

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


International Women's Day: Inspiring Women and Advice for Working in Conservation

March 08, 2021


Today, people from around the world are coming together to celebrate International Women's Day. It is an opportunity to celebrate women's achievements and marks a call to action to accelerate gender equality.


 I have written an article for UK Youth for Nature, to share details of our work, the women who inspire us, and advice for getting involved in the environmental sector. Click here to read it.

2020 Conservation Successes: 10 Positive Environmental Stories

January 08, 2021


Looking back on positive conservation stories from the past twelve months is my way of finding the silver lining to the overwhelming and devastating year we have all experienced, keeping the 
eco-anxiety at bay, and for remaining motivated for the year to come.


Finding solace in nature


The comfort so many of us found in nature during lockdown has left me optimistic that more people than ever will now acknowledge its unparalleled value and work harder to protect our wildlife and their vulnerable habitats.

Almost half of the UK population have spent more time outside than before the pandemic, and a third of people reported noticing nature and wildlife more. The National Trust revealed that interest in nature has risen by a third since the first lockdown, and more than half the population plan to continue spending as much time in nature once things go back to normal. For many, having extra time also meant they could get involved in citizen science projects. Butterfly Conservation saw the highest number of butterfly sightings ever submitted to their Big Butterfly Count, with an increase of 25% on 2019. Even when people couldn't get outside, interest in nature was still prevalent, as The Wildlife Trust saw a 2,000% increase in live wildlife webcam views.


The quiet that came with lockdown provided a unique opportunity for research. The drop in noise pollution allowed scientists and artists to create the first global public sound map of the spring dawn chorus. Bird recordings were submitted to the Dawn Chorus website from people around the world with the aim of helping conservation and creating public art. In South Carolina, the absence of people during lockdown gave scientists a rare opportunity to observe fireflies and collect pristine data in Congaree National Park.



Ocean optimism


Humpback whales have made an impressive comeback after being reduced to just 450 individuals in the 50's due to commercial whaling. Last year, a study revealed that humpbacks can now be found in similar numbers seen before the days of whaling - a positive example of how nature can recover if allowed to. This recovery is also good news for the climate, as on average a single whale stores around 33 tonnes of CO2.

A new species of pygmy seahorse as small as a grain of rice was discovered in the waters off the coast of South Africa. It is the first pygmy seahorse found in all of the Indian Ocean and the continent of Africa, and was compared to being like "finding a kangaroo in Norway" by one of the researchers. This is an exciting discovery and researchers are optimistic that there are many more species of pygmy seahorses waiting to be discovered.

Seabirds are the most vulnerable group of birds, facing numerous threats globally, but some of these are easier to tackle than others. A recently published paper has found that after a decade working with the fishing industry in Namibia, the Albatross Task Force in the country has managed to save the lives of around 22,000 seabirds! The 98% reduction in deaths is a result of measures which scare birds away from getting accidentally caught by longline fishing vessels, and will hopefully be a model for fisheries all over the world. Another threat faced by breeding seabirds is invasive mammals, which prey on helpless seabird chicks. There is good news in this area too, as the RSPB council approved a mouse eradication scheme to begin in 2021 on Gough Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, where almost the entire world population of seabirds such as the Tristan albatross (Diomedea dabbenena) and the Atlantic petrel (Pterodroma incerta) breed, as well as many other species. The island was identified as the third most important in the world for an eradication project and would be a major boost for global conservation efforts.


Species reintroductions, rediscoveries and recoveries


2020 was the year of the beaver, and the news of their many reintroductions brought me some much needed joy. In August, they were given the permanent right to remain in their East Devon river home - the first legally sanctioned reintroduction of an extinct native mammal to England. In September, two male beavers were released in Norfolk as part of a rewilding scheme, and quickly paired up with females already in the area. In October, it was announced that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his siblings arranged for beavers to be released on their father's estate, which is hopefully an indication that government will encourage the reintroduction of more species across the UK. In November, Cheshire Wildlife Trust released a of pair beavers into Hatchmere Nature Reserve, and beavers in Exmoor built their first dam in over 400 years!


In July, Natural England celebrated the 30 year anniversary of the landmark re-introduction of red kites. In 1980s, the red kite was a threatened species in the UK due to hunting with only a few breeding pairs left in Wales. In 1990, 13 young red kites were reintroduced to the Chilterns and the project has been a massive success as there are now an estimated 1,800 breeding pairs in the UK. 


The efforts to bring pine martens to England look to be going well, as the first reintroduced females that were brought from Scotland to England in 2019 had kits last summer. The species is very rare in England, and the hope is that a population will be established over the next few years.


The RSPB announced that the UK common crane population is at its highest in over 400 years. The species was declared extinct in the UK, but natural recolonisation alongside extensive conservation work and a reintroduction programme has resulted in their population bouncing back, meaning more of us will hopefully be able to witness their graceful courtship dance for generations to come.



Environmental protection


Tristan da Cunha is one of the world's most remote islands, home to whales, sharks, seals, millions of seabirds, and under 300 humans. Last year, the government announced that the four-island archipelago will be designated as a marine sanctuary, and fishing and mining will be banned in 90% of the waters.  



Looking for more conservation optimism? Read:


And for some inspiration on new year's resolutions for the environment:

The Importance of the RSPB's 'Project Puffin'

December 01, 2020



A couple of months ago I joined the RSPB's Project Puffin team as a volunteer. Originating in 2017, the project set out to discover how puffin diet was changing at colonies around the UK, and whether this was linked to worrying declines of this iconic seabird. A great example of citizen science in action, it is beginning to reveal how warming oceans might be affecting the availability of their favourite prey species. In this post I delve into the threats facing puffins, as well as the essential work that the Project Puffin team is undertaking.


Is there a more iconic and instantly recognisable bird in the UK than the puffin? Their clownish looks and clumsy antics are a huge draw for tourists across the country, and provide endless entertainment for those who are lucky enough to see them. The puffins which call our shores home are Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica), the scientific name translating as - 'Little Brother of the Arctic' -  an endearing name given to them due to their black and white plumage resembling the robes of a friar. The other two species, the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) and the horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) occur in the Pacific ocean, and are equally as flamboyant as their Atlantic cousins.


Though we know little of their lives at sea outside of the breeding season, every year they return to their colonies, often to the exact same burrow, and carpet the cliffs and islands of the British Isles for another summer. They are just one part of the great wildlife spectacles that are our seabird cities, and to be immersed in one of these places is a life affirming experience. The dazzling sight of thousands of birds wheeling overhead and streaming to and from the sea. The cacophony of noise as parents and chicks call to each other, pair bonds are maintained, and rivals are seen off. The potent smell of guano combined with the salt air of the sea. They feel timeless, the same rhythms of life having been repeated for millennia, and it seems unreal that many of them could disappear within our lifetimes as current worrying trends suggest.





Seabirds are the most threatened group of birds, with almost half of all species in decline and many of them globally threatened. The threats they face are numerous, from predation at their colonies by invasive species, to overfishing, pollution and a changing climate. Puffins are no exception, with breeding failures and population declines at colonies in Norway and Iceland, and closer to home in places like Shetland and the Isle of May. Global trends are concerning enough for the Atlantic puffin to be listed as 'vulnerable' on the IUCN Red List of threatened species, which led to it being 'Red listed' in the UK, the highest level of conservation priority. In some colonies however, like those of Skomer and Skokholm on the Pembrokeshire coast of Wales, numbers are doing relatively well.



What is going on?


It is believed that the main factor responsible is changes in the availability of their favoured prey species as a result of climate change. Small, oily, highly nutritious fish called sandeels make up an extremely large part of their diet, and can sometimes be up to 90% of what the young puffins (adorably called pufflings) eat. The timing of the sandeel's lifecycle is critical for puffins to have enough food for when their chicks are developing. Warming oceans are affecting this cycle by causing sandeels to spawn later, and the plankton blooms the sandeels rely on for food to occur earlier. This mismatch means that the sandeel larvae can't find the right types of small zooplankton prey when they hatch. The larvae grow slower and struggle to survive, meaning less of them are available for the hungry pufflings when the puffin breeding season is in full swing. Rising ocean temperatures also mean that the copepod Calanus finmarchicus, an important prey for the sandeels, is being replaced by a warmer water species, Calanus helgolandicus, which is less nutritious. This means smaller, less nutritious sandeels for the puffins.


Sandeels also depend on sand which they need to burrow in at night and during the winter, as well as to lay their eggs on. They are therefore limited as to where they can live and cannot shift away from warmer waters as other species might. Climate change might also be influencing ocean currents, affecting how the larvae are dispersed. This could be bad news for relatively isolated areas of sandeel habitat which rely on currents flowing their way in order to recruit more sandeels into the population. There are multiple, complex forces at work, with serious consequences for puffins. What's clear is that around some colonies there are simply not enough sandeels, and those present are not large or nutritious enough to feed the hungry chicks. This means that the adults need to travel further to find food and bring it back, which costs them more and more energy, and ultimately the adults have to choose self preservation over continuing to support their chicks. 





In colonies where puffins are doing well, it might be that these effects aren't being felt yet, with plenty of sandeels and other preferred prey still within a reasonable distance to ensure the chicks survive. There are other factors which might be contributing to their declines as well, such as prey being depleted by commercial fisheries or an increase in extreme weather which causes massive 'wrecks' of puffins at sea. What is clear is that we don't know enough to be sure as puffins are notoriously difficult to monitor. They spend much of their lives at sea, and often breed in inaccessible locations. So how do we know what they are eating?



Bring on the 'Puffarazzi'!


What more classic an image is there than of a puffin with a beak stuffed full of fish, and what better a record of the prey species that bird was bringing back to its chick? Thinking that this huge potential resource had gone untapped, in 2017 the RSPB's Project Puffin led by Dr. Ellie Owen ran a citizen science project (more about citizen science HERE) enlisting members of the public - the puffarazzos - to submit their photos of puffins with prey in their mouths, no matter what the quality of the photo. The hope was for the first time to build up a picture of how puffin diet varied across the UK, and whether this could be linked to the declines that were being observed. The initial response was a huge success, with 1402 photos being submitted by 602 people at around 40 colonies. From this data it could be confirmed that puffins breeding in places where they are not doing so well, like Shetland and Orkney in the northeast of Scotland, were catching smaller fish and less sandeels than those in other parts of the UK. Though puffins feed on a mixture of fish, this evidence suggests an inability to find their main prey item may be driving declines. 



Being a 'Puffineer'


The project is now in its second stages, beginning in March 2019, with photos being accepted from any year in order to see how puffin diet has changed at colonies across the UK over time. In phase two, 3439 photos have been submitted by 1160 Puffarazzi members, covering 57 colonies! It is this huge dataset that I am now a part of analysing, having become a member of the team, or a 'puffineer', a couple of months ago. It is a great privilege to be a part of the project and know that my work is helping to untangle the predicament that our beloved puffins are now facing. Being able to be involved in Project Puffin, especially during this pandemic, has been a great way to connect to the islands and birds which I love from afar.


Puffins began my love of seabirds, and the time I spent with the colony on Skokholm Island (which I wrote about HERE and HERE) was a dream come true. That these birds could perhaps disappear within my lifetime is unbearable, and that future generations might not get to enjoy them as I have is something we should be determined to help prevent.



What does the work involve? 


Every couple of weeks I get an email with 100 photographs, with two weeks to analyse them and send them back. The analysing process is quite straightforward, although it can take some time to figure out what is going on in the images. Puffins can hold a surprising amount of fish in their bills thanks to some inward facing serrations on the bill, and prey can be also be layered on top of one another, making counting every single individual quite tricky. There are four main prey types that we look for; the sandeels and their larvae, clupeids like sprat or herring, gadoids like cod or haddock, and rocklings. Puffin diet is very varied though and sometimes other things can crop up like a squid! Then we estimate the size of the fish, and note down how confident we are about our analysis. I find the work very enjoyable, and looking at these images is a fascinating insight into their lives. After days of maybe  staring at a few too many photos however, my dreams are haunted by gleaming fish eyes.



