By Selma Franssen
I have loved seabirds for as long as I can remember. They travel long distances seemingly without effort. They know what the world looks like under water as well as from high above in the air. They are wild and free in an enviable way.
To get closer to the birds that fascinate me, I traveled to the Shetland Islands, an archipelago northeast of Scotland. It is hard to find another place in Europe where seabird colonies are as accessible; in some places nesting birds can be observed from just a few metres away. They can be heard too: the volume of a seabird colony easily exceeds that of a school class during playtime.
Yet for all the wonder these animals bring, the effect of human activity on their lives has been devastating. Of twelve seabird species monitored in Scotland the population has decreased by 50% compared to 30 years ago. For some species the decline is even worse; the kittiwake has seen a 72% fall.
My first stop is Sumburgh Head at the southern tip of the Shetland mainland. A dramatic cliff 100 metres high, it is home to breeding puffins, guillemots, razor-bill, kittiwakes and northern fulmars. I am here to meet Helen Moncrieff from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). In her office, which is located in a former lighthouse keeper’s residence, she explains why seabirds keep returning here.
“The location of Sumburgh Head makes it an ideal nesting spot. In good years, the place provides plenty of food for the breeding birds and their chicks. Before people came to Shetland, there were also no animals that posed a threat to the birds, such as rats, ermines or otters.”
In the middle of the breeding season, the cliff is populated by a large variety of birds. I ask Moncrieff to list her favourites. “At the bottom of the cliff you find shags, sea birds the size of a goose, with a long neck. They appear black, but have a green sheen. I love these birds. When I was three years old, the ESSO tanker Bernicia lost 2,000 tons of oil off the shores of Shetland. I remember my mother and aunt rescuing a shag covered in oil. A man named Matthew came to collect the bird. When I was a teenager, after another big oil spill, I took a month off school to help wash shags. Those experiences stayed with me forever. Perhaps not surprising: Matthew and I eventually became colleagues at the Shetland Wildlife Response Coordinating Committee, which protects nature on Shetland after oil spills. So thank you, shag!”
Shags can be found in Shetland all year round, unlike the small black and white guillemots and puffins that only visit to breed. The kittiwake breeds at yet another level higher. “In contrast to the slightly rude seagull, kittiwakes look friendly, as if they would have time to listen to you if there was something you’d want to get off your chest (laughs). Like all gull species, they are not very colourful, but they are quite dainty”, says Moncrieff.
Also at the top of the cliff is the fulmar, another of her favourites. “Fulmars defend their nest by vomiting a smelly substance on invaders. I remember well that as a child my mother made me wear a dress, while I preferred to wear trousers. Once I was rebellious, sought a fulmar and teased it until it vomited over my dress.The smell ruined the dress. I have seen fulmars as my allies ever since.”
The threat to Shetland’s seabirds is due to a combination of factors, all man-made. As climate change causes the sea temperature to rise the number of sand eels, the nutritious fish which many feed on, falls. Researchers have noticed that birds dependent on the sand eel are flying longer distances to find food. One puffin fitted with a GPS tracker flew over 400 kilometres from its nest to find food, ten times farther than scientists had previously estimated. Such long trips exhaust the birds, and the fish they manage to find are less nutritious that they used to be.
There is also the problem of plastic in our oceans, as Moncrieff notes. “Fulmars fetch their food from the water surface, which means they also swallow plastic. We send dead fulmars to Wageningen University in the Netherlands, where their stomach contents are analysed. Every fulmar from Shetland unfortunately had plastic in its stomach. At first it was mainly industrial plastic, the small plastic pellets that are to be melted into products. These days it is mainly consumer waste. Imagine that as a human being you would have a lunch box of plastic in your stomach. There would be no room for real food. That’s the situation fulmars are in.’”
Researcher Suse Kühn and her team analyse the stomach contents of fulmars at the University of Wageningen. Many plastic fragments are unrecognisable, but they regularly find bottle caps. “Also pellets, plastic balls as big as lentils, that are used to make plastic objects in a subsequent step of the production process. Pellets resemble fish eggs, so birds eat them. I also occasionally find balloons and paraffin wax, which is artificial wax that is used a lot in cosmetics”, says Kühn.
Her team investigates the effect of plastic swallowing. “Plastic can cause mechanical damage in a stomach by, for example, blockage or by leaving too little space for real food. Chemical and toxic substances from the plastic can also leak into an animal system. Birds do not always die immediately, but in difficult times such as cold winters or while rearing of chicks, being in weak health can have fatal consequences.”
The people of Shetland are doing their best to remove plastic waste from nature. A quarter of the population participate in the annual 'Da Voar Redd Up' (a local dialect term for spring cleaning). Over the past 30 years, more than 1,900 tonnes of waste have been removed from the islands. A large part comes from the fishing industry, but there is also consumer waste that has been traced back to countries as far as Canada, the US, Germany, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands.
It may sound like a daunting task, untangling pieces of washed up plastic from seaweed. Yet individuals such as Rachel Laurenson do exactly that. She participates in the global #2minutebeachclean movement, which encourages walkers to collect plastic waste they find on their travels. I join her to scour rubbish from a small beach near Lerwick. As we go, I ask which types of waste she encounters most often. “Without a doubt, plastic bottles, plastic bags and fishing nets’ she replies. But that is not all.”
Figures from Da Voar Redd Up show that thousands of spent shotgun cartridges from the annual Canadian seal hunt wash up. Among the finds were also full beer cans from Egypt, Brazilian soft drinks and even a road sign from a National Park in the USA. But the majority of the waste consists of small pieces of plastic, such as pellets, polystyrene balls and cotton tips. Does Laurenson ever feel discouraged? “Sometimes. But then I realise that every bottle I take with me won’t disintegrate and end up in a bird's stomach.”
Within fifteen minutes we have a full bag of waste. Laurenson takes a picture for Instagram. She hopes to inspire others to take part in the #2minutebeachclean. “Anyone can do it, you just take whatever you can carry. Since I started I have changed my own behaviour. Why buy shower gel in a plastic bottle if a bar of soap does the job just fine? Or plastic cotton tips when there is a cardboard alternative?”
After cleaning the beach I feel a bit depressed. The stories that I have heard in Shetland have made me realise that there is more at stake here than the physical extinction of seabirds. These animals are part of the Isle's collective memory. Or as Helen Moncrieff puts it: “All these birds are characters in the story of Shetland, but also in my life story. Watching Northern fulmars makes me relax, it is almost meditative to see them circling around. Puffins are known as the clowns of the sea, they make people of all ages happy. Many of our artworks, stories and songs are related to the birds and their breeding grounds. That connection with wildness and nature is important to us.”
To turn the tide, we have to listen to what the birds tell us, she says. “Seabirds are actually the canaries in the coal mine of the oceans; by examining them, we learn a lot about the state of marine life in general. We already know the driving forces behind their decline; now it is time to act. We must feel responsible and realise that our actions have a direct impact. Not only for the worse; our actions can also help. We have that power too.”
Before I take the ferry back to Aberdeen, I visit the kittiwakes one last time, for I also now have a favourite bird in Shetland. In my backpack is a tote bag that I got from Rachel Laurenson, to collect plastic bottles in the forest near Brussels where I often walk. I intend to make a new habit out of this and remember Shetland and its beauty with every piece of waste I collect.
Selma Franssen is a Dutch journalist living in Brussels. Her work has appeared in OneWorld, De Morgen, De Standaard, The New Statesman, VPRO and Vice.