Puffins in Peril

Filed in Articles, Projects on Jun.28, 2018

The Farne Islands are a group of islands off the north-east coast of Northumberland. There are between 15 and 20 islands depending on the state of the tide. They are divided into two groups, the Inner Group and the Outer Group. The main islands in the Inner Group are Inner Farne, Knoxes Reef and the East and West Wideopens. The main islands in the Outer Group are Staple Island the Brownsman, North and South Wamses, Big Harcar and the Longstone,the two groups are separated by Staple Sound.

I’ve recently spent several days visiting both Inner Farne and Staple Island, both are incredible places for wildlife and an extremely important place for so many nesting seabirds during our summer months. I was there working with a conservation organisation who had commissioned me to photograph these seabirds and the work going on to help them. Most of the images I took and the 4K videos will be used to help the 2018 census, government reports and those that are helping these beautiful seabirds. Once the images have been released by the relative organisations I will post them on a future blog.

In and around the harbour area if your lucky you get to see one of the most beautiful seaducks we have here in the UK, the common eider.  The males have striking plumage while the females are brown in colour. I saw a few males close too shore but mostly I came across females with young in and around the harbour. The scientific name of the Eider ; Somateria mollissima is derived from Ancient Greek somatos “body” and erion “wool”, and Latin mollissimus “very soft”, all referring to its down feathers that have long been harvested for filling pillows and quilts.

In more recent years though this practice has been largely replaced by down from domestic farm-geese and synthetic alternatives. Although eiderdown pillows or quilts are now a rarity, eiderdown harvesting continues and is sustainable, as it can be done after the ducklings leave the nest with no harm to the birds.

The puffin is one of my favourite birds and there are few better places in the UK to see them up close than on the Farne Islands. It is unmistakable with its beautiful markings, strikingly coloured bill and comical nature and waddling walk on land. Locally the bird is known as a ‘Tommy noddy’. It is a member of the auk family, alongside guillemots and razorbills, that are also present in great numbers on the Islands.

Puffins are one of the most widely recognised birds in the world, with a colorful bill that seems too perfectly painted to be real. The puffin’s latin name, Fratercula, comes from the Latin for “little brother.” The name refers to the sea bird’s black and white plumage, which was said to resemble the robes that monks once wore.

They usually pair up with the same partner as previous years  and they raise their single chick over the course of summer and return every year to the same burrow with the same mate. Males and female Puffins look almost identical, but the male is slightly larger if you see them alongside each other.

Each year, generally between April and late July Puffins return to the Farnes to breed. For the rest of the year, the birds fly out to sea, overwintering on the water, only returning to land each year for a short window to breed and raise their young. It is while out on the water, that they shed their brightly coloured bills, in favour of a dull grey winter bill colouring. But, as spring approaches, the vibrant colours return and, by the time they settle on land again, the bill is clear again for all to see.

Puffins use body movements to communicate in a variety of situations. In mating and courtship the puffins will pair up before they come onto the island from the ocean. Once they are on land, the pair perform billing, a behavior where puffins rub their beaks together. Watching this behaviour is beautiful.

Puffin numbers at the Farne Islands, which is one of their most important habitats here in the UK, have fallen sharply, raising fears they could die out completely there within a century. The puffin was given “vulnerable” status in 2015 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature when worldwide numbers dropped and is also on the British Trust for Ornithology’s “red list” for species of conservation concern in the UK.

Every five years National Trust rangers and volunteers carry out a census of the birds on the Farne Islands, and right now the trust is in the middle of their census, counting the number of breeding pairs on eight islands which make up the largest puffin colony in England.

They’re only half way through this years census, but already the figures are giving cause for concern. In the last puffin census in 2013, they counted 40,000 breeding pairs of puffins. But so far this year, numbers are down by 12 per cent, and on one of the islands the decline is as much as 42 per cent. If final figures show a 12 per cent drop across the Farne Islands, the puffin population will be at around its lowest for 25 years.

The crash in Atlantic puffin numbers in Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, which together hold 80% of the European population, has been linked to climate change and fishing practices. In Britain there have been significant losses. Though puffin numbers remain in their millions in Europe, there have been worryingly high breeding failures at key colonies.

Research showed puffins were particularly susceptible to shifts in sea temperatures, thermal mixing and extreme weather, all affecting their prey species of sand eels, sprats and other small fish. Gill net fisheries and invasive predators such as rats, cats and mink on the islands where they breed, as well as fishing of their prey species, have also contributed to the decline.

During my time on the Farne islands I also witnessed and photographed the massive issue of plastic waste in our oceans. With many seabirds collecting the plastic for nesting material and getting caught up in it themselves. Harrowing and very upsetting to see and a stark visual reminder of our own selfish behaviour and the effect it has on our oceans and the wildlife that it supports. These images once more are to be used for a future campaign and once released into the public domain I will publish them along with the puffin ones on a future blog where everything will become clearer.

Sky’s Ocean rescue is doing so much to bring this issue to the masses and is trying to bring about change no matter how small.  Its aim is to shine a spotlight on the issues affecting ocean health, find innovative solutions to the problem of ocean plastics, and inspire people to make small everyday changes that collectively make a huge difference.

To see their superb work and to get involved with this fantastic campaign please click here.

We produce hundreds of millions of tons of plastic every year, most of which cannot be recycled. It’s obvious that we need to use less plastic, move towards sustainable products and services and come up with technology that recycles plastic more efficiently. Single-use plastics are used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These items are things like plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, soda and water bottles and most food packaging.  We produce roughly 300 million tons of plastic each year and half of it is disposable. The nature of petroleum based disposable plastic makes it difficult to recycle.

Additionally there are a limited number of items that recycled plastic can be used. Petroleum based plastic is not biodegradable and usually goes into a landfill where it is buried or it gets into the water and finds its way into the ocean. Although plastic will not biodegrade, it will degrade into tiny particles after many years. In the process of breaking down, it releases toxic chemicals which make their way into our food and water supply. These toxic chemicals are now being found in our bloodstream. And the latest research has linked them to cancer, infertility, birth defects, impaired immunity and many other ailments

Craig Jones Wildlife Photography fully supports Sky Ocean Rescue and doesn’t send out any prints or canvases where plastic is used as wrapping. Everything used to package my canvass and prints both framed and unframed is recycled. On all of my trips, and workshops both here in the UK and abroad, single use plastic will not be used or encouraged by myself and by those that help me. Hopefully making a difference, not matter how small in the ever growing problem of plastic waste in our oceans.

Puffins are one of our most threatened birds in the UK, I really hope the future looks better for them and their falling decline can be stemmed. I’d hate to think that one of mine and the nations favorite seabirds could become extinct in the future. Small steps lead to big changes and we can all do our bit too help not just the puffins but all life and our oceans that give us so much everyday.


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