RSPB publishes new maps of seabirds to help offshore wind farm developers and planners

Ellie Owen, who led on the tracking work for the RSPB, holds an adult male Shag.
Ellie Owen, who led on the tracking work for the RSPB, holds an adult male Shag.

A five year study of more than 1,300 breeding seabirds has revealed where British and Irish seabirds go when they’re not on land.

Using computer models to predict where they go to find food, the RSPB project has identified the majority of ‘hotspots’ where seabirds gather to feed are concentrated in the coastal waters of Scotland.

Highlighting the need for robust conservation measures in this area, the RSPB say the new maps can be used to protect threatened species by assessing potential impacts from offshore wind farms, pollution and other human activities on seabirds. 

The study – headed by the RSPB in partnership with more than a dozen scientists from leading research institutes – used five years of tracking data to estimate the areas used by four species: kittiwakes, shags, razorbills and guillemots. 

This comes as the Scottish Government considers the creation of Special Protection Areas at sea to safeguard key seabird feeding areas, as well as planning future management of marine activities in Scottish waters outside of the EU and the Common Fisheries Policy.

The majority of seabird ‘hotspots’, where different species gather to feed, are concentrated in the coastal waters of Scotland, highlighting the need for robust conservation measures to protect these areas. Overall, the four species use at least 1.5 million square km of sea around Britain and Ireland – an area three times the size of Spain.

RSPB map showing offshore locations of kittiwakes
RSPB map showing offshore locations of kittiwakes

Dr Mark Bolton, RSPB Principle Conservation Scientist, said: “Understanding more about our seabirds is vital because they are one of the most endangered groups of birds in the world.

“Over the last 30 years, kittiwake and shag numbers have declined by 72% and 68% respectively in Scotland. This is partly due to the impacts of climate change and fishing, and a new OSPAR report underlines this trend, highlighting widespread seabird breeding failures in the North and Celtic Seas.

“Scotland is also home to internationally important populations of breeding seabirds so we have a global responsibility to safeguard them.”

During the project, lightweight GPS tags were fitted to over 1,300 adult birds from 29 different colonies. The tracking data was then used to create a computer model for each species, so that all of the important areas at sea could be predicted.

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