This afternoon, I took part in the debate on puffin habitats. I spoke predominantly of the colony on Ailsa Craig, its history and protection and the boat tours that are organised to view it, in spite of a bit of light-hearted competition from the Member for Falkirk, John McNally, who felt that a trip out to the Bass Rock might just top it!
The Minister agreed that “Puffins are a key part of the marine ecosystem and good indicators of the overall state of the marine environment, including the damaging effects of climate change” and set out how the Government intended to make sure they are well-protected in future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) for securing the debate.
Puffins are perhaps the most remarkably odd-looking birds to call the UK home. They look to have been drawn by a 1930s cartoonist, with a black-and-white body resembling a gent’s evening attire that is augmented in the summer breeding season by a vibrantly coloured bill. Puffins are often referred to as sea parrots on account of those bright bills, and we in the UK benefit from more than 500,000 breeding pairs—roughly 10% of the world’s population—although, as has been said, they are at risk. It is sad to note that, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, puffins are on the red list, in need of urgent action to conserve them for future generations and to avoid the potential global extinction that has befallen other members of their extended family.
One of their habitats is off the beautiful Ayrshire coast in my constituency, on an island formed from a volcanic plug known as Ailsa Craig—a landmark famous for not only its birdlife but the blue granite used for the curling stones used throughout the world. These curling stones are manufactured in Mauchline in Ayrshire, albeit not in my constituency. When drivers head from Glasgow to Ayr on the A77, the island dramatically dominates the horizon for a moment and appears to travel with them on the coast road to Culzean castle.
On Ailsa Craig, puffins may nest either in sandy burrows vacated by rabbits or in crevices on the cliff-like ledges. Their ability to fly—rather clumsily at times—is outshone by their superb swimming and diving skills. Years ago, homeowners and tenants on the now uninhabited island had the right to take the island’s birds for food and feathers. However, according to author and photographer Charles Kirk, who spent some time on the island, it took approximately 1,152 puffin feathers to make a bed—I have no idea who counted said feathers. Thankfully, the puffins are now protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Undoubtedly, the population has—excuse the pun—ebbed and flowed somewhat. Puffins start at a disadvantage, producing only one chick per breeding season, and although a puffin may live for 20 years or more, it does not breed for the first five years of its life. A lot of work was undertaken on Ailsa Craig to rid it of diseased rabbits and predatory rats, to encourage the puffin colony to multiply. Those animals, brought over on visiting boats and vessels, meant that, by the 1930s, puffin numbers had seriously declined. A concerted effort began, and I am pleased to note that, by 1991, the island was once again rat free, and puffins were returning in greater numbers to breed. We need to ensure that such predators do not again secure a foothold on the island and threaten its puffin colony.
Puffins are currently the subject of the RSPB’s—this is hard to say—Puffarazzi project, a request for the public to submit photographs of feeding puffins. There has been a very positive response from the public. It is clear that these little and sometimes comical birds captivate us and are a huge draw for tourists. Indeed, the last ocean-going paddle steamer, the Waverley, used to offer trips around Ailsa Craig and out to Staffa for the public to view the puffin colonies and colonies of other seabirds. In the absence, for the moment, of the Waverley, Mr McCrindle, with his small vessel the MFV Glorious, offers wonderful trips from Girvan to Ailsa Craig—a magical trip that I have experienced many times.
Only at the end of last week, puffins were again in the news. The item referred to water temperatures rising with climate change, threatening the puffins’ continued existence. Their mainstay diet of small fish such as herring and sand eels are themselves not exempt from environmental changes and human intervention, in addition to the ongoing problem of plastics polluting our seas.
I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give us an assurance that when the Government address climate change and marine pollution, they will not forget not so much the flight of the puffin as the plight of the puffin.