John Hunt leads an SOS Puf­fin project to in­crease sea clown numbers

Puf­fin con­ser­va­tion, Scot­land

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents -

All over the world ded­i­cated in­di­vid­u­als are do­ing their bit by vol­un­teer­ing to be in­volved with wildlife. Amy-Jane Beer meets a man who is help­ing the puf­fin pop­u­la­tion on a small group of Scot­tish is­lands.

The small is­lands near North Ber­wick in the Firth of Forth es­tu­ary are a world fa­mous haven for breed­ing sea birds. But in the early 2000s, numbers of breed­ing puffins on the is­land of Craigleith plum­meted. It was clear what the prob­lem was, and re­tired con­ser­va­tion­ist John Hunt ded­i­cated him­self to put­ting things right, with spec­tac­u­lar results.

The prob­lem is tree mal­low, a plant that was in­tro­duced by soldiers serv­ing on Bass Rock 300 years ago, for use as a wound dress­ing. Sheep and gan­nets kept it un­der con­trol, but since 1960 it be­gan ap­pear­ing on nearby is­lands. Re­cent mild win­ters ac­cel­er­ated the spread. Tree mal­low can grow up to 3m tall and within a few years it had all but cov­ered Craigleith, leav­ing 90 per cent of its breed­ing puffins un­able to reach nest bur­rows. Fidra was half-cov­ered and Lamb Is­land was be­ing en­croached. Recog­nis­ing a need for ac­tion, John founded the volunteer project, SOS Puf­fin, spon­sored by the Scot­tish Seabird Cen­tre with sup­port from the is­lands’ own­ers, Aberdeen Univer­sity and Scot­tish Nat­u­ral Her­itage.

Since the project’s launch in 2007, John has or­gan­ised al­most 300 work par­ties. “The most dif­fi­cult part is get­ting to the is­lands,” he says. “We ferry teams from the Seabird Cen­tre, but land­ing is tricky and im­pos­si­ble in bad weather.” Once there, the clear­ance work is done mostly by hand. “You can kill tree mal­low by cut­ting it close to the ground, but we’re fight­ing a long war with the seed bank. Plants come up ev­ery year, so we have to cut ev­ery one be­fore it pro­duces more seed. We’re slowly win­ning but we’ll have to keep go­ing for quite a long while yet.” In fact, the results of the work have been al­most mirac­u­lous. “One of the great things has been the speed at which puffins re­turned,” says John. “Some­times in the early years, puffins would be ar­riv­ing from sea as we worked, land­ing a few feet from us and ex­plor­ing the bur­rows within min­utes of us un­cov­er­ing them.” An­nual mon­i­tor­ing forms an­other as­pect of Hunt’s work and the results show puf­fin numbers re­cov­er­ing from a very low level.

John’s in­volve­ment amounts to around 100 days a year of vol­un­tary ef­fort – so what keeps him go­ing? “Apart from see­ing the results and know­ing we can’t stop un­til the seed bank is ex­hausted, my main mo­ti­va­tion is the vol­un­teers. We’ve had over 1,100 of them, many of whom have helped re­peat­edly. Their com­mit­ment has been an in­spi­ra­tion.”

90 per cent of the breed­ing puffins were un­able to reach nest bur­rows.

John Hunt has or­gan­ised nearly 300 work par­ties to re­move tree mal­low on Craigleith Is­land, Scot­land.

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