Europe and Central Asia
11 Sep 2018

Road to recovery for the Roseate Tern

Tern terraces on Coquet Island © Paul Morrison
Tern terraces on Coquet Island © Paul Morrison
By Chantal Macleod-Nolan

Neighbouring BirdLife partners, RSPB (UK) and BirdWatch Ireland, have joined forces to put Europe’s rarest breeding seabird, the roseate tern, on the road to recovery.

The history of Europe’s rarest breeding seabird, the roseate tern Sterna dougallii, in Britain and Ireland has been a rocky one. Its characteristic pink breast (in breeding) plumage was once prized for fashionable hats, driving them to verge of extinction back in the 19th Century. Although the creation of wildlife laws brought them much-needed protection, the 1970s saw another population crash, with only 467 pairs remaining by 1989.

Long-term conservation efforts at its remaining three colonies – Rockabill Island and Lady’s Island Lake on Ireland’s east coast and Coquet in Northumberland, UK – have been rewarded with steady growth, reaching a record level of 1,980 pairs in 2018. As in previous years, the growth was mostly driven by Rockabill with 1,633 pairs recorded, but also Lady’s Island with 227 pairs and Coquet with 118 pairs. The productivity on Rockabill has been declining in recent years, falling to a low of 0.66 chicks per pair in 2016 and only slightly better 0.83 last year. On the other hand, Coquet had an exceptional productivity of 1.50 chicks per pair in 2017.

Roseate tern © Brian Burke

2018 also marked the third year of the EU-funded Roseate Tern LIFE Recovery Project which is a partnership between the RSPB, BirdWatch Ireland and North Wales Wildlife Trust. The project focuses on enhancing breeding conditions at the core colonies in Ireland and the UK, while also improving five former roseate tern SPAs (Special Protection Areas) in preparation for a potential expansion: Solent and Southampton, Forth Islands, Ynys Feurig, Cemlyn Bay and the Skerries, Larne Lough and Dalkey Islands. As roseate terns rarely breed on their own, it is essential to improve the breeding conditions for common, Arctic and Sandwich terns at their former nesting sites.

Roseate tern fledgling © Brian Burke

two roseate terns successfully fledged from the Skerries site in Wales for the first time in 12 years

Vital funds from the LIFE project have enabled partners to increase warden hours, clear vegetation, create more terraces and increase the number of nest boxes. Roseate terns, unlike other tern species, which like open spacious areas, prefer to nest in crevices. They readily use the nest boxes, which protect chicks from the elements and predators. Wardens have also been able to discourage large gulls from occupying and predating nesting sites by trialling new techniques including gull-scarers and ‘agrilasers’ (laser technology to deter birds). Biosecurity measures and exclusion fencing was also implemented across certain colonies to deter mammalian predators. The project is also restoring tern habitats that have been degraded by erosion and subsequent flooding. This includes island restoration, shingle recharge, creating nesting bunds on breakwaters and deploying rafts.

Tern Raft in Firth of Forth © Chris Knowles

This year, we are pleased to announce that two roseate terns successfully fledged from the Skerries site in Wales for the first time in 12 years. This great success is attributed to staff efforts in managing the breeding seabird population on the island including the UK’s largest Arctic tern colony and we are optimistic of attracting more terns in the future. 

Roseate Tern LIFE Recovery project map © RSPB

The LIFE project is also leading on several key areas of research including a demography study, which revealed that the population growth at Coquet Island has been driven by immigration from Rockabill, whereas the growth of Irish colonies is driven more by productivity and the survival of juveniles/adults. Reviews of sandeel and alternative prey species led to the development of prey hotspot areas for future management. The project team has also visited the two remaining European colonies in France and the Azores, which has increased understanding and encouraged information exchange across countries. Additionally, wintering hotspots in Ghana were surveyed and illegal tern trapping is confirmed to still be ongoing in places. Geolocators have also been deployed to understand roseate tern migration patterns. It’s a long road to recovery for the roseate tern, but thanks to all these efforts, we’re on course to have a new International Roseate Tern Conservation strategy updated and in place by the project’s end in 2020.


Chantal Macleod-Nolan, RSPB (BirdLife UK)

Project Assistant - EU LIFE Roseate Tern Recovery Project


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