Why our coastal cliffs are so important

Fulmars on the Lamberton cliffs
Fulmars on the Lamberton cliffs

The spectacular coastal cliffs of Berwickshire are an important breeding site for many species of seabirds, with St Abb’s Head having the largest colonies and widest range of species in Berwickshire.

There is good access for viewing many of the cliffs nesting birds at St Abb’s Head and in early summer to sit near a cliff edge and experience the sight of birds wheeling and flying past, the sound of the calling birds and even the smell of the bird poo is a memorable experience and should be experienced every year.

The fulmar breeds along the entire coastline in Berwickshire and in many places such as Lamberton and Cove they are the only breeding seabird with the exception of few pairs of herring gulls nesting on these cliffs. After breeding the fulmars depart from the breeding cliffs, returning intermittently from November onwards when the weather is favourable and counts of up to 170 birds can be made on the cliffs at Lamberton throughout the winter.

Those birds holding territories in the winter may sit alone and very quiet for long periods of time but when pairs are together or a solitary sitting bird is visited by a bird in flight then a great deal of cackling takes place as they greet each other, renew acquaintance’s and pairs strengthen bonds. Fulmars are long lived birds and may live for 40 years.

Nesting does not generally start until they are about 10 years old and a single egg is laid in mid May, chicks can be seen from mid June and they will fly in August or September.

Chicks can reach the adult weight after only 20 days in favourable seasons but continue to be fed for 35 days by which time they are almost double the weight of the parents. The parents then stop feeding the chick and they live on their fat reserves for a further 10 to 15 days before flying away and departing the cliffs.

Bird ringing has revealed that fulmars from Scotland disperse over much of the North Atlantic with recoveries as far apart as Newfoundland, Greenland and Murmansk in the north and Spain in the south. Fulmars feed far out at sea on small fish, squid, crustaceans and fish discards as they often scavenge around fishing vessels.

The name fulmar is derived from the old Norse words, full meaning foul and mar meaning gull, hence foul gull or fulmar. Fulmars are not sea gulls, they have a very distinctive flight as they glide much of the time and hold their wings very straight and rigid when flapping their wings. On their bills they have tube noses from which they exude salt to desalinate their bodies and from their mouths they can spray an evil smelling, sticky oil at potential predators which acts as a brilliant deterrent.

Prior to the mid-18th Century the Scottish breeding population was restricted to St. Kilda. In 1878 they bred on Foula (Shetland) and spread round the British Isles reaching St Abb’s Head in 1921 and in the Seabird 2000 census 1,060 were counted in Berwickshire.