Puffins return to Skokholm in record numbers

With not a lot of good news around, one west Walian story from the world of nature is bound to bring a smile.

That’s because the number of puffins who have come to nest on the island of Skokholm is at its highest for decades; more than 11,000 were counted this week, almost 3,000 more than last year.

Puffins on Skokholm went into sharp decline as far back as the 1940s and have stuggled until now to increase their presence  in the decades ever since. And while the numbers are heading in the right direction, it’s nothing like the puffins’ hey-day almost 90 years ago.

In the 1930s, the celebrated Welsh ornithologist, Ronald Lockley carried out studies on the island’s wildlife. Lockley established the first bird observatory in the UK on Skokholm in 1933 and wrote about his experiences on the island.

In 1927 Ronald Lockley took on a lease for Skokholm for 21 years. His tenure was cut short by World War II.

This week, Richard Brown, one of Skokholm’s two wardens (with Giselle Eagle), wrote in his ‘Skolkholm blog’, run by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales :

“Lockley counted 39,548 in 1933, and estimated 40,000 the following year, with the crash from these numbers attributable to marine pollution – particularly oil. It is however pleasing that the recovery seems to be picking up pace; we only counted 8,534 last year.”

“It soon became apparent as we worked our way around the island in opposite directions that there were more puffins than we had ever see. As we sat down… to do the adding up, we both knew that the count was going to be big, but we didn’t appreciate just how big.

“The counts felt really good, with perfect light. The total? 11,245 puffins! This is the highest post-War total, up on the 10,000 logged in 1950, 1951 and 1953.

Giselle Eagle and Richard Brown are the wardens of Skokholm Island, managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales.

“We are incredibly excited to have puffins arriving in such large numbers. Although the trend over the last few years has been an upwards one, we are always nervous at this time of year that some calamity has befallen them during the winter.”

“A winter in the Atlantic seems like something that would kill off huge numbers of birds, but of course these sturdy little auks are supremely adapted for a life at sea. In fact if they didn’t require somewhere to look after their egg (somewhere free of mammalian predators), then we probably wouldn’t see them at all.”

The factor at work behind the increase in puffin numbers is perhaps surprising. Experts suggest it may be because of reduced marine pollution in the Irish Sea in recent years, and subsequenly, on account of the puffins’ greater access to their favourite snack – sandeels, which do well in less polluted waters.

For some reason, the effects of climate change haven’t (yet) meant the local sandeel population has suffered to the same extent as other sandeel colonies across the British Isles. Long may they and the Skokholm puffins thrive.

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