What does the future look like for puffins?


Whilst the future is uncertain at the moment, the findings from this project will hopefully provide us with vital information about how puffin diet has changed over time, and allow us to predict which colonies are likely to be affected the most by warming oceans and changing prey distribution. Though the effects of climate change are going to be hard to overcome, identifying where vulnerable colonies are located might help us to protect them in other ways. As a recent review suggests, if we can deal with things like overfishing, pollution, or invasive species, which we do have solutions for, populations will be more resilient in the long run. For example, if puffins are changing where they locate their food, we need to be able to protect these areas from development and fishing activities. Though there is still a lot to learn about this iconic seabird in order to ensure they are properly protected, this project is taking critical steps in the right direction.


This article also featured on the RSPB website.




Being Green on Black Friday

November 15, 2020


Black Friday originated in the US, and happens the day after Thanksgiving when shops lower their prices to signify the beginning of the Christmas season. The tradition has since spread across the world, including here in the UK, and in recent years has increased from a day of sales to a weekend, and for some stores even a whole week. It's a busy time for businesses and consumers, and last year, transaction value was up 16.5% compared with the year before. This year, Black Friday falls on 27th November, and though it may be good for big businesses, it is bad news for people and the planet.


First, it's important to mention that Black Friday can be a great opportunity for conscious purchases, particularly items that you need but couldn't previously afford. However, for many people it is a day of mindless consumption which is disastrous for our planet. 


The prices of fast fashion items plummet on Black Friday, but at what cost to people and the planet? Many of the people making our clothes live in poverty, are not paid fairly, and experience workers' rights violations and poor working conditions. On top of this, every year the fashion industry contributes 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions and uses around 1.5 trillion litres of water, and is a massive polluter of our air and water. In addition are the environmental impacts of packaging, which is often plastic, and carbon emissions and air pollution from an increase deliveries.


Low prices encourage over consumption and results in excessive, unnecessary waste. In Europe, clothing prices have been dropping since 2000, and the average consumer is buying more items but keeping them for less time. In the UK, we buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe, and 300,000 tonnes of clothing ends up in household bins every year.


As consumers, one big way to make a difference on Black Friday is with our wallets. Supporting unethical brands sends a message that it's acceptable for them to overproduce at the cost of people and the environment. For the sake of the planet, we should opt to spend our money only on items we truly need and try to support ethical and small businesses, rather than making unnecessary, impulse purchases in the rush of Black Friday. 




Throughout November, Fashion Revolution is asking people to take part in their Black Friday campaign by abstaining from shopping the discounts and spreading the message that overproduction costs the Earth with their free, downloadable social media assets. Participants can also use their voices by reaching out to the big brands and asking #WhoMadeMyClothes? and #WhatsInMyClothes?, along with confronting brands about making less stuff. This campaign will also celebrate clothing longevity by asking participants to make, mend, upcycle, share, and swap clothes instead of buying new.


This campaign is supported by Fashion Revolution’s global network, along with international organisations all working to shape a better fashion industry. Supporting organisations include The Sustainable Fashion Forum, Greenpeace & Make Smthng Week, Fashion Act Now, Global Fashion Exchange and Fashion Takes Action. In addition, the campaign is supported by a series of small sustainable fashion brands who are doing good this Black Friday by donating some profit to Fashion Revolution in lieu of hosting discounts.


“Black Friday is a scam. It’s one more way to get citizens to think they are finding a bargain, when in fact they are hunting an illusion. Don’t just buy because it’s cheap, think of why you are intending to buy, inspect your potential purchase and only then decide. Black Friday is about the rush, the speed, the compulsion. At Fashion Revolution we are asking you to stay conscientious, to buy with purpose.”

-  Orsola de Castro, Fashion Revolution co-founder and creative director

Nature's Good News