SOS Puffin—2012 Report

Technically this can’t be a reblog since the original wasn’t a blog at all. But as a great example of a dedicated wildlife fan who has put major amounts of effort over five years into a project to secure the habitat for Scotland’s most popular seabird, it deserves wide coverage. For all that time, the driving force has been John Hunt, a genial, craggy and dedicated ‘twitcher’. Thanks to John, a huge conservation programme for threatened puffin habitats of the Forth is now almost complete. John’s report follows below.

Typically Sociable Group of Puffins—Known also as ‘Tammy Norrie’ or ‘Clowns of the Sea’

Introduction: SOS Puffin is a volunteer project sponsored by the Scottish Seabird Centre which started in 2007.  It aims to bring under control the invasive plant tree mallow which has taken over the islands of Craigleith and Fidra near North Berwick and threatens the important populations of nesting puffins and other seabirds.

Islands Visits and Volunteers:  To avoid disturbing breeding birds, no visits to cut tree mallow were made to the islands from mid-April 2011 until August 2011 when work parties recommenced.  From August until October, attempts were made to organise work parties on most weekends and once during the week whenever the limitations of boats and tides permitted.  Last winter our usual boatman was reluctant to take us out so few work parties took place.  In March 2012 the Seabird Seafari inflatable returned and work parties resumed until April when we stopped once again for the breeding season.

Craigleith:  The weather was distinctly unhelpful last autumn and we managed only nine trips to Craigleith before the large inflatable came out of the water for the winter.  However thanks to the winter weather and the impact of rabbits only four more trips were needed in the Spring to thoroughly clear the island of tree mallow.  The number of work parties to Craigleith each month (with the number of volunteers shown in brackets) since the project started is shown in the table:

Trips (and volunteers) to Craigleith

The drop in the number of work parties over the last three years is largely a reflection of  steadily getting on top of the problem.

‘Mallow-basher’ Squad at the Pond on Craigleith—John Hunt Second from Right (‘Nests’ on Ground are Cut Mallow)

Last summer the tree mallow was slow to make an appearance and we were lulled into a fall sense of security.  However from July onwards it made its usual impressive comeback so that by the autumn large areas were once again covered by seedlings from 1 to 2 metres in height.  However there were areas where the density of seedlings was less than the year before.  Only limited progress was made with cutting this before we lost our boat transport in late autumn but the rabbits helped during the winter, attacking most plants and killing small seedlings.

This meant that by this Spring our task was significantly less and four more work parties were all that was needed to clear the island completely apart from small areas at the east end which we had to avoid because of the nesting cormorants.

Rene van der Wal (Aberdeen University) continued his programme of ecological monitoring based on a number of plots across the island. He is looking at the response of tree mallow and other vegetation to the control work including the recovery of native plants.  His findings confirm a gradual recovery of perennial plants with the island vegetation mostly in good condition during the puffin breeding season.  The effect of rabbits is mixed in that, while they are hitting the mallow hard during the winter, they are also creating ideal conditions for tree mallow to germinate during the summer when the rabbits eat other vegetation.

Due to bad weather we were not able to land on the date planned for the puffin burrow count so unfortunately this count will have to wait until next year. However a count of other nesting seabirds was carried out on 26th May, organised by Bill Bruce, and the totals for the main species counted are given in the table below.

 Seabird Census (Other than Common Gulls) on Craigleith

Fidra:  Only three SOS Puffin work parties have been out to Fidra during the last year.  The number of visits each month to Fidra since 2007 (with number of volunteers) was:

Trips (and volunteers) to Fidra

In addition to the above, Allison Leonard of the RSPB (Fidra’s owners) organised three work parties to the island during February.  We were able to supplement their volunteers with some of ours so that an additional  22 volunteers were on these three visits.  By April the island was largely cleared of tree mallow. RSPB even managed to organise some climbers to cut tree mallow growing in inaccessible places on the cliffs.

As with Craigleith, fewer visits to Fidra have been necessary in the last two years to keep the mallow under control even though here there are no rabbits to help.  This is again a reflection that the mallow is returning less vigorously with each year.

Strimmer Squad at the Railway Path below Fidra Lighthouse

Tree mallow also recovered strongly on Fidra last summer and autumn, returning to most of the former areas but generally at a lower density than previously.  With the help of the RSPB visits, most of the island was cleared by the end of March though the weather prevented us from completing the task as thoroughly as we would have liked.  The RSPB involvement made all the difference and it was particularly good to have the tree mallow cut on the cliffs.

A puffin burrow count was carried out on 3rd May by the Forth Seabird Group and came up with a corrected count of 750 apparently occupied burrows (aob).  This is similar to the count of 799 in 2009 but disappointingly less than the 1,149 in 2010.  It is not known what the breeding numbers are like on the Isle of May this year but at present there is no obvious explanation for this drop in numbers.

The Lamb: No visits were possible to the Lamb during the last year.  There is only a small amount of tree mallow on this island but it still needs to be cut each year to stop it spreading further or retirning to the other islands.

Overall Effort:  during last year, 21 planned work parties had to be cancelled—mainly because of the weather or weather forecast.  The number of volunteers coming on each visit has varied from 5 to 13 with a mean of nearly 11.  It was very frustrating to have to cancel so many trips but we are grateful for the good nature and patience shown by the volunteers.

Since the project began in 2007, nearly 900 people have been out helping on the island visits, with many coming more than once.  The number on the volunteer data base continues to grow and is now at almost 600—of whom well over 400 have been out at least once.

But work parties continue to be heavily dependent on a small group of enthusiasts who come regularly, a number of whom have now helped on the remarkable tally of work parties notched up to date by:

  • David Ross 92
  • Margaret Wight 83
  • James Leyden 81
  • Howard Andrew 65
  • Bill Bruce 48
  • EJ Shields 48

Organised groups that have been out during the last year include Scouts and corporate groups from John Lewis, Royal Bank of Scotland and the George Hotel, Edinburgh.

Looking Ahead:  As a result of all this hard work, we have been able to bring tree mallow sufficiently under control so that, since 2009, puffins and other birds have been able to nest on Craigleith and Fidra without being impeded in any way.  The extent and density of tree mallow is slowly reducing and the effort required each year is also declining. However, it is not yet clear how long it is going to take before the tree mallow is reduced to the extent that it only requires occasional visits to keep it at bay.  Until then we shall continue to organise regular work parties. Work parties will start again in August and details of proposed dates/times will be sent out to volunteers in July.

Our ecologist Rene van der Wal will continue his ecological monitoring on Craigleith and a masters student from Aberdeen University, Tiana Rakotondratrimo, will be looking at what is happening with the tree mallow seed in the soil.  We hope her project will give us valuable information about the all-important seed bank which has so far proved remarkably resilient.

What It’s All About—A Puffin (20cm high) Next to Flowering Tree Mallow (Grows over 2m)

A huge thank you to all those who have helped as volunteers and in other ways.   From all the feedback we receive, the work parties are still much enjoyed by those who take part and more volunteers keep coming forward. Our thanks also go to Viridor Credits, Scottish Natural Heritage and others for their generous funding of the project.

  • John Hunt
  • Craigleith Management Group
  • June 2012

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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1 Response to SOS Puffin—2012 Report

  1. Pingback: Come All Ye Jolly Mallowbashers | davidsberry

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