The River Tyne supports an important breeding population of Kittiwakes. You can find out about the birds, how to see them and efforts to protect them.
Since the 1960s, the River Tyne has supported the most inland breeding colony of kittiwakes in the world. Each spring, these pelagic gulls return to the Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside where they nest on buildings and structures, including the Tyne Bridge. The kittiwakes are now part of this iconic cityscape and a tourist attraction in their own right
A local ornithologist has been monitoring the Tyne kittiwakes since 1994 during which time a great increase in their numbers at Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside has been recorded. This is incredible, not just because of the special place these birds have chosen to nest, but in light of the significant reductions in kittiwake populations elsewhere.
Globally, kittiwakes are thought to have declined by around 40% since the 1970s, and were added to the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List in 2015. This was followed by the species being uplisted from Least Concern to Vulnerable in 2017. In the UK, kittiwake numbers have plummeted, particularly in Orkney and Shetland where breeding birds have declined by 87% since 2000, and on St Kilda in the Western Isles where as much as 96% of the breeding population has been lost. Climate change and fishing that sets aside too little for the birds are likely causes of serious declines in kittiwake numbers. Protecting this unique river-nesting colony is therefore an important part of the wider conservation effort for this species.
Unfortunately, the Tyne kittiwakes face risks at their artificial nest sites. 2018 saw these birds receive unprecedented media attention following a series of incidents where individual kittiwakes became accidentally caught, and in some instances perished, as a result of unfit bird deterrent netting. Members of the Tyne Kittiwake Partnership worked alongside the RSPCA to support rescue operations and collaborative efforts have continued in an attempt to prevent this from happening again.
The installation of bird deterrents, such as netting, is perfectly legal outside the breeding season. This does require consent on listed buildings (once approved this cannot be revoked) and the property owner has a responsibility to ensure the safety of the deterrent. Unfortunately, when deterrents are not fit for purpose (e.g. netting too slack, loose and/or poorly maintained) they can become a danger to kittiwakes.
Once birds have started nesting, it is not possible to remove dangerous netting, as this would dislodge nests built on top of the deterrent. Action must be taken outside the breeding season, prior to their return. Together the RSPB, Newcastle City Council, RSPCA and the Tyne Kittiwake Partnership have been working with businesses and property owners to make Newcastle’s buildings and structures safe in time for spring. There has been a positive response from many of these stakeholders who have already, or are in the process of, removing dangerous netting before the kittiwakes return. Alongside this, procedures are being developed to enable swift and informed action should kittiwakes experience trouble again.
As netting is removed, alternatives may be installed including bird gel and avishock. Avishock is an electrical deterrent, which like the others, is a legal way to prevent birds nesting on structures (provided it is installed outside the breeding season). All available evidence suggests the product is not harmful to any bird species.
Newcastle City Council has produced guidance on deterrents to help those considering and using these measures to understand the implications and their responsibilities (property owners have a responsibility to ensure their deterrents are safe and must act to release any caught birds). This will be available online and circulated to business across Newcastle.
People can help by contacting the RSPCA’s 24-hour cruelty and advice helpline (0300 1234 999) if they see a live kittiwake caught in netting. To help the RSPCA respond as quickly as possible, please provide as much information you can. Where possible, please also alert the property owner.
This work represents a significant step, but there is more to do. We need to protect this unique river-nesting colony as part of the wider conservation effort for kittiwakes. As well as ensuring their safety every breeding season, with others, we want to raise awareness and celebrate these special birds.
The Tyne Kittiwake Partnership has formed to ensure that the Kittiwake population along the Tyne is safeguarded and to work together to improve our understanding of the birds and their conservation needs. The Partnership includes the Natural History Society of Northumbria, RSPB, Northumberland and Durham Wildlife Trusts, Newcastle, Gateshead, North Tyneside and South Tyneside Councils, Newcastle University and individual researchers and ornithologists.
To find out more about the Tyne Kittiwakes and the work of the Partnership, please follow the links below.