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08/05/2004 Archived Entry: "Bempton Cliffs"

Bempton Cliffs


Last week my wife and I made a fascinating visit to the RSPB nature reserve at Bempton Cliffs near Bridlington. It is open to non-RSPB members and is England's largest seabird colony which includes the largest mainland gannetry in Britain. We saw gannets, puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmar petrels, kittiwakes, herring gulls and even jackdaws and rock doves on the white chalk cliffs. Knowledgeable wardens were on hand at strategic vantage points and to show us where to point our binoculars to get that special view of a feeding chick or resting puffin.
The Bempton Cliffs Nature Reserve organise a variety of events over the year e.g. birdwatching for beginners, children's backpack activity days, owl watches and sea cruises to see puffins and shearwaters.
Even though we were well outside the normal nesting season, there was plenty of interest, not only with the spectacular birds and breathtaking views, but also with a range of wild flowers, butterflies and the possibility of spotting seals and porpoises at sea. The best time for seeing the birds is between April and August when they are breeding but any visit to this fascinating place is memorable.
Tragically, the number of kittiwakes that nest on these cliffs have had their worst breeding season since monitoring began in 1985. This year's figures show that only one chick out of every four or five nests is surviving, and the numbers are down from 45,000 chicks to 8,000. This is being blamed on the fact that the sand eel population has dropped dramatically. Sand eels are small silver fish which lie buried just below the seabed and are a vital food source for the kittiwake. In turn, the sand eels feed on plankton, but as the temperature of the North Sea rises the plankton, which is the food source of the sand eels, is moving further north to cooler waters, and the sand eel population is migrating with it. Another factor is that the birds on Bempton Cliffs breed at the same time as the sand eels are being taken by fishermen. The oil of sand eels is used to power electricity-producing generators and agricultural feed, but because of the risk to the sea bird population, there is now pressure to impose a ban on sand eel fishing in certain areas of the North Sea.
This situation is not confined to Bempton Cliffs as breeding sites in Lincolnshire and East Anglia have also been affected and in the Orkneys and Shetlands the situation is at crisis level. A spokesman for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee in Aberdeen says that ‘...this is the third or fourth year of almost total breeding failure...' And the area manager of the RSPB in Shetland says, ‘...it looks like some of these birds could disappear from Britain altogether.' As at Bempton, part of the blame was laid at the door of sand eel fishermen, but when a voluntary ban was put in place, the situation did not immediately improve and conservationists realised there were other factors involved. The scientists are calling it Britain's first global warming catastrophe.
So if you want to see the colonies of sea birds at Bempton Cliffs, don't delay. The reserve is open at all times, and the visitor centre opens daily except from December 24 to January 3. In the centre is a gift shop and snacks and drinks are available.

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