Big effort reaping big reward as little terns return to Benacre National Nature Reserve
- Credit: PA
One of the best loved and most iconic species on Suffolk’s beaches is also one of the rarest, having suffered huge declines in recent times.
But, as John Grant reports, the popular tiny ‘sea swallow’ is currently enjoying a bumper year.
When the first fluffy scrap of life emerged from the well-camouflaged eggs in a Suffolk little tern colony this week, the tiny chick was clearly oblivious of its celebrity status.
So much conservation work has been carried out on the county’s beaches in this and previous years that every young little tern is precious. The first to hatch this year was even more so as the effort expended on the species’ behalf in the past few months has been nothing short of Herculean.
As the hatchling begged for food from its parents on the shingle beach in front of Benacre Broad, conservationists had their fingers firmly crossed in the hope that the 2015 little tern breeding season would deliver a bumper crop of chicks as just reward for their work.
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The chick that was the first to appear in Suffolk left its egg on precisely the same day as at least two other colonies around Britain produced their own firsts - hatchlings also emerged on the “big birthday” at Chesil Beach, Dorset, and Gibraltar Point, Lincolnshire.
The Benacre Broad colony appears to be among the species’ biggest this year, with more than 100 nests. Along with smaller Suffolk colonies at nearby Kessingland and on The Knolls in the mouth of the River Deben off Bawdsey and Felixstowe Ferry, it is being lovingly monitored in a partnership project.
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The RSPB and Natural England are playing key roles in the conservation efforts - and, for a third successive year, the Touching the Tide Heritage Lottery Funded Landscape Partnership Scheme has funded a graduate trainee to work with the organisations to boost protection of the little terns and raise public awareness of their special requirements.
This year’s graduate trainee is Catherine Mercer, who gained a degree in zoology at the University of Sheffield and a masters degree in biodiversity and conservation at the University of Leeds.
Having worked for about a year with the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, Miss Mercer has carried out practical conservation work for Suffolk’s little terns and has engaged many members of public on the county’s beaches.
“At the beginning of the season the work was largely about putting up fences to protect areas of beaches for the little terns but since the birds have arrived back here for the summer it’s been mostly talking to people and showing them the birds through a telescope,” she said.
“Most people seem to love them and most people have been really interested in the work we are doing and learning that people’s behaviour around a colony is really important.”
Miss Mercer is also planning to carry out “outreach work” on behalf of the terns. She said she was devising a project with Suffolk artist Jennifer Hall which would involve local schools.
“Jen will work with the pupils on print-making, looking at how little terns’ nests, eggs and young are so well camouflaged on the beaches, and I will go into the schools and talk to the children about why the little tern is so special and needs all the help we can give it,” she said.
Touching the Tide project manager Bill Jenman said Miss Mercer was chosen for the role from a total of 111 applicants. “It was a phenomenally tough shortlist and it shows the calibre of people who are out there. To have someone as good as Catherine is, with excellent people skills, is really important and the success of the little terns so far on the Suffolk coast this year shows just how important it is to have someone out there on the ground.”
RSPB lead little tern warden for Suffolk Jesse Timberlake said the species’ fortunes had fluctuated over the years but the county’s little tern population had plummeted by about 90% in the last two decades.
“They are ephemeral by nature,” he said. “This is a very dynamic coastline, it changes very frequently, but we have at least twice as many this year as we had last year.”
There were many factors involved and the species was “fickle”, he said. Sites previously used in Norfolk were not in use this year and it may be that birds displaced from those beaches had transferred to Suffolk.
The Benacre Broad and Kessingland sites that were being utilised by the terns were protected by electric fencing to protect the birds from predation and disturbance, he said.
In addition, a new technique had been employed in a bid to attract little terns to Suffolk beaches.
“At two of our sites - Kessingland and Walberswick - we have placed little tern decoys to try to lure the birds into our best protected areas,” he said.
“These decoys have been shown to work with other tern species, but this is the first time we have used them in Suffolk. We don’t know how effective they have been - we don’t have nesting little terns at Walberswick but we do at Benacre - but we’ll be monitoring their effectiveness as the season progresses and we will be collecting data.”
Mr Timberlake added that many volunteers had been involved in the little tern work and the support given by local communities to the project had been an important factor.
The productivity of all Suffolk’s little tern nests would be carefully checked as chicks hatched and progressed. “Clutch sizes are slightly down this year, as is the case all around the North Sea coast,” he said. “The average clutch size last year was two eggs but this year it is down to 1.65. We will be keeping an eye on things but to have this many little terns on Suffolk beaches is at least very promising.”
Will Russell, Natural England’s reserve manager for the Benacre National Nature Reserve, said the project was “very much all about joint working” and he paid tribute to the co-operation of local communities, volunteers and the Benacre Estate.
At Benacre the current configuration of the beach in front of the broad due to shingle movements appeared very much to the terns’ liking.
“Last year it was quite a thin strip but this year it is very much wider, which means there is much more room for the terns and it creates a distance between the birds and the public,” he said. “The volunteers worked really well to get the fence up. It is a three-strand electric fence with a roped-off buffer area as well and inside there are two eight-strand electrified blocks within it.”
In addition to the fences - described by the team as “Fort Knox-like” - signs tell members of the public that little terns are protected by law. Visitors are asked to keep dogs on leads around colonies and “keep well clear of the nesting birds at all times.” They are also warned to avoid contact with the electrified fencing.
Little terns are Britain’s second rarest breeding tern - the rarest is roseate tern. The species, which winters off West Africa, has a UK nesting population of about 1,900 pairs each year - and it is hoped that the work carried out in Suffolk will enable the county to remain as one of its key strongholds.