Puffin; Fratercula arctica; with Sand Eels; UK

Puffin; Fratercula arctica; with Sand Eels; UK

Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly boast an amazing array of wildlife, both in and off the water - and on it , of course, as DAVID CHAPMAN explains

Razorbill; Alca torda; Mull;

Razorbill; Alca torda; Mull;

Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly boast an amazing array of wildlife, both in and off the water - and on it , of course, as DAVID CHAPMAN explains

IN Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly we live in a great region for seabirds. Along the cliffs of the north coast, on the islets and sea stacks to the south and west, our unique geology provides suitable places for seabirds to breed and our rich, bountiful sea provides the food required to raise their young. But it isn’t enough to leave seabirds alone and hope they do well.

The Isles of Scilly are incredibly important for seabirds. In the south west of England the islands have the largest colony of breeding puffins, for example. Possibly more important are the couple of hundred pairs of Manx shearwater and few thousand pairs of storm petrel which all nest in burrows on Annet, an island offshore from St Agnes.

The Manx shearwater and storm petrel are both very wary birds, spending most of their lives at sea, far away from land. They come ashore only to nest in burrows and dare not be seen there during daylight hours for fear of being attacked by gulls. They wait until nightfall and will only fly to land if it is very dark. Calling to their partners underground they shuffle around on the rocks until they find the entrance to their nest hole. The pair switch over so one goes to sea to find food whilst the other stays underground to incubate the eggs or care for the young.


In the past these birds have been threatened by rats which enter their burrows searching for eggs and chicks. Even though there has been a long term programme of rat eradication on all uninhabited islands by the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust (IOSWT), it is only in the last five years that the significant island of Annet has been regarded as rat free. In order to secure the rat-free status of Annet, a group of conservation organisations decided to tackle the rat problem on the major islands of St Agnes and Gugh. If rats could be removed from those islands then Annet should be much more secure.

So began the Seabird Recovery Project supported by funding from LIFE (EU environment) and the Heritage Lottery Fund. In 2013 it set out to completely eradicate rats from St Agnes and Gugh. By the end of November, with the full and enthusiastic support of the islanders as well as a raft of other conservation and local organisations, they did it!

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To maintain the rat-free status the boatmen and islanders have been given advice on how to prevent rats being brought back to the island with cargo on boats. Rat monitoring stations are left in place around the islands and on boats so the presence of any rats is spotted quickly.

The impact of this eradication has been immediate and wonderful. For the first time in living memory Manx shearwaters have successfully bred on the island of St Agnes. In 2014 ten young shearwaters fledged successfully from burrows which would previously have been frequented by rats. This tremendous news is reward for the hard work and perseverance of all involved. It isn’t just the shearwaters which will benefit. An increase in the number of breeding oystercatchers on St Agnes has already been noticed and there will obviously be a positive impact on the puffins and petrels of Annet.

Fulmar; Fulmarus glacialis; in Flight; Shetland; UK

Fulmar; Fulmarus glacialis; in Flight; Shetland; UK


Puffins are the most highly sought out of any seabirds. Their comical appearance, endearing behaviour and colourful beaks make them supremely popular. Unlike the other auks, puffins nest in burrows which makes them a target for rats. To their advantage they are prolific hunters of fish able to catch a whole beak full of sandeels in one trip.

In Cornwall they probably only breed at two locations and both are islands: The Mouls off Pentire Point and The Brisons off St Just. Neither of these locations are great for watching these birds so the best place to go is Scilly. Their breeding season is close to its end with just a few lingering into August.


Cormorant; Phalacrocorax carbo; adult showing white patch on flank

Cormorant; Phalacrocorax carbo; adult showing white patch on flank

The kittiwake is a small, attractive gull which spends its winter at sea and only comes ashore to nest on cliffs. It has a lovely soft, white plumage on its body, their grey wings look like they have been dipped in black paint. Juveniles have a black V on each wing making a W-shape across their backs. Probably the most distinctive feature of the kittiwake is it call after which it was named: a clamorous kitt-i-waaake’.

Kittiwakes nest in fairly large colonies around Cornwall and Scilly. Probably the best location is on Towan Head, Newquay.


The shag and cormorant are easily confused, particularly when you consider that juvenile birds of both species are basically brown with a lighter breast. Shags (pictured left) are smaller than cormorants (pictured right) and they have a more attractive head profile with a well defined, rounded forehead. When they dive to catch fish the shag will habitually jump clear of the water to get the momentum to go under whereas the cormorant will slip into the water without a splash.

Razorbill; Alca torda; Mull;

Razorbill; Alca torda; Mull;

In breeding plumage the cormorant has a white cheek and thigh patch whilst the shag has a lovely crest. Both have the habit of standing with their wings outstretched in an apparent attempt to dry their feathers.

Any remote rocky coastline is good for both species to nest. There is a watchable colony of cormorants on the small sea stack near Hell’s Mouth near Godrevy.


The fulmar is a widespread birds nesting on many of our cliffs in small colonies. Its name, derived from foul mar’ literally means foul gull’ but it isn’t a gull, look at its beak and you will see it belongs to the petrel family. It is, though, fouls since it will regurgitate food onto any predator threatening it.

Watch the fulmars as they glide on stiff, straight wings, they rarely need to flap. To change course they drop a foot down and to brake it takes both feet. Fulmars can be seen at their nest sites through most of the year, good locations include the headland at West Pentire and the cliffs near Godrevy, but they can be seen at many locations.


Guillemots and razorbills both belong to the auk family. They look a little like penguins but can fly. They nest on cliff ledges and lay eggs which are slightly pointed at one end, this so they roll in a tight circle and are less likely to fall off the ledge!

Most of the auks will leave their nest ledges during July so don’t waste time if you want to see them. The best places are the offshore islands between Tintagel and Boscastle; those off Land’s End, St Agnes Head and the Isles of Scilly.

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