The Fall and Rise of Regional Puffins

From Climate Scepticism


The BBC is, perhaps not unreasonably, plugging Sir David Attenborough’s latest series on its website.

One of its pieces about this is headed “Sir David Attenborough show looks at puffins‘ plight”. No doubt visitors to the website can find their way to this article by several different routes, but if stumbling on it via the Science & Environment section of the website the chosen excerpt to suck in readers is “Rare seabirds on the coast of East Yorkshire face threats from climate change, the RSPB says.

Read the article, and that turns into “Puffins at Bempton Cliffs in East Yorkshire have been affected by threats to their nests, food supply and climate change, according to the RSPB.

Which is rather more nuanced, since the threats listed extend well beyond climate change. Nevertheless, someone from the RSPB was on hand to provide a useful quote:

Dave O’Hara, site manager, said seabirds were „the most threatened group of birds in the world“.

He said the UK’s puffin population was predicted to reduce by 90% by 2050 if global temperatures continued to rise.

„Lots of our seabirds here at Bempton Cliffs have been affected,“ Mr O’Hara said.

The RSPB says rising sea temperatures mean the fish that rare birds feed on swim deeper in search of cooler waters, making it more difficult for birds to find them.

The charity said these challenges mean birds produce fewer chicks each year.

Historical data

One of the problems encountered when trying to get to the bottom of the question of puffin numbers is a frustrating lack of detailed historical data. Presumably in the past there wasn’t the focus on puffin numbers that there is today, so it’s difficult to know how they have fared historically, and therefore difficult to make comparisons between current and past numbers. Nevertheless, there are a few suggestions on the internet that in some places numbers may have been lower in the past than they are today, and in others numbers have recovered to those last seen before the Second World War, following a subsequent decline, possibly for lots of different reasons. I set out below a few examples, firstly from South Wales, with an article published on the BBC website on 24th March 2021, under the heading “Puffin numbers boom to 1940s-level high on Skokholm”.

The highest number of puffins since the 1940s has been counted on Skokholm Island off Pembrokeshire.

A total of 11,245 were spotted on Monday, compared to 8,534 last year, the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales said.

The sea birds have begun arriving almost a month early for their annual return to the area to mate.

A similar count is due on nearby Skomer, which recorded 34,796 puffins in 2020, a 44% rise on 2019 figures.

Two years ago, 24,108 were counted on Skomer.

…Welsh ornithologist Ronald Lockley carried out studies and estimated the island’s puffins number hit a record number of 40,000, in 1934.

Numbers subsequently crashed, which the trust puts down to marine pollution, particularly from oil…

…Ms Gavigan said it was not clear why the puffin population was increasing now, but the trust is working with Oxford and Gloucestershire universities to carry out research into finding reasons.

Next, turning to the Farne Islands, just off the coast of north Northumberland, another BBC article headed “Puffin census on Farne Islands shows numbers rising” was published on 19th July 2013 (numbers may have fallen back again since then).

Puffin numbers in a habitat in the north-east of England are making a comeback despite thousands having perished in severe winter storms.

A census on the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, showed there had been an 8% increase from the last count in 2008.

There are now just under 40,000 pairs of nesting puffins across the eight National Trust-owned islands.

Articles relating to Puffin numbers on the Farne Islands suggest that the story is complex and that long-term trends are confusing. In 2018, Paul Homewood helpfully wrote about a Telegraph scare story which rather undermined its own narrative:

It means thousands of birds have vanished since the last count in 2013, with just 35,000 breeding pairs probably remaining. At the current rate of decline, conservationists forecast that the entire colony could vanish within 50 years, an alarming trend that is being seen across Britain.

Puffin numbers on the Farne Islands have been monitored since 1939, when just 3,000 pairs were recorded, but numbers rose steadily until 2008, when the population declined by a third from 55,674 to 36,835.

3,000 pairs in 1939! Almost twelve times as many in 2018.

Ten years earlier the Express ran a story which seemed to contradict the Telegraph’s claim of steadily rising numbers of Farne Island puffins to 2008, when its headline claimed “Surprise fall in puffin numbers”.

The number of pairs of puffins breeding on the Farne Islands has fallen by a third in the past five years, the National Trust said.

The three-month survey, in which wardens check if the burrows the puffins use to nest in are occupied by reaching in with their arms, found that numbers had fallen from 55,674 pairs in 2003 to 36,500 pairs this year…

However, for present purposes, the part of the article of interest is this:

The first detailed count of puffins on the Farne Islands took place in 1969 when there were 6,800 pairs of puffins.

Perhaps the number cited above for 1939 wasn’t terribly accurate, but it sounds as though the 1969 number might be credible, and if so there are many more puffins on the Farne Islands today than there were a little over half a century ago.

An additional issue might be that puffin census numbers were under-counted due to covid limitations and restrictions, at least according to an article on the National Trust website:

Although the pandemic made conducting the puffin count in 2020 and 2021 more difficult, rangers put in place a good system of monitoring to ensure vital data could still be collected. In 2021, 36,211 breeding pairs of Atlantic puffins were recorded across four islands, compared to 42,378 pairs across eight islands in 2019.

Numbers appeared to drop in 2021 due to the team being unable to carry out a full survey. However, it’s anticipated that a return to a full census in 2022 will lead to a more accurate picture. This year’s count is therefore a very important one for these popular seabirds.

I haven’t discovered the outcome of the 2022 census and would love to know the numbers it revealed.

Turning next to the Firth of Forth, an article in the East Lothian Courier on 6th August 2009 was headed “Wandering pufflings proof of rising numbers”.

Local puffin numbers are thought to be on the increase following the clearance of the once-abundant tree-mallow plant from Craigleith Island and the rise in numbers of sand eels, the puffins‘ favourite food, on May Island.

Lynda Dalgleish, marketing manager of the Scottish Seabird Centre, said the increase in wandering pufflings on the mainland was evidence of a more robust population inhabiting islands off North Berwick.

Perhaps inevitably, climate change was blamed for the thriving tree-mallow; nevertheless, the article demonstrated rising puffin numbers when habitat problems were resolved.

Climate change and/or other issues?

While the RSPB is fully signed-up to climate alarmism, even it acknowledges that over-fishing of sandeels is a massive problem:

Whereas climate change is held primarily responsible for the decline of sandeel availability, the commercial fishing of this species is gravely exacerbating the problem. …

New post-Brexit fisheries powers mean the UK can fight for its seabirds. It now needs to close UK waters to commercial sandeel fishing or, at the very least, drop catch limits so more fish are available for our seabirds.

Another article, which I think is aimed at youngsters, also illustrates that puffins face lots of problems. It starts by throwing the kitchen sink at the climate change explanation, but reading on it quickly becomes apparent that there are lots of other issues:

It’s predicted that the UK’s puffin population could plunge 90% by 2050 if global warming is unchecked. They’re facing threats to both their nesting sites and their food supply, and the climate crisis is only making things worse…

…Every year, thousands of tonnes of small fish are taken from the North Sea, making it harder for puffins to feed their chicks…

…In some parts of the UK, Puffins also have to contend with invasive rats feeding on their eggs and chicks, climate change causing increasingly frequent and violent storms, oil spills, and the emerging threat of bird flu.

Direct conservation can help. A rat-eradication project led by the RSPB, Natural England, the Landmark Trust and the National Trust on the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel, meant that puffin numbers boomed from 13 to 375 just 15 years after the island was declared rat-free.

The last word

This article started at Bempton Cliffs in East Yorkshire, so it seems appropriate to return there for something approaching a conclusion. A guest blog by a puffin volunteer on the section of the RSPB website dedicated to Bempton Cliffs does seem to suggest that while counting puffin numbers is fraught with difficulty, the ones that come ashore every year at Bempton Cliffs seem to be doing all right:

…The location of most all other puffin “caves” on the reserve is pretty much unknown—cliff height and lack of access make it virtually impossible to undertake any traditional kind of puffin count in the Yorkshire colony…In recent years, however, the reserve team has attempted to count puffins at sea at the start of each season….

…This at-sea counting task is fraught with challenges. There are over 7 miles of cliff top to walk, with elevations ranging from 200 to nearly 400 feet. Discerning a puffin at this distance from other auks (guillemots and razorbills) requires skill, patience and diligence!

Not to mention that puffins move on the tide and waves, fly, dive etc. So how do you avoid under-counting, or double counting? Poor visibility, tide, strong winds and waves all increase the degree of difficulty. But this type of survey method is used to census other marine life such as sea otters and can be used as an indicator of population trends. Repeating surveys over a number of years can balance out factors that can influence the count—weather, viewing conditions, animal movements etc. and over time can be used to understand whether a population is increasing or decreasing.

Based on these recent counts, and historical observations, we believe that the Yorkshire Coast population is around 3,000-4,000 puffins, but it is too early to determine whether this is a growing or declining population. But what we do know is that Bempton Cliffs’ puffins likely benefit from being within good commuting range of puffin supermarkets stocking a variety of prey species, including sandeels and sprats. Project Puffin and RSPB’s work with partners across the UK shows that such puffin populations are generally faring better than those that are experiencing dwindling sandeel supplies and a lack of suitable alternative prey.


Puffin numbers in the UK (as counted by humans) seem to be all over the place, and it’s difficult to get a handle on long-term trends (or, if the above blog quote is to be believed, even on current numbers). It seems clear that when island nesting grounds are infested by rats or tree-mallow plant, it will cause them major problems, as will marine pollution, and over-fishing of sand eels (their main food) by massive trawlers. Perhaps climate change is causing, and will continue to cause, a problem for puffins, but they have plenty of other problems, and it would be a pity if an obsession with climate change blinded puffin helpers to things that can be done to help. I am concerned that the RSPB seems to put climate change front and centre of its publicity and campaigning, but am also relieved that they recognise – and apparently take steps to try to deal with – other more pressing problems.

It isn’t black and white

The Fall and Rise of Regional Puffins — Climate Scepticism