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Climate change threat to Norfolk’s little tern colonies

PUBLISHED: 08:08 14 April 2014 | UPDATED: 08:08 14 April 2014

A little tern sat on a nest in Winterton. Picture by Chris Gomersall.

A little tern sat on a nest in Winterton. Picture by Chris Gomersall.


One of the UK’s rarest seabirds, which finds a temporary home on Norfolk’s beaches, could become a victim of climate change as rising seas and increased coastal flooding squeezes the UK’s coastline.

The Little Tern colony on the beach at Winterton.
Picture: James Bass

The Little Tern colony on the beach at Winterton. Picture: James Bass

Little terns, the UK’s smallest tern species, return each April to breed on beaches at fewer than 60 sites around the country, including Winterton-on-Sea in east Norfolk and at Blakeney National Nature Reserve further up the coast.

With increased coastal flooding and sea level rises predicted, the RSPB believes climate change could spell disaster for these tiny seabirds in a warning issued as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publishes its latest report on climate change mitigation today.

On top of the threat of climate change, disturbance on beaches where little terns breed in the open is another significant cause behind declining populations.

North Denes in Great Yarmouth used to be the biggest little tern colony in the country until 2010 when the birds abandoned the site.

At Winterton last year, RSPB wardens manned the nesting site 24 hours a day to ensure the breeding birds were safe – from humans as well as predators. After several weeks, 200 pairs successfuly nested on the protected Natural England site.

Norfolk’s coastline continues to be a stronghold for little terns, with 30pc of the national population returning to the area each summer to breed. The Yarmouth area regularly attracts 350 pairs of little terns nesting across five colonies.

Danny Hercock, RSPB senior little tern warden said: “Since the storm surge and floods in December, we may see little terns return to North Denes in the short term due to increased areas of suitable shingle habitat.

“However, long term prospects for the species at the site are pretty grim due to a squeezing effect of encroaching sand dunes and an eroding coastline. Little terns are particularly vulnerable to storm surges and similar coastal events as they nest so close to the sea.

“If you’d like to see little terns, we would urge the public to visit the Winterton Dunes colony, where we will have a watch point so that people can see the birds without disturbing them.”

Victoria Egan, who manages little tern colonies for the National Trust at Blakeney National Nature Reserve, said: “Local communities and beachgoers have a vital role to play in helping little terns cope with the increasing threat of climate change.

“We are urging visitors to follow any directions and advice given on local signs on the beach and avoid entering certain areas while the little terns are breeding”.

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