Wind farms built to tackle climate change could be the “final nail in the coffin” for sea birds, the RSPB has warned as it publishes a new report into their feeding hotspots.
The UK is a globally crucial place for these birds, as it contains 8 million breeding pairs. They are in fast decline – seabirds have faced a 70 per cent drop worldwide since the 1970s, and numbers continue to fall.
When the birds feed, they fly out to sea to find food sources such as sandeels. The RSPB has tracked over 1,000 of Britain’s four most threatened bird species — kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills and shags — and found they feed at certain “hotspots”. Many of these are sandbanks where small fish are found – which happen to be the places developers find it easier to build offshore wind turbines.
The new research, published in the journal Biological Conservation, found that the hotspots are bigger than all the Special Protection Areas in the UK, where human activity on bird life is curbed.
It has also identified areas in which the building of infrastructure including wind farms should be banned, the RSPB said.
Gareth Cunningham, the bird charity’s chief marine policy officer, told The Telegraph: “We are in the middle of the climate emergency and one of the methods for addressing that is offshore wind. Currently there’s very little monitoring done on offshore wind farms.
“Wind farms need to be built where the sea is fairly shallow, sometimes this means they are built on areas which are meant for foraging.
“The new data shows where birds go so we need to not put offshore wind in these hotspots. We need environmentally sensible installations. We have a biodiversity emergency — we don’t want to make this worse while tackling climate emergency. We need to deal with climate change but we need to make sure the measures we take to address climate change aren’t the final nail in the coffin for seabirds.”
Wind farms can harm these little birds because collision with the blades can cause death as they try to fly to their feeding spots. Even the birds which wisely dodge the structures are harmed; they are forced to take large detours, putting chicks at risk of starvation as they wait for their parents to return.
Dr Ian Cleasby, lead author of the research, said: “The sight and sound of hundreds of thousands of seabirds flocking to our shores is an amazing natural spectacle and something that we must help protect for future generations to enjoy. The results from this research provides better evidence that allows us to identify important areas of sea that should be part of protected areas and help to improve how we plan for development at sea to reduce conflicts between the needs of our seabirds and human activities at sea”
This comes as the government commits to a Seabird Conservation Strategy, to be published in December 2020, and has designated new Special Protection Areas for terns in the Solent
and near Middlesbrough
These new areas will protect the birds from human activity, such as fishing or outdoor recreation. The new and extended locations join 47 existing sites in English waters.
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “As the devastating impacts of climate change are only too visible, it is vital that we take decisive steps now that make a real difference to help protect our wildlife and allow vulnerable species to recover.
“We have already protected important nesting sites for seabirds, such as the little tern, and these new and additional protections to their feeding grounds, together with the development of a new strategy to protect our seabirds, will help the coastal environment recover, develop and, importantly, thrive.”
Tony Juniper, Natural England Chair, added: “Many of Britain’s sea and shorebird populations are globally important and for that reason we have a particular responsibility to protect and enhance them. I am delighted that, following an extensive evidence-based assessment by Natural England, these new areas, confirmed today by Government, will help to do that. They will ensure that species of conservation concern, such as terns and waders, have access to secure food sources, including during their critical annual breeding seasons.”