Climate change leaving seabirds with nowhere to tern

Geoff Trinder

One of the UK’s rarest seabirds could become a victim of climate change as rising seas and increased coastal flooding squeezes the UK’s coastline

Little terns, the UK’s smallest tern species, return each April to breed on beaches at fewer than 60 sites around the UK. Traditional colonies at South Gare on the Tees and Donna Nook in Lincolnshire have already been lost due to changes in our coastline and just one nesting site remains in Wales.

Predictions of increased coastal flooding and sea level rise caused by climate change could spell disaster for these elegant seabirds. This warning comes as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issue their latest reports on climate change.

Little tern

© Amy Lewis - Little tern

Quickly running out of space

Susan Rendell-Read is the RSPB’s little tern project manager - “Little terns are very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. They need undisturbed sand and shingle beaches to nest with a plentiful supply of small fish just offshore. These beaches can be quickly altered by rising seas and floods, making them unsuitable for terns to nest.”

“In the past, the areas lost to flooding or storms would be offset by new areas of sand or shingle thrown up by the sea. This is now being prevented by hard sea defences and other man made developments. The result, known as coastal squeeze, means beaches are getting narrower and the little terns are quickly running out of space.”

“As rising sea levels and storms change our coastline, little terns are forced into fewer and fewer colonies and have to share space with people on some of our most popular beaches, leading to significant problems with disturbance.”

Major project

A major new five-year partnership including the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Natural England and the National Trust has been established to help little terns adapt to climate change and secure their future in the UK. This partnership, supported by the EU LIFE + programme, will lay the foundations for the long-term recovery of the little tern in the UK by protecting and creating nest sites and increasing public awareness and support.

An important part of the recovery plan is ensuring that the few sites where little terns continue to breed are protected from disturbance. The RSPB and its partners are keen to raise awareness amongst local communities and beachgoers to give little terns space to breed safely and in peace.

Local communities play a vital role in helping little terns cope with the increasing threat of climate change.
Victoria Egan
National Trust

Victoria Egan manages little tern colonies for the National Trust at Blakeney National Nature Reserve in Norfolk said “local communities and beachgoers have a vital role to play in helping little terns cope with the increasing threat of climate change. These tiny seabirds need space to breed undisturbed so we are urging visitors to these beaches to follow any directions and advice given on local signs on the beach and avoid entering certain areas while the little terns are breeding”.

Susan added “These dainty little seabirds, no heavier than a tennis ball, have just started returning to our shores after travelling thousands of miles from their wintering sites off the south and west coasts of Africa. We need to make sure that they have the best chance of finding a suitable home when they arrive.”

Little terns in Lincolnshire

Historically there were at least seven or eight sites along the Lincolnshire coast where little terns nested including Donna Nook National Nature Reserve. Now just one remains: Gibraltar Point National Nature Reserve.

Little terns were first recorded at Gibraltar Point in 1915, but they were probably breeding there long before. They nest on the beach where they are very vulnerable to predation and to disturbance by people. In 1976, a Shorebird Sanctuary area was set up to protect the little terns. This sanctuary area still protects the birds.

We are keen to hear from anyone who sees little terns anywhere along the coast so we can increase our understanding of their behaviour and feeding habits.
Dave Miller
Coast and The Wash Warden for the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust

Dave Miller, Coast and The Wash Warden for the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, said: "Known as the swallows of the sea, little terns are an iconic species. Sadly they are living life on the edge and may disappear as a breeding species from Lincolnshire. We are happy for visitors to explore Gibraltar Point and the wider Lincolnshire coast but with this access comes responsibility and keeping away from sanctuary areas. We are also keen to hear from anyone who sees little terns anywhere along the coast so we can increase our understanding of their behaviour and feeding habits."

How you can help

  • Please report any sightings of little terns along the Lincolnshire coast, even if they are just flying past
  • Volunteers are needed to help at the Gibraltar Point Shorebird Sanctuary, providing information to people about this iconic species

You’ll find more information on little terns on our species page.

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