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Posted: 7th June 2024

First puffin census in Farne Islands since 2019 begins
The team hopes that the absence of bird flu could be a sign of immunity.
COVID-19 and avian flu had prevented full counts.

Rangers have begun their first full census of puffins in the Farne Islands, after disruption from the COVID-19 and avian influenza outbreaks.

The census will see rangers survey eight of the 28 islands from the National Trust site, located off the Northumberland coast.

Previous attempts to establish numbers of the red-listed bird had been prevented by the outbreak of COVID-19, followed by a spread of avian influenza among sea birds in 2022 and 2023. This meant that rangers were only able to work as and when restrictions allowed them.

This has meant that, in the past four years, rangers have only been able to conduct limited sample surveys on just two to four of the Farne Islands.

These estimates indicated that there are under 40,000 breeding pairs of puffins, compared to nearly 44,000 in 2019.

The survey method for the census will involve the rangers dividing the eight islands into grids. These grids will then be examined for ‘apparent occupied burrows’ – burrows which show signs of recent puffin activity such as scratching, digging or loose soil.

If the rangers are unsure if a burrow is occupied, they will sometimes reach their arm into a burrow to carefully check for inhabitants. However, this year the team will consider the use of an endoscope to investigate burrows with less intrusion.

The data is then shared as part of the Seabird Monitoring Programme, which allows the conservation charity to monitor and report seabird populations in Great Britain and Ireland.

The team hopes that the absence of bird flu could be a sign of growing seabird immunity to the virus.

Tom Hendry, area ranger for the National Trust on the Farne Islands, said: “All the seabirds which return here to breed, as well as the ones that live here all year round, have been through an incredibly rough time these past few years. We know over 9,600 seabirds perished on the islands due to bird flu – with thousands more likely to have died at sea – but thankfully, as yet we have not seen any signs of the disease since the seabirds have returned to breed.

“As we start this year’s count, the fact that bird flu has so far been absent is extremely welcome, and we’re really hoping that the puffins, and all our seabirds will have a successful breeding season.”

Image © Shutterstock

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