Untangling Grassholm's gannets

Richard Harrington By: Richard Harrington
Date posted: 19 October 2011

Untangling Grassholm’s gannets The landscape at Grassholm, with colourful debris and affected gannets visible in foreground (above).

Untangling Grassholm’s gannets The landscape at Grassholm, with colourful debris and affected gannets visible in foreground (above). Below, one gannet nest, showing the quantity of line, net etc incorporated. Close to forty thousand gannet pairs spend the breeding season on Grassholm each year, making it a raucus, bustling seabird haven. Most of the birds leave in Autumn, but a few stragglers remