SAMS news room

Defender of Common Terns named Species Champion of the year

November 8, 2013, Oban – Dr Clive Craik recently won the coveted RSPB Nature of Scotland Species Champion of the year award for his work to save tern colonies off the West Coast of Scotland.

It’s a prestigious tribute well-earned for years of work on a seabird conservation project based on four mussel rafts in Loch Creran, 12km north of Oban.

When it began in 1996, just one pair of Common Terns nested there. Last year, as a testimony to sustained efforts and dedication, 600 pairs nested on the rafts and fledged 500 young, making it one of the largest tern colonies in the British Isles.

Many seabird species around the British Isles, including terns, are in decline. The possible reasons are numerous and not yet well understood. As well as food shortages, terns have to contend with mink and otter and over the years Dr Craik and four other volunteers have converted and adapted the mussel rafts to make them safe for terns to rear their young.

“I’ve been looking at all the tern colonies [along the mainland shore] between Mallaig and Kintyre since 1981. I’ve found that every year the tern chicks are killed in large numbers by mink and otters.

“What we’ve done is to design something from old mussel rafts that are both mink and otter proof,” Dr Craik told BBC Landward in the run up to the RSPB Nature of Scotland Awards.

Today mussels are farmed on lines but they were once farmed from rafts. When Dr Craik first used the rafts at South Shian, they were still part of a working mussel farm. The owners, Roger and Judy Thwaites, often worked alongside the breeding terns which came to accept nearby human presence.

Subsequently the mussel farm was sold and resold and all Tern raftsthe while Dr Craik and his team expanded and improved the safe haven for the terns. With each expansion, the tern colony grew. To date there are three fenced rafts –protecting the terns and their fledglings from mink and otters—while the fourth raft is a designated socialising raft, which is important to the success of the colony.

“We’re aiming for a thousand pairs, so we need to acquire a new raft,” Dr Craik told me in his bewitching office at SAMS, the Scottish Association for Marine Science, near Oban.

Dr Craik joined SAMS in 1979 as an employee but took early retirement in 1989, when he applied for an Honorary Fellowship. In return for a small office space stacked high with academic papers and books, with incidentals like a beautiful, old weighing scales and a computer crammed in, and with a small side room containing a collection of bird and animal skulls, Dr Craik has for more than 20 years worked tirelessly and unpaid on his research.

Initially it started as a straight forward recording project and subsequently grew to include a predator control programme. Each year he records the numbers of a selection of seabirds (cormorants, shags, five gull species and two tern species – Arctic and Common) and rings the chicks in high density colonies on about 150 small islands up to a kilometre offshore. During the summer months, from May to August, he travels the west coast with his inflatable boat tied to his car roof and outboard motor in the boot. It is seasonal work, but the days are long.

Dr Craik dislikes the epithet “common” for the Common Tern. It is far from common and in terms of breeding pairs around Britain according to the RSPB website there are almost five times more pairs of Arctic Terns than “common” ones. He says it is misnamed and feels it is due to this that its dwindling numbers have received little attention.

Between 2008 and 2009 Dr Craik and team-mate Rob Lightfoot, a retired biology teacher, perfected their anti-mink operations on the South Shian rafts and since then the numbers of successfully reared fledglings has grown exponentially. Mink, in particular, can destroy an entire year’s young in a single night.

As well as the positive results of discovering the perfect position for mink traps, Dr Craik is thrilled by their latest bird saving device. As fledglings learn to fly they regularly drop into the sea around the rafts and their saturated plumage makes take off impossible. In a natural habitat, the fledglings swim to their island and climb up the rocks, but the sides of the rafts are too high for the chicks and in a short time they die. So, Dr Craik and Mr Lightfoot have fixed wooden pallets to the sides of the rafts, angled like a gangway. The sodden chicks climb up them to dry out making new flight attempts possible.

Each year Dr Craik documents his findings and over the past 24 years 40% of the seabirds he has been monitoring have disappeared. He produces an annual report on mink trapping and publishes papers on his broad ranging research. Since he retired he has published about 30 items –many of them on insects, some on molluscs and the rest on seabirds—but he bats away any hint of admiration with a modest qualifier: “Most of them are in obscure amateur journals, not high-flying science!”

In spite of the uphill slog, Dr Craik remains determined that they will reach a thousand pairs of breeding terns on his rafts at South Shian. To encourage this he hopes to get a new raft by next Spring, but he knows that terns, like most seabirds, are unpredictable. They are long-lived beings (10-20 years) and in years of extreme weather or scarce food they can choose not to breed.

He is also determined to see Arctic terns using the rafts too but for all their efforts they have succeeded in enticing only one pair to nest there. In the wild, the two species of tern will colonise the same island, with Common terns laying on the turf, Arctic terns on the rocks and the two species sharing the same socialising space. In spite of introducing areas of gravel, sand or stones on to the rafts, the Arctic terns remain reluctant to use them.

Dr Craik, who was delighted with the Species Champion award, hopes it will help publicise his project more widely and says that already more people have shown an interest in his work. He is very grateful to the RSPB for the award and to the Argyll Bird Club for its generous grants towards the cost of the raft and in a characteristically indefatigable tone he said:

“After many setbacks, we have found how to keep nesting terns safe from mink and otter. So now we plan to expand the breeding area. About six hundred pairs of Common Tern nested on the rafts in 2012. In due course we hope to attract a thousand nesting pairs and make this the largest colony in the British Isles.”


Dr Clive Craik can be contacted by email or tel: 01631 559 308

Click here for an example of Dr Craik's publications on “Mixed clutches at seabird colonies in west Scotland 1996-2009”

RSPB Nature of Scotland Awards

BBC Landward clip on Clive's Tern - must see!

For more on this item or any other SAMS news, please contact SAMS communications officer Cathy Winterton by email or tel: 01631 559 342

< Previous|Next >