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Future looking rosy for roseate terns with record breeding year

The UK’s rarest nesting seabird, the roseate tern, has broken breeding records for the sixth year in a row on the RSPB’s Coquet Island in Northumberland. Coquet Island is home to the only breeding colony of roseate terns in the UK, and thanks to dedicated conservation their numbers have climbed from 104 breeding pairs in 2016 to 150 pairs in 2021.

Roseate terns almost went extinct back in the 19th century because of the demand for their feathers in women’s hats. These striking black-capped white birds grow a flush of rosy-coloured feathers on their breast during the breeding season, which the male shows off by flying above the female with a fish in his beak. In 1989 there were only 467 breeding pairs across the whole of the UK and Ireland, but dedicated conservation efforts have boosted Ireland’s population to 1,989 breeding pairs, with all of the UK’s 150 breeding pairs living on Coquet Island.

This year was also a record for breeding pairs of common terns and kittiwakes on Coquet Island, the latter of which are on the red list of conservation concern. This year Stephen Lunn, long-time volunteer and award-winning blacksmith, created bespoke ‘kittiwake hammocks’ to act as extra nesting spaces on cliffs. These were a big success and helped to boost the breeding pair numbers from 453 to 466.

Paul Morrison, RSPB Northumberland Coast Site Manager, said: “I’ve worked on Coquet Island for nearly 40 years now, so I can remember when there were barely any roseate terns on the whole of the island. Their growing numbers in recent years is a real testament to all our amazing volunteers and staff – they have spent lockdowns in a lighthouse, stayed up all night to protect eggs from disturbance, and forged kittiwake ledges out of metal! I can’t thank them enough, and I can only think that, with a team like this, roseate terns will continue going from strength to strength.

“But no single reserve can reverse the decline of nature alone – we must all work together to give wildlife the habitat and resources it needs to thrive. With the UN Climate Change Conference, CoP26, just around the corner, the UK Government must not miss its chance to step up as a world leader to connect the nature and climate crises, restore our precious natural riches and revive our world.”

The conservation efforts on Coquet Island have been bolstered by the EU-funded Roseate Tern LIFE Recovery Project. This five-year partnership project between the RSPB, North Wales Wildlife Trust and BirdWatch Ireland focused on protecting the three remaining roseate tern colonies in the UK and Ireland while restoring five of its historical sites for potential re-colonisation and laid the foundation for further roseate tern recovery.

Header image: Roseate tern. Credit: Chris Gomersall (