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When I started my Ph.D. in 1973 as a recent zoology graduate, I never imagined that forty years later I’d still be working on the same project. On one level, I can imagine you thinking: "He should get out more." But let me explain. My Ph.D. research was to try to understand why Britain’s guillemots were declining.
On Skomer Island, Wales—where I did my Ph.D. and where I still study guillemots—there were about 100,000 pairs of guillemots in the 1930s. By the 1970s, this had dropped to just 2,000 pairs.
I started a population study counting the birds, measuring their survival, the timing of breeding, their breeding success and what they feed their chicks. In the mid 1980s, things started to change and guillemot numbers started to increase—presumably because of more food, and possibly because of climate change or because overfishing of large predatory fish had allowed small fish like sprats to increase.
Credit: Tim Birkhead. Skomer in southwestern Wales.
Over the next 20 years or so, I followed the birds’ fortunes by looking at how the population functions, constructing a balance sheet between survival and breeding output against losses from oiling and natural mortality. Guillemots don’t breed until they are about seven, but the proportion surviving to breed was high, driving the population increase. It now stands at 25,000 pairs, which is wonderful, but still a far cry from the 100,000 pairs of the 1930s.
My study has had two mains aims: (i) to understand the guillemot’s population dynamics, the original aim of my Ph.D., and (ii) to establish a scientifically robust monitoring system, so that we—and my successors—can continue to ensure that we know how the birds are faring and, if necessary, to take action to protect them.
In early 2014, a series of unprecedented storms battered the eastern Atlantic seaboard and killed at least 40,000 seabirds, many of them guillemots and many of them—identified by their rings—from Skomer. Unable to feed in rough seas, they had starved to death. Extreme weather is part of climate change, and may be a sign of things to come. Sad though this mortality was, at least I was in a position to use our long-term run of data to examine and understand the consequences of this unusual event.
Credit: TIm Ransom. Some of the seabird bodies found during the wreck.
Remarkably, Natural Resources Wales (NRW)—that part of the Welsh government supposedly responsible for caring for the country’s wildlife—declined to help. I wrote to them explaining the unusual circumstances, and the need for funds (just £12k per annum) to allow us to continue the study and reveal the consequences of the ‘wreck.’ NRW did not even reply to my letter. I organised a conference with the UK’s top seabird biologists, all of whom spelled out the need for high quality monitoring as the basis for conservation. NRW attended but went back to the head office saying that they had heard nothing to make them change their minds. They refused to continue to fund the long-term study of guillemots on Skomer.
They could not have witnessed a more scientifically robust, nor a more impassioned plea for the need for high quality monitoring, so saying they weren’t convinced was like Admiral Nelson saying ‘I see no ships.’ In contrast to Nelson though, both NRW and the guillemots are losers here. What does this say about the Welsh government’s commitment to protect its nature? Even in these cash-strapped times, don’t they have a moral responsibility to look after wildlife? As a colleague pointed out, £12K is a tiny fraction of subsidy they pay farmers to do nothing.
Without official funding, I recently decided to try crowdsourcing as a way of being able to continue monitoring Skomer’s guillemots. The response so far as been amazing. If you can afford to donate and help me reach my target I will be extremely grateful.
You can support Professor Birkhead's research by donating here.