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Feeding kestrels is helping to save little terns

PUBLISHED: 16:02 20 September 2018

Little terns, one of the UK’s rarest seabirds, had a successful breeding season along the east Norfolk coast this year. Picture: Kevin Simmonds

Little terns, one of the UK’s rarest seabirds, had a successful breeding season along the east Norfolk coast this year. Picture: Kevin Simmonds

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They benefit from 24 hour patrols, security fencing and the watchful eyes of dozens of volunteers.

RSPB staff and volunteers have been working hard to protect the wellbeing of the region’s little terns. Picture: Kevin SimmondsRSPB staff and volunteers have been working hard to protect the wellbeing of the region’s little terns. Picture: Kevin Simmonds

But the problem of how to protect little terns from hungry kestrels has been long been a conundrum conservationists have struggled to solve.

Volunteers at North Denes in Great Yarmouth who watched in horror as the hawks swooped decided that feeding them might stop them eating the chicks - and it worked.

Dr Jennifer Smart, principal conservation scientist at the RSPB, said the results were startling and that the diversionary feeding technique pioneered in Norfolk was now being used at colonies all over the UK.

MORE: Little tern fears could ground air shows

She said: “The RSPB have been protecting that colony for over 20 years. Twenty-four hour protection with staff and volunteers is very effective in reducing the effects of ground-based predators but it is much harder to dissuade avian predators.

“Kestrels can be problematic especially in some years.

“Their main natural prey would be voles and you see them hovering above areas of rough grass. But their population rises and crashes and in some years there are not many of those around and that is where they look for alternatives and they have this colony available to them.

“The solution, because it was a food-based issue, was to see if they could be fed close to the nest.

“It was tried on a casual basis and it was found the kestrels took fewer chicks and terns fledged more chicks.

“What we then did for four years was employ a research assistant to find the kestrel nests and monitor the situation, trying it with on and off feeding.”

MORE: Fond farewell as little tern chicks set off on African migration

The study was carried out between 2006 and 2009 but Dr Smart’s and Arjun Amar’s research paper has only just been published in the Journal for Nature Conservation.

It found that when the kestrels were fed day-old chicks and mice their appetite for terns dipped, taking only an average of one a day compared to eight when they weren’t being fed.

A single pair of kestrels feeding its brood was enough to devastate a colony as in 2005 when only 11 chicks survived.

Since the study the 400 pairs that were at North Denes have split up, some going to Winterton, Scroby Sands, and Eccles.

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