Taking Under Wing:

Seabird Conservation in Ireland

United Nations humanitarian aid workers unload supplies from their vehicle
N K Initials for Niamh Kelly
11th of November 2022

Ireland provides habitats inland and along the coast for many bird species, both resident and migratory. Irish coastal areas provide nesting and feeding habitats for many seabirds. Sinéad Loughran, marine policy and advocacy officer for Fair Seas and Birdwatch Ireland, discussed in an interview with STAND News, what challenges seabirds and other marine biodiversity face in Ireland.

Sinéad highlighted that “the ocean is one of the greatest allies you could have in the fight against climate change”.  Fair Seas (a coalition of Irish environmental non-governmental organisations and environmental networks) aims “to see Ireland, with a renewed appreciation of the ocean, become a world leader in marine protection, giving [Irish] species, habitats and coastal communities the opportunity to thrive”. After completing a Master of Science in Climate Change: Policy, Media and Society from Dublin City University, Sinéad has taken on a role which focuses on communications about promoting “ocean stewardship”, policy consultation with decision-makers and engagement with stakeholders such as coastal communities (including working alongside the Citizen’s Assembly on Biodiversity Loss).

Image of two gannets by Clive Timmons, courtesy of Bird Watch Ireland

Members of the public can support marine biodiversity by becoming involved as “citizen scientists” by utilising the BirdTrack, an online tool that allows people to record what bird species they observe, and the information collected forms a picture of bird distribution and migratory patterns in Ireland and Britain. Another opportunity to engage with Irish biodiversity is through the annual Irish Garden Bird Survey which runs from December to February. Sinéad spoke of how the survey is a “really kind of hands-on way that people can connect with the nature that’s around them and the bird species that they see in their gardens everyday”.

Ireland is a regular home to over 200 bird species, either year-round for birds such as robins, or as part of a migration cycle for other species such as swallows. Sinéad emphasised a variety of challenges impacting seabirds (and other biodiversity on land and in the sea). These causes are explored below:

Climate Change

Image of Puffin by James West, courtesy Bird Watch Ireland

Climate change has direct and indirect consequences for seabirds. One direct problem is the effect on prey availability for seabirds. For example, “Puffins, in 2007, were recorded feeding snake pipefish to their chicks. There is a greater risk of choking for the chicks on these fish and they’re also not nearly as nutritious in comparison to a preferred prey species such as sand eels”. The increasing abundance of snake pipefish may be linked with warming waters and this species of fish is not the ideal food source for puffin parents to feed their chicks.

An indirect impact on seabirds resulting from climate change is how seabird habitats may be affected by offshore wind farms, as Sinéad highlights “[we] recognises the urgent need to rapidly decarbonize our society and economy, but it needs to be done in a holistic way. We are in a climate emergency and a biodiversity emergency. They’re inherently interlinked”. Flight corridors to allow birds to access foraging grounds would minimise the risk of collision deaths and seabirds’ displacement from their feeding grounds. The east coast of Ireland provides foraging grounds for seabird colonies in Wales and Cornwall, as well as Ireland.  Sinéad emphasised “how will offshore renewable energy affect bird colonies. Progress efforts on one should not be to the detriment of the other”.

Habitat Quality

A decline in the quality of coastal and estuary habitats impacts both on seabirds and on wider biodiversity in these environments. Sinéad acknowledges that although a recently released report from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states “coastal waters have the highest percentage of all water bodies in high or good ecological status”, unfortunately “there is still a 9.5% decline in the number of coastal water bodies in satisfactory condition since the last assessment”. Estuaries are faring worse as “64% of estuaries are in moderate, poor or bad ecological health”. A decrease in habitat quality impacts directly on any animal or bird living there and “the interconnected nature of our entire water system. We can’t separate our freshwater systems from our marine environment”, therefore the connection between these different habitats means more species and biodiversity will be impacted than only those which inhabit a single area.

Avian Flu

Image of Roseate Tern in flight by Laura Glenister, courtesy of Bird Watch Ireland

An outbreak of avian flu has harshly affected wild birds across Ireland and further afield, particularly breeding seabird colonies in the UK and Europe. People are unlikely to contract this disease from wild birds, but members of the public are advised not to handle any dead or sick wild birds. Infected seabirds may travel further inland than usual because of the effects of the disease and come into closer contact with domestic birds and humans than would normally occur. Any dead seabirds, waterfowl or birds of prey should be reported to the Department of Agriculture to monitor the spread of the disease. Gannets have been particularly hit by the avian flu as “they breed quite late in the year compared to other seabirds in Ireland, and so they were still in their colonies. Their chicks were still there, and this was all kicking off from the end of August. Many of [the gannets] were washing up on the shore”.

As avian flu poses a threat to domestic birds as well as wild birds, Sinéad underlined the potential for “a coordinated response for the collection of dead or sick birds” and “further safeguards for wild birds”. Avian flu is caused by a “virulent strain of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI)” and can severely decrease wild bird populations, particularly in seabird colonies with large numbers of birds gathering close together.

Seabird Conversation Project

Image of roseate tern by Brian Burke, courtesy of Bird Watch Ireland

Wild seabird conservation however can make a successful and positive impact on marine biodiversity. Roseate terns nesting on Rockabill Island, near Skerries, County Dublin, compose 85% of the European population for their species. This species is also the rarest breeding seabird in Europe. Small wooden nest boxes have been placed across the island annually since 1989, providing the terns with sheltered areas similar to vegetation or rocky crevices which they prefer to nest in. The wooden boxes provide cover from bad weather and predators, provide more space for the terns to nest on the limited area available on the island and allow more eggs to hatch and chicks to be reared successfully. There are now ten times more breeding pairs on Rockabill Island than when the wooden nesting boxes were first introduced. As Sinéad said “such a small space like Rockabill, it’s only about 0.8 hectares, and when you consider how many birds come, that small area plays a vital role in the European population”.

Large scale challenges such as climate change, habitat quality and spread of diseases can impact on local environments and species, and so protecting birds, biodiversity and habitats in Ireland is important.


Thank you to Sinéad Loughran for her support in this article.


Click here to read Fair Seas new report on public support for better protection of marine wildlife and their habitats around Ireland


Featured photo of two gannets in flight is by Gerry Kerr and shared courtesy of Bird Watch Ireland

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