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Puffin numbers on Farne Islands stable despite summer deluge, 2019 survey finds

National Trust had feared extreme rainfall last June would have hit the islands’ puffin population.

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Farne Islands puffin numbers appear to be stable despite summer deluge last June (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Farne Islands puffin numbers appear to be stable despite summer deluge last June (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Farne Islands puffin numbers appear to be stable despite summer deluge last June (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Puffin numbers on the Farne Islands appear to be stable despite extreme rainfall in the middle of the breeding season last year, the National Trust has said.

At last 300 puffin chicks, known as pufflings, died last June when 5in (12cm) of rain fell on the islands off the coast of Northumberland in just 24 hours, flooding their burrows.

The National Trust, which looks after the Farnes, had feared the deluge would affect the population.

But results from a survey conducted across the islands from May to July last year, which involves checking a proportion of burrows, showed a total of 43,752 breeding pairs in 2019 – less than 0.5% down on 2018 figures.

Puffins nest in large numbers on the Farne Islands (Owen Humphreys/PA)
Puffins nest in large numbers on the Farne Islands (Owen Humphreys/PA)

The findings are good news for the charismatic seabird, which is listed as globally vulnerable to extinction because of declines in numbers largely due to a reduction in sand eels that make up a high proportion of their diet.

National Trust ranger Thomas Hendry said: “When we were hit by such heavy rainfall we were really concerned that numbers would be significantly affected – which, given these birds are declining in numbers across the world, was a devastating prospect.

“However, it appears that we had enough pufflings hatch successfully to literally weather the storm, and we can conclude numbers appear to be stable.”

In the past the National Trust has conducted its puffin survey on the islands every five years, with numbers increasing from 37,710 breeding pairs in 1993 to a peak of 55,674 in 2003.

Numbers then crashed in 2008 due to extremely low numbers of sand eels, before slowly recovering.

Puffin numbers on Farne Islands
Puffins are considered to be globally vulnerable to extinction (Owen Humphreys/PA)

With fears climate change will put pressure on the Farnes population through more stress on the food chain and more frequent winter storms affecting the species at sea, National Trust rangers have begun to monitor the population annually.

Mr Hendry continued: “Switching to the annual survey in 2018 has given us year-on-year data for the first time, and it’s allowing us to monitor the puffin population and breeding behaviour much more closely.

“The annual survey is also allowing the rangers get a better picture of the causes of seabird declines, tracking puffin numbers against likely causes of population change from island-based factors such as seal distribution or predatory gull numbers to changes in the frequency of storms and summer rainfall as a result of climate change or changes in the sand eel population.”

Dr Chris Redfern, emeritus professor at Newcastle University, who helped to verify the figures, added: “The effects of summer storms are a concern and suggests that as well as counting the number of breeding birds we should continue to monitor how many pairs are successful in raising chicks each year.”

PA