Pembrokeshire’s Seabird Islands: Past, Present and Future Prospects

On 03 April, we helped to organise a one day conference took place in Cardiff to examine the importance of research and monitoring of marine and seabird ecology on our Pembrokeshire Islands. The event that resulted  was a powerful lesson to us all about the importance of long-term studies and the need to watch closely for changes in our natural environment.

Seabird Symposium photo c Rob Parry - WTSWW

Seabird Symposium photo c Rob Parry - WTSWW

The conference was organised by WTSWW, Natur, Cardiff University and the University of Sheffield. A huge thank you is particularly owed to Richard Cowie of our own Cardiff Group, for helping us with logistics and venue, through a partnership with Cardiff University where he is a Senior Lecturer. Support from Professor Tim Birkhead at the University of Sheffield and Mike Alexander at Natur allowed us to pull together an agenda of renowned speakers from across the UK, but still to make the event free to those attending.

The idea for the conference had arisen only at the very end of 2013, in a meeting between the WTSWW and all the various funders and partners involved in seabird research and monitoring on Skomer and Skokholm. During the discussions, we realised that we did not publicise loudly or widely enough the amazing work that takes place on these islands. We do not speak enough about the very great significance of the researchers’ findings in the light of unique threats to our seabirds, and the absolute necessity of continuation funding for the long term studies that underpin our understanding of these internationally important populations, including over half the world population of manx shearwaters. We felt it was necessary to do more to help the wider community understand how critically important this work is, and what value for money it really represents.

The conference was held in Cardiff University- in a venue limited to sixty seats, which were targeted at key partners, funders and interested parties, with the aim of celebrating the incredible contribution to our understanding of marine and seabird ecology made by the Pembrokeshire islands. The support for the day was fantastic. As Professor Tim Birkhead, whose guillemot study on Skomer is now into its 42nd year observed, all the speakers were there ‘because they care’. They all donated their time, skills, and costs of travel to the event, to help us pass on the conservation message, and for that we are very grateful to them all.

We were also very fortunate to be joined on the day by Iolo Williams, who opened and closed the proceedings for us. Speakers included Professor Ben Hatchwell from Sheffield University on seabird biology and monitoring, Professor Chris Perrins from the Edward Grey Institute for Field Ornithology on long-term studies of seabirds, Mike Alexander on research and management planning, Phil Newman from NRW on the invaluable work of the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve, Dr Tom Webb from the University of Sheffield on fish in the Irish Sea, Dr Rob Thomas from Cardiff University and Dr Matt Wood from the University of Gloucestershire on research and monitoring of storm petrels,  Dr Steve Votier from Exeter University on the gannets of RSPB’s Grassholm island, and Professor Tim Birkhead from the University of Sheffield on his guillemot study and the impact of the recent seabird wrecks. All the talks are now available via the Trust’s YouTube page,

The results of the long term studies of these charismatic and internationally important seabird colonies was mixed. Some, such as the guillemot, appear to be doing relatively well, although even this conclusion is not without caveats of concern. For others, such as the kittiwake and lesser black-backed gull, the outlook is much worse. Lesser black-backed gulls have fallen on Skomer from 20,000 pairs to just 8,000 with fewer than one pair in five successfully raising a single chick in ten of the last twenty five years of monitoring, with no single key explanation- though paucity of high quality food appears to be a significant factor. Overwhelmingly the message taken from the event that if we are to have any hope of understanding, let alone mitigating, the impacts of environmental change, the maintenance of these long-term studies taking place on the islands is absolutely essential. It is these studies which allow us to pick up the early sign of changes in populations, remembering that the longevity and delayed breeding of species such as seabirds can mean the full impact of climate change, pollution events or storms may not be observed for many years after the event. Compelling cases were presented of the damage caused by gaps in long term datasets, or where a robust long term study has allowed retrospective investigation of effects of which we have only recently become aware.

Sadly, it is perhaps inevitable that funding can be increasingly hard to come by to support some of these long term studies. Many funders like to fund new projects that are easy to promote as novel and therefore exciting. This conference, we hope, made the case that these ongoing projects are just as exciting, and took some early steps towards celebrating what they achieve. As austerity continues to bite, there continues to be a risk that some of these projects will be vulnerable to funding cuts, but at what cost? At WTSWW, we want to be able to step in and help in the short term to make sure the long term data on which our conservation work depends is not compromised.  We are currently running an appeal to help ensure that these studies are able to continue on our islands. For more information and to donate, please visit https://welshwildlife.org/sos/