I beg to move,
That this House
has considered puffin habitats.
It is a pleasure and an honour to be able to discuss the wonderful puffin here in Parliament. I have been trying to secure this debate for many months, as I have the great honour of being the MP who represents the largest proportion of the puffins who come to our shores every year along my exceptional, environmentally spectacular Northumbrian coast. Along those 64 miles of coast, within the boundaries of my constituency, can be found world-renowned habitats, which some of our planet’s rarest, funniest, cutest and most determined birdlife choose to make home for their families every year. From Lindisfarne to the 28 Farne islands and down to Coquet island, my constituency welcomes kittiwakes, shags, guillemots, black-headed gulls, arctic, little and roseate terns—in fact, 95% of the UK population of roseates are found on Coquet island—and the majestic and unique puffin.
The puffin is only a little bird, about the same height as a long ruler, with a wingspan of two rulers. That is the measurement used by schoolchildren at one of my schools in Amble, the fishing port that hosts the Amble Puffin Festival every spring bank holiday. The puffin seems to wear a black coat and has a bright white chest, with spectacularly orange feet to match its large bill. Puffins look somewhat ungainly on the ground; they are a little bit awkward and shy. However, when they take off for flight, we see just why the Atlantic puffin—Fratercula arctica, or the friar of the Arctic, so named because of its monkish black hood—is to be respected. The puffin flies like a fighter jet, setting its beak at the front of a streamlined body with powerful wings, enabling it to head out from its cliff-top base to plunge up to 60 metres into the sea to source sand eels or sprats to feed their young.
In Northumberland, we use the puffin’s arrival to the Farne islands and Coquet island as the harbinger of spring. The smallest of the world’s four puffin species, our Arctic puffins, arrive en masse to breed on our most remote, unpeopled and predator-free islands. They come to land only for breeding, and they arrive at our Northumbrian coastline from across the vast northern seas where they live a solitary, invisible life on the wing following the previous breeding season.
Spring is carnival time for puffins. They get to the safe cliff tops on Inner Farne and some of the other 27 islands and turn from solitary birds to wildly social courting birds intent on finding a mate and creating the next generation of puffins. If they can meet up with their mate from the previous year, they often do. Once they have found a mate, their outsized beak and big, webbed feet set to work digging a burrow in the soft earth. The female lays just one egg, and the couple take turns incubating it under their wings in the burrow, out of sight of other birds.
Predators might be rats or cats, so the management of islands where puffins choose to breed, and where human activity has brought threats onshore, is vital to puffins’ safety. The Farne islands are now managed by the National Trust and a team of rangers based on the islands all summer to monitor and protect this vital habitat. The islands sit within the Northumberland marine special protection area and are now included in the latest set of UK conservation zones. The trust has monitored numbers on a five-yearly basis for decades, and the 2018 census showed some 44,000 pairs of puffins, up from 40,000 in 2013, so Northumberland colonies are in great health at the moment. The National Trust has been doing this monitoring for more than 50 years, which has helped us to keep abreast of colony size and to work out, where there have been drops, what might be causing them. It is great news that the trust now plans to monitor numbers formally on an annual basis to help inform the climate change debate as fully as possible.
Puffin parents share feeding duties, as they do incubation roles, although the female seems to make most of the trips—might that sound familiar, gentlemen? She will fly out from the island and dive for sand eels, coming back—as so many photos of our wonderful bird show—with a beakful of fish. She has to dodge the gulls, skuas and terns that would like to help themselves to her supplies. That fighter jet skill can be seen by visitors to the Farne islands, coming by boat from Seahouses, as puffins whizz past other species and come in to land—those big orange feet acting as brakes right next to the puffins’ burrow—to deliver lunch to their baby puffling.
Beyond safe, predator-free habitats for burrows, the continued breeding health of the Arctic puffin is dependent on the state of the sea around the locations from which their food sources come. A plentiful supply of sand eels, sprats, baby herring or capelin is vital if the puffins are to breed. This critical factor was first demonstrated to me on the Farne islands, which my family and friends visit every spring to be amazed and awed by the influx of wildlife for the breeding season. Suddenly, one year, there just seemed to be fewer puffins. The breeding success rate was low. Locally, a sense of panic set in that it was all over for the puffin.
Thankfully, that was not the case. Rather, for reasons best known to the sea, there was a dearth of sand eels that year, and so the puffins simply did not breed, knowing that there was not enough food for their young. Nature’s wildlife has a way of regulating itself for its own survival. Reassuringly, the numbers grew again in the years that followed, back up to the colony size we see now, as food supplies have remained abundant since that weird year.
The other direct threat to our puffins each year is stormy seas. I have been updated just today by one of our National Trust rangers, Gwen Potter—who looks after the Farne islands puffins and other nesting birds, such as my dear friend the eider duck—that a recent high tide and stormy sea came over the normal high water mark and drowned some 300 of our puffins and their baby pufflings just a few days ago. Some might say that that is just nature, and sometimes she is brutal, but how we manage our environment on a global scale, as well as a local one, remains a challenge.
While our UK puffin population is in rude health and we invest in looking after their unique habitats, around the world the Arctic puffin is not doing so well. In 2015, it was announced that the puffin is now classified as “vulnerable to extinction”; Fratercula arctica is now on the red list. The Northumbrian monks of old, who communed with nature on Lindisfarne and the Farne islands—perhaps most famously St Cuthbert, who died on Inner Farne in 687 AD—would be horrified that we have failed to live in better harmony with nature in recent centuries.
Different breeding grounds, even around the UK, are in different states of health. Tagging and monitoring tells us that, from some breeding sites, puffins have to travel up to 400 km to find food for their young. Whether from overfishing, weather impacts altering water temperature and stormy sea levels, or food sources being much further away, we have trouble ahead. If the fish that puffins find are smaller because the temperature of the North sea shifts the sources of plankton that supply sand eels, more effort expended for less outcome can only have a detrimental impact.
I appreciate that the Minister cannot single-handedly restore our oceans and seas to balance and good health, and nor can he control the weather—I do not think—but we can, as a country and as a Government, ensure that we support those who manage puffin colonies with vermin control and good data monitoring, so that we can have an early and thorough understanding of causes of change or decline. I challenge the Minister to discuss the falling numbers of puffins in Norway and Iceland and whether it is acceptable anymore to eat puffins, since they are taken from breeding grounds.
While millions of birds sounds like a large number, it takes only a few years of poor breeding—there have now been nine years in Norway—for there to be a sudden and irreversible drop in numbers. The challenge of shipwrecks and oil spill impacts for food sources for many years is also a concern, and I ask the Minister to speak with his Department for Transport colleagues, who work globally to improve the safety of shipping activity.
As well as the opportunity to share the wonderfulness of another species centred in my beautiful constituency—hon. Members will recall our discussion on the eider duck, and I give many thanks to Ministers for including her in the list of protected birds in our new marine conservation zone—I hope this debate provides a good opportunity to highlight not only concerns that can be alleviated, at least in part, by local and national co-operation and forward planning, but some of the global risk factors, on which we must advocate, as a nation who lives by her word, as we move to a way of life that considers in the round the impacts we have on our wildlife.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I thank my hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan for securing the debate.
Puffins are perhaps the most remarkably odd-looking birds to call the UK home. They look to have been drawn by a 1930s cartoonist, with a black-and-white body resembling a gent’s evening attire that is augmented in the summer breeding season by a vibrantly coloured bill. Puffins are often referred to as sea parrots on account of those bright bills, and we in the UK benefit from more than 500,000 breeding pairs—roughly 10% of the world’s population—although, as has been said, they are at risk. It is sad to note that, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, puffins are on the red list, in need of urgent action to conserve them for future generations and to avoid the potential global extinction that has befallen other members of their extended family.
One of their habitats is off the beautiful Ayrshire coast in my constituency, on an island formed from a volcanic plug known as Ailsa Craig—a landmark famous for not only its birdlife but the blue granite used for the curling stones used throughout the world. These curling stones are manufactured in Mauchline in Ayrshire, albeit not in my constituency. When drivers head from Glasgow to Ayr on the A77, the island dramatically dominates the horizon for a moment and appears to travel with them on the coast road to Culzean castle.
On Ailsa Craig, puffins may nest either in sandy burrows vacated by rabbits or in crevices on the cliff-like ledges. Their ability to fly—rather clumsily at times—is outshone by their superb swimming and diving skills. Years ago, homeowners and tenants on the now uninhabited island had the right to take the island’s birds for food and feathers. However, according to author and photographer Charles Kirk, who spent some time on the island, it took approximately 1,152 puffin feathers to make a bed—I have no idea who counted said feathers. Thankfully, the puffins are now protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Undoubtedly, the population has—excuse the pun—ebbed and flowed somewhat. Puffins start at a disadvantage, producing only one chick per breeding season, and although a puffin may live for 20 years or more, it does not breed for the first five years of its life. A lot of work was undertaken on Ailsa Craig to rid it of diseased rabbits and predatory rats, to encourage the puffin colony to multiply. Those animals, brought over on visiting boats and vessels, meant that, by the 1930s, puffin numbers had seriously declined. A concerted effort began, and I am pleased to note that, by 1991, the island was once again rat free, and puffins were returning in greater numbers to breed. We need to ensure that such predators do not again secure a foothold on the island and threaten its puffin colony.
Puffins are currently the subject of the RSPB’s—this is hard to say—Puffarazzi project, a request for the public to submit photographs of feeding puffins. There has been a very positive response from the public. It is clear that these little and sometimes comical birds captivate us and are a huge draw for tourists. Indeed, the last ocean-going paddle steamer, the Waverley, used to offer trips around Ailsa Craig and out to Staffa for the public to view the puffin colonies and colonies of other seabirds. In the absence, for the moment, of the Waverley, Mr McCrindle, with his small vessel the MFV Glorious, offers wonderful trips from Girvan to Ailsa Craig—a magical trip that I have experienced many times.
Only at the end of last week, puffins were again in the news. The item referred to water temperatures rising with climate change, threatening the puffins’ continued existence. Their mainstay diet of small fish such as herring and sand eels are themselves not exempt from environmental changes and human intervention, in addition to the ongoing problem of plastics polluting our seas.
I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give us an assurance that when the Government address climate change and marine pollution, they will not forget not so much the flight of the puffin as the plight of the puffin.
I commend and congratulate my hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan on securing this very interesting, useful and practical debate. On a day when so many of us, from across the House, have been meeting constituents and talking about the strategic challenge of climate change, we have an opportunity now to discuss one very small aspect of it that is nevertheless very important, because part of thinking about our responsibilities and responding to the challenge of climate change is thinking about what more we can do to protect our natural environment.
As my hon. Friends the Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) have demonstrated powerfully, our constituencies, and particularly the coastal constituencies in this country, are home to myriad fascinating and curious creatures—all kinds of wonderful wildlife—and the puffin has a place in our affections that probably few other birds do. That is very important for us in Pembrokeshire, where my own constituency is located. We have the island of Skomer, just off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Skomer is world famous among birdwatchers for being home to not just the puffin, but so many other species of seabird: Manx shearwaters, guillemots, razorbills and so on. Actually, this time of year is a wonderful time to visit Skomer. I would encourage you, Mr Gapes, and any other colleagues here this afternoon to do so. If you have not visited Pembrokeshire, you absolutely should, and if you have not been across to Skomer island, it is well worth it. There are boat trips six days a week to take people on to the island; it is a short boat ride across the choppy water, and at this time of year, when there are so many puffins breeding and some of the other species there, it truly is a sight to behold.
I want to use this opportunity not to repeat any of the incredibly effective descriptions that my colleagues have already given of the curious characteristics and the attractiveness of puffins, but just to flag up a couple of things in relation to Skomer island. First, I place on the record my thanks for the work of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. It manages the island of Skomer and does so extremely effectively. I have talked about the daily boatloads of visitors to the island; it caps them at 250 visitors a day. About 20,000 visitors a year go on to the island, and about 2,000 people will benefit from an overnight stay on the island. Many more people get to observe the island on boat trips where the boats do not land on the island itself. The puffin therefore plays an important economic role in my constituency by attracting tourists—not just from around the United Kingdom, but from all over the world—who want to come and see these very special seabirds in the wild.
With that comes a challenge. Yes, the wildlife trust’s cap of 250 visitors a day is very important, but a warning has been flagged up recently about photographers. There is nothing more wonderful than going on to Skomer island with one’s phone or a camera and trying to capture an image of one of these wonderful birds in the wild. They look stunning, they look curious and they are comical, as my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock—he is my good friend—mentioned a few moments ago. But that has meant that people have been striving harder and harder to capture a wonderful picture of the puffin, and unfortunately damage is being done to some of the burrows. It is unintentional. I do not think anybody would have a day trip out to Skomer with anything other than a desire to be a benign influence and not cause any harm, but incidental negative impacts do happen, so we have had a warning recently that photographers need to take care on the island. My hon. Friend mentioned the RSPB’s Puffarazzi campaign, whereby it is encouraging people to go out and take photographs of puffins, especially puffins that are feeding, because although this bird has been watched and observed for years and years by so many people, there is so much that we do not know about the species. The RSPB is trying to learn more about the puffin’s feeding habits and other behaviours, so it is encouraging members of the public to go and take pictures. But I would urge caution: photographers, both amateurs and professionals, need to take care.
We had a slight disruption to the overall growth in the puffin population locally in 2014, when we had a winter of very bad storms down in west Wales. Because of the weather patterns and the sea being churned up, puffins were literally starving. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said that nature has a wonderful way of self-regulating, and it is true. We have seen growth in the puffin numbers on Skomer island in Pembrokeshire. It is one of those places that is being observed more and more in order to understand why colonies can be so healthy and grow so much. In fact, the growth on Skomer has created challenges, because the puffins are now almost invading the space of the Manx shearwaters. Hon. Members may be able to imagine the tussle between those species, both of which we want to protect; we want them to flourish. All these things are being observed and watched, and where there is a need for human intervention, the wildlife trust does that very well.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed for securing the debate. It provides us with a useful opportunity to say some things that I hope will be constructive about this wonderful little species that enriches our lives and our nation in its own little way. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts and ideas on what more can be done to ensure this species continues to grow in our country.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I thank Anne-Marie Trevelyan for securing the debate. She represents an exceedingly beautiful constituency, and it is an absolute pleasure to pass through it by train on the way home. Many people admire the view of the area from the bridge; it always takes people aback.
The Atlantic puffin is widely distributed on islands around Scotland’s north and west coasts, and to anyone wishing to have a great day at the seaside, I recommend the Firth of Forth, just off the coast at North Berwick, as a particularly interesting viewing point, where anyone can watch—the boat trip out to the Bass Rock may be just a wee bit better than the one at Ailsa Craig—the puffins, gannets and peregrine falcons, among many other birds, and seals feeding and going about their business. It is not too far from my Falkirk constituency, so it is worth the day trip.
Elsewhere in the UK, puffins can be found in northern England, in south-west England and in Wales, as has been said. The UK population is estimated to be about 500,000 birds, or perhaps more, and although the population is not under threat globally, some populations have suffered marked declines in recent years. With half the UK population nesting at only a few sites, it is sadly, as others have stated, an amber or a red list species in the UK.
Puffins spend most of their lives at sea, coming ashore only to breed; in Scotland, that takes place from late April until mid-August. Although the breeding birds have been well studied, much less is known about the birds’ lives at sea in the winter. Population decline has been linked to changes in the numbers and distribution of their fish prey, probably caused by rising sea temperatures and the general mismanagement of the marine environment, and similar trends have been recorded in other UK seabirds.
Scotland’s vital position at the edge of the north-west European continental shelf has a huge influence on our coast and seas. The Scottish Government are, of course, committed to the protection of that environment. The Scottish Government have added some 42 marine protected areas to their network since 2012 and have developed a strategy for the next six years, to provide continuity of development to that MPA network.
It is striking that, as is nearly always the case, the greatest threats to puffins are man-made. As we are aware, our marine environment has been shaped by wind, water and ice over thousands of years, creating productive and abundant marine life. The meeting and mixing of nutrient-rich waters provides the perfect home for sea life to thrive. Scotland is of international importance for its marine biodiversity, providing the ideal environment for our spectacular birds, marine mammals and fish, as well as for the habitats that are hidden on the sea bed.
A staggering 45% of Europe’s breeding seabirds live in Scotland—around 5 million seabirds. Special protection areas are classified under the EU birds directive, which requires the member states of the European community to identify and classify the most suitable territories, in size and number, for certain rare or vulnerable species. SPAs are intended to safeguard the habitats of the species for which they are selected and to protect birds from significant disturbance.
The Scottish MPA network has changed considerably in recent years and now reflects the variety of life found in our seas. There are 217 sites in the Scottish MPA network, which protects 22% of our seas. Published guidance on how best to manage the puffins’ habitat includes improved management of the marine environment for our fish, protecting their nest sites, controlling ground predators and reducing disturbance, as has been mentioned. Although puffin colonies are a big draw for tourists, visitor access needs to be controlled to minimise disturbance to parent puffins and prevent destruction of burrows by trampling. Scottish Environment Link asks Members of the Scottish Parliament to lend political support to the protection of Scotland’s threatened wildlife by becoming species champions; the champion for puffins is Claire Baker.
Over the next six years, the focus will be on finishing ongoing actions to complete our Scottish MPA network, deliver any necessary management measures and continue the monitoring programme. The aim is to be able to report more authoritatively on MPA status in 2024. In order to complete the Scottish MPA network, nature conservation proposals are being progressed for sea birds, including the very interesting development of a deep sea marine reserve to safeguard marine life that is under threat in deeper waters across the north-east Atlantic. In order to ensure that the MPA network is well managed, work is also ongoing to ensure that public authorities get clear advice to inform their decision making when an MPA may be affected.
When innovative approaches to MPA management planning are being trialled, it is extremely important to work with local communities and other stakeholders to develop them. The examples I have just given show excellent partnership and collaborative working practices. Marine Scotland is also leading a research programme that focuses on Scotland’s seas. It includes work that the Scottish Government are funding to better understand the potential environmental impacts of marine renewable energy.
Puffins are an indicator species. While they are at risk from birds of prey, the biggest threats to their population are man-made. Pollution, overfishing and, perhaps most significantly, climate change are all reducing the population. I was struck by the comment made on the excellent BBC “Landward” programme by an RSPB warden in the Northern Isles at the weekend. Commenting on the distance that puffins have to travel for their food, she likened it to having to travel for Glasgow for her tea and then back again. That is not sustainable, and numbers will suffer.
To protect puffin habitats, we should remember that the world is given to us to till and nurture, not to own and plunder. That is a stark reminder of the responsibility of Governments around the world to protect the marine environment for the benefit of the wildlife for which it is home.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my friend, Anne-Marie Trevelyan. We largely co-operate on defence matters, but we can now add puffins to our areas of co-operation. I suspect we will both be speaking in the combat air strategy debate tomorrow; I like her analogy of puffins as fighter jets and I look forward to hearing her mention puffins in the debate on the Tempest programme tomorrow.
It is true that every bird matters, but as we have heard, every puffin matters, too. Before I get into the detail, I would like to share my favourite puffin story. As we have heard, we all have our favourite. Mine relates to the puffins on the Skellig islands, off the west coast of Ireland. Sci-fi nerds may already know what I am about to talk about. The Skellig islands were used as a filming location for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”. There were so many puffins as they were trying to film Luke Skywalker’s last hangout that they could not airbrush the puffins out of the movie, so they decided to turn them into their very own Star Wars species and the porgs were born. Watching “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, Members will see plenty of porgs around Luke Skywalker’s coastal hut—and they are indeed puffins. That is a bit of bedtime watching for the hon. Lady.
It is true, as we have heard, that human activity is affecting the habitats of many of our planet’s valuable wildlife species. Through irreversible climate change, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, we are making the survival of species that we love and appreciate increasingly difficult. In a debate last month, we heard about the cruel practice of the netting of bird nesting sites, preventing sea birds from nesting on some cliff faces. In that debate I made it clear that we must not keep squeezing nature into smaller and smaller spaces. Given what we have heard about puffin habitats, they are already in very small spaces geographically.
Britain is home to around 10% of the world’s puffin population, with nearly 600,000 breeding pairs, often found in clusters around the coastline of the British Isles. It is brilliant to hear of the experiences of various hon. Members with the puffin populations in their own part of the world. Stephen Crabb spoke about Skomer island. Bill Grant spoke about the west coast of Scotland. In the area that I represent, the south-west, we have puffin populations on Lundy island off the north coast and on the Isles of Scilly.
On Lundy we have had a similar experience to that mentioned by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed in relation to tackling invasive species. On Lundy we are beginning to have a puffin comeback. After many years of puffins being on the brink of eradication, a programme to deal with the accidental introduction of rats from visiting boats has started showing good results. Thanks to the Lundy seabird recovery project, puffin numbers are now increasing. This is a great example of how targeted action can bring great results, correcting the damage that humans have done to these vital habitats.
Puffins are found in small clusters, which leaves them more susceptible to changes in local fish populations, as we heard from the SNP spokesperson, John Mc Nally. Puffins are on the RSPB’s red list of conservation importance, which means that urgent action is needed to prevent their decline. In the Isles of Scilly, we have witnessed the success of the seabird recovery project—Derek Thomas is not present today, but asked me to mention that on his behalf. That EU-funded project has done some great work in removing items of rubbish and in eradicating invasive species on the islands, leading to the fast recovery of the populations of the Manx shearwater and the puffin. Will the Minister, in his remarks, set out what plans the Government have to replace specific EU-funded schemes, such as that one, which deal with rare bird habitat protection?
The RSPB describes the main threat to puffins as a change in the distribution and numbers of small fish. Drastic changes in the numbers of small fish in the local area around puffin habitats can occur if there is increased pollution, as we have heard in the debate, whether from plastic or other pollutants such as oil. Overfishing in those areas also poses a threat, with sustainable fishing paramount for the survival of seabird species.
The Minister will be aware that his Conservative colleague Peter Aldous has tabled an amendment to the Fisheries Bill to ban sand eel fishing. As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed noted, sand eels are a key part of a puffin’s diet, so I would be grateful if the Minister set out the Government’s position on sand eel fishing and on that amendment.
Does my hon. Friend have any thoughts about the additional assistance that inshore fishermen could provide in making the environment for puffins free from pollution, and in supporting their habitats?
Yes. Fishers have several important roles to play, one of which is dealing with ghost gear. Although puffins are small birds, they are susceptible to eating plastic. Dealing with ghost gear—discarded fishing gear—is an important part of addressing that problem; I know that fishers in my hon. Friend’s constituency and mine are taking steps to deal with it. Not only is it an expensive cost to the business, but it presents a real risk to wildlife and bird habitats. I urge my hon. Friend to keep encouraging fishers in her constituency to tackle plastic pollution, as I know she does already.
On the subject of plastic pollution, I must mention nurdles. Several hon. Members have noted incredibly worrying issues with puffins’ diet and their ability to survive in the long term. As well as eating sand eels and other fish, puffins also eat plastic. A variety of studies of dead puffins washed up on the beach have found that, when cut open, their stomachs prove to be full of nurdles. Nurdles are small pieces of plastic that can be melted together to make larger items, but they are also a consequence of macroplastics being broken down. Puffins’ stomachs, like those of other seabirds, are full of plastics, which prevent them from getting the necessary nutritional value from their food.
Just as we have a limited understanding of what puffins get up to at sea, we lack scientific knowledge about the effect of plastics on certain bird populations, of which puffins are a good example. I know that there has been much research in Scotland about seabirds and plastics, but I would be grateful if the Minister set out his vision for dealing with the scientific evidence base. If we had a true understanding of the effect of plastics on puffins and other seabirds, it would make it easier for the public to get behind action.
Seabirds are protected by a network of marine special protection areas, and I am pleased to hear that the Government have granted the application for such an area in the constituency of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. It is also good that the eider duck has been included among the protected bird species; I have heard the hon. Lady speak several times about its importance, and it should not be left out.
I would like a network of national marine parks to be created around the UK, which would provide an opportunity to put our complex system of protected marine areas into plain English. We already have a network of marine conservation zones, designated European marine sites and sites of special scientific interest—the list goes on. However, there are so many forms and designations of marine protection that it makes it harder for the public to access those sites. The Government’s review of national parks gives us a real opportunity for the development of national marine parks. The Minister will know that Plymouth City Council is leading work, which enjoys cross-party support at a local level, to establish the first national marine park in Plymouth Sound. Protecting more marine areas would contribute to greater understanding and public awareness—the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire mentioned the Puffarazzi project—and would underline the importance of taking care when visiting puffin habitats.
I am very pleased that the House recently agreed to Labour’s motion to declare a climate emergency, after an important debate that showed that this place is taking climate change seriously. I know that hon. Members from all parties will have visited climate change protesters at the Time Is Now climate protest today. Although we need to decarbonise our economy, we must not think of climate change as being only about carbon; we need to think equally about how to protect and conserve coastal habitats, bird nesting sites and feed, as we have heard today.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed for giving us a chance to tell our favourite puffin stories; I hope that more people will be able to do so over the weeks and months ahead. I know that the Minister has a full to-do list at his Department, but I hope that he will take seriously the concerns that have been voiced about our wonderful, brilliant, comical puffins, and take note that their decline is a sign of humanity’s intervention regarding our wildlife. We need to do more to protect puffins, which will also save and protect other important habitats and seabird populations.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan on finally securing this debate. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed.
The UK is particularly blessed with seabirds. Indeed, it hosts over half the seabirds in the European Union during the breeding season, with approximately 3.5 million pairs across 26 species. The debate has given us an opportunity to celebrate that rich diversity, from Ayrshire to Berwickshire to Pembrokeshire. I suggest that the best place to view puffins is probably at Bempton Cliffs, which hon. Members will not be surprised to hear is in Yorkshire.
The Atlantic puffin is one of the UK’s most instantly recognisable and well-known seabirds. As our puffin champion, my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake, will attest, it is a creature close to our hearts. Its endearing features have been used as the symbol of children’s books and to illustrate many stamps, and it was even one of the 10 shortlisted birds in the vote to find Britain’s national bird—a contest that was eventually won by the robin.
I am species champion for the sand eel, so I am always nervous around my hon. Friend, given the proclivity of puffins to consume sand eels in large quantities. The sand eel is a species close to my heart, not least because of the work I did and the knowledge I gained in the European Parliament, looking at issues on the Dogger Bank, marine dredging and other forms of exploitation of sand eels that can have an effect on the environment if they are not done sustainably.
Puffins typically nest underground in burrows dug in the soil of offshore islands. They often mate for life, and pairs return to the same burrow year after year, if possible. The typical lifespan of a puffin is 18 years, but some have been known to live to 35. Sadly, the puffin is now listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and its global population is in decline.
The puffin is doing well in the United Kingdom, however—particularly on Coquet island, which lies off the coast in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland. Populations there have been gradually increasing since counts began in the 1980s. Indeed, populations in the north-east are generally considered to be stable, and the UK experienced an increase of almost 19% from 1988 to 2002. Considering that approximately 10% of the global puffin population breeds around Britain and Ireland, that stability is an important contribution to global numbers.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Atlantic puffins were heavily exploited for eggs, feathers and meat, causing a drastic reduction in populations and the elimination of some colonies. In England, puffins were considered a delicious food and were sold at the rate of three a penny. Since then, I am pleased to say that we have dramatically increased their protection.
Concerns were raised about the population in Norway. I plan to visit Norway over the summer, and that is one of the issues that I am likely to raise—along with the fact that, like Norway, we will very soon become an independent coastal state and be able to negotiate a better deal for the fishermen in the fantastic ports around our country, including in the constituency of Melanie Onn.
Our seabirds are protected principally by special protection areas set up under the wild birds directive, and by sites of special scientific interest set up under domestic legislation. SPAs protect areas identified as being of international importance for the breeding, feeding, wintering or migration of rare and vulnerable bird species found in Europe. There are currently 47 marine SPAs that protect seabirds in English waters.
England’s largest breeding colonies of Atlantic puffin are found on the Farne islands and Coquet island, where populations have been increasing. The islands have been protected by SPAs since 1985, and puffins’ foraging grounds were protected in 2017 as part of the Northumberland marine SPA. That is one of the most important sites in the UK for Atlantic puffin.
As well as using these protected waters for feeding during the breeding season, puffins and other species also use them for other important activities, such as preening, bathing and socialising. These activities are all part of the behavioural repertoire for which they need undisturbed waters. Protecting both their nesting sites and foraging grounds gives iconic species such as puffins the best possible chance of breeding.
Unfortunately, we know very little of the puffin’s behaviour outside the breeding season. They are very difficult to monitor as they spend up to two thirds of their lives at sea. Those from north-western Britain disperse widely outside the breeding season, as far as Newfoundland in the west and the Canary Islands in the south. In contrast, most puffins from colonies in parts of eastern Britain, like Northumberland, remain within the North sea.
Puffins are a key part of the marine ecosystem and good indicators of the overall state of the marine environment, including the damaging effects of climate change. That is because their diet consists mainly of small fish, particularly sand eels, whose spawning season is affected by variations in sea temperature impacting upon their own prey of plankton. The puffin breeding cycle is less adaptable. If the sand eels are not available at the time that puffins are breeding, it affects how many birds breed and how many chicks they raise.
In 2000, our friends in the Scottish Government implemented a sand eel fisheries closure in an area off the east coast of Scotland to preserve this important food source for our seabirds. Other pressures on puffins related to climate change include the increasing frequency and intensity of storms, which have had a considerable impact. Indeed, in the winter of 2013-14 a succession of severe storms resulted in 54,000 seabirds being washed ashore, over half of which were puffins. This mass mortality had a serious knock-on effect on the breeding population.
As we have heard, puffins also suffer from the effects of pollution, particularly plastic pollution, and from predation by ground mammals such as rats. On Lundy island in the Bristol channel, the total population of puffins fell to just 13, largely due to rat predation. However, 15 years later and following the successful eradication of rats, the island’s puffin population has come back to life, with numbers soaring to 375. Although that number may appear small when set against the UK’s total population of 580,000 breeding pairs of puffins, these important birds produce only one puffling, or baby puffin, per year, and they are limited to a small number of breeding colonies. So protecting these sites is imperative.
To make sure that our puffins are sufficiently protected, my Department commissioned a review of the UK’s terrestrial and coastal network of SPAs. I am pleased to note that the first phase of the review, published in October 2016, concluded that the SPA provision for puffin breeding is sufficient.
Puffins will indirectly benefit from this Government’s plans in several other ways. Our 25-year environment plan sets out how we will fulfil our ambition to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, building on existing strategies and identifying key areas of focus. We want even cleaner air and water, richer habitats for more wildlife, and an approach to fishing, agriculture and land use that puts the environment first.
Globally, less than 10 per cent of the world’s seas are currently designated as marine protected areas, which is one of the most important ways to protect precious sea life and habitats from damaging activity. However, at home in our waters, we are at the forefront of establishing marine protected areas. We are committed to delivering a well-managed blue belt of protection around our coasts, and 40% of English waters are within marine protected areas. Just a few weeks ago, we created 41 new marine conservation zones, marking the most significant expansion of England’s blue belt to date. Within these zones, we are protecting species and habitats, such as the rare stalked jellyfish, the short-snouted seahorse and blue mussel beds. Two species of seabird are also being protected in these marine conservation zones: razorbills, off the Cumbrian coast; and eider ducks, along the Northumbrian coast. We discussed this protection in the previous debate on seabirds, which my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed also secured.
Overall, the UK now has 355 marine protected areas of different types, including SPAs, spanning 220,000 sq km, which is an area nearly twice the size of England. However, we are not stopping there. We recently announced a review to examine whether and how highly protected marine areas could be introduced for English seas. These are the strongest form of marine protection, which would stop all human activity that has the potential to cause harm in vulnerable areas. This review is being led by my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon and a panel of independent experts. It aims to establish criteria for designation and it will potentially recommend up to five pilot sites.
Of course, our blue belt would be meaningless without appropriate management measures to protect the sites. For example, activities that are damaging, such as the use of bottom-towed mobile gear, would either not be allowed or—if possible—adapted to allow them to continue in a way that does not damage habitats and enables sites to meet their conservation objectives. Regulators, such as the Marine Management Organisation and the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities, are responsible for making sure that no damaging activities take place in marine conservation zones, using a combination of byelaws and voluntary measures. These regulators will monitor marine activities to make sure that these measures are being followed.
We are a global leader in protecting the marine environment. Our updated UK marine strategy will include targets to ensure that good environmental status is achieved for seabirds, and it will also set the indicators we use to assess seabirds’ status and identify the pressures affecting them. We will continue to protect marine birds, for example, by reducing the risks to island seabird colonies from invasive predatory mammals, such as rats, by delivering the UK plan of action on seabird bycatch, and by reducing marine litter. The UK has a well-respected bycatch monitoring programme in place, which is run by the Sea Mammal Research Unit. The data that is gathered is currently being used to conduct a preliminary assessment of the extent of seabird bycatch across the UK, which will inform the initial focus of our plan of action.
As we have heard, plastic in the seas is a hazard for seabirds. I was pleased to take part in a debate here in Westminster Hall on packaging on Monday, which was secured by Daniel Zeichner. Evidence shows that marine birds, particularly diving birds, can be injured or even killed by abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear. Diving birds may become entangled in such gear when chasing fish, becoming trapped underwater and drowning. Indeed, as we heard from Luke Pollard, the scourge of micro-plastics and nurdles impacts upon a whole variety of species, including puffins and other seabirds.
In 2017, the UK signed up to the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, a pioneering scheme to tackle lost and abandoned fishing gear on a global scale. Through this initiative, we are committed to working with our partners to address the management of existing fishing gear, and the mitigation of the potential effects of abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear. In addition, the UK continues to lead the way in tackling the scourge of plastic pollution entering our oceans.
We recognise the importance of protecting the marine environment and we see the health of the ocean as key to tackling climate change. We have already exceeded the current global sustainable development goal to protect 10% of our marine and coastal areas by 2020, with 25% of UK waters currently protected. At the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2018, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs called for 30% of the world’s oceans to be marine protected areas by 2030.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will be pleased to hear that we are extremely committed to protecting the marine environment as we leave the EU. Through the EU (Withdrawal) Act, we will make sure that marine protected areas set up under European directives, including SPAs, will continue to be effectively protected post exit. The Office for Environmental Protection will monitor and report on our progress, holding the Government to account. After we have left the EU, we will be able to manage our marine environment in a more dynamic and flexible way than is possible under the common fisheries policy. Using powers that we are seeking through the Fisheries Bill, the Marine Management Organisation will be able to apply byelaws to manage the resources of sea fisheries for conservation purposes throughout English waters.
I now turn to one or two of the points made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. He talked about disturbance of seabirds. That brought to mind an experience I had when visiting Immingham, which is not far from the constituency of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, where I visited an oil refinery. I was told that it was probably the best habitat for a number of seabirds, because there were lots of things to perch on, such as fences and pipes, but I was told that the most important aspect was that there were virtually no people and in particular no dogs whatsoever.
We need to be very thoughtful about how we allow access to some of these marine protected areas, in the same way that we are in some of our national parks and other areas on land. Yes, it is great to have more public access, but we must ensure that the people who gain that access understand the effect they can have. Indeed, we heard from my right hon. Friend Stephen Crabb how well-meaning visitors can sometimes cause damage.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport asked me in particular about the funding of environmental schemes. We are a net contributor to the European Union, so there will be scope for innovative and UK-centric schemes, and I can reassure him that there will be no changes to funding. In particular, he mentioned the scourge of plastics, an issue on which we need to take global action. I was recently talking to a friend in my constituency who had been on holiday to Vietnam, and sailing down the coast he saw three separate locations where whole truckloads of plastic and other rubbish were being tipped straight into the sea. We in this country take plastic pollution very seriously, and important moves have been made to address plastic straws and other types of pollution and litter. However, looking around the world, we see some egregious examples of how pollution can cause problems.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned sand eels, which I would like to say a little bit about, because they are an important component of marine food webs that provide food for many species of marine predator, such as seabirds, mammals and fish. The sand eel life cycle is affected by climate change, as warmer seas have a direct effect on plankton. The puffin breeding cycle is less adaptable, so if the sand eels are not available at the time puffins are breeding, that affects how many birds breed and how many chicks they raise. We also know that that varies annually, and in different parts of the country.
The RSPB’s citizen science project, Puffarazzi, is currently collecting data on puffin diet to complement research being done by several academic groups, which will give us an insight into puffins’ current diet and changes over time. There is some evidence that the exploitation of sand eels affects the wider ecosystem, such as causing a decline in seabird populations. For example, a recent study has found a correlation between kittiwake breeding success and sand eel fishing mortality, although there are many other factors that could have an impact on small fish populations, such as climate change.
The UK does not have a strong commercial interest in sand eels, although we have some quota that is fished occasionally. Most of the fishing of sand eels in UK waters is by the Danish fleet, although Sweden has a commercial interest. Fishing is concentrated around Dogger Bank, which in most years accounts for over 90% of sand eels caught in the UK’s exclusive economic zone. Sand eels are a quota species; the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea provides annual recommendations on the total allowable catch for sand eel in management area 1r, Dogger Bank. In recent years, with the exception of 2016, the TAC has been set in line with ICES’ recommendations. However, catches have often exceeded that TAC.
Sand eels are not used for direct human consumption, but their fishery provides livestock and aquaculture feed and fertiliser. Arguably, alternative ways to produce those goods that should not interfere with marine ecosystems and food webs would be more sustainable; however, we do not currently have evidence on whether production of alternative feed stocks and fertilisers would actually have a lower overall environmental impact. A sand eel fishery closure has been in place off the east coast of Scotland since 2000. It is prohibited to land or retain sand eels on board within the closure area, although a limited scientific fishery is permitted to monitor the stock.
Again, I thank hon. Members for contributing to the debate. I emphasise that we are a world leader in protecting our precious coastline, and we continue to increase protection in the UK to safeguard our puffins’ future. The relatively new Northumberland marine SPA is a welcome addition to that suite. With rising populations in some colonies, the UK continues to play its part in improving the chances of one of our most vulnerable and iconic species.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive and detailed response to today’s debate. I look forward to the challenge of long-term rebalancing, through which we will have the opportunity to manage our waters and think in a much more holistic way than perhaps the common fisheries policy has given us the opportunity to do. I very much hope that we will be able to work together as we go forward, so that we can genuinely be a world-leading country in understanding that balance of decision making and ensuring we support those who work in our seas alongside those who look after our natural wildlife.
In the long term, we often discover that plants and animals that we did not appreciate before have a greater value holistically to our natural habitat, of which we are a part, than we perhaps understood. I thank the Minister very much for his detailed responses, and look forward to working with him on this issue in the months and years ahead.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered puffin habitats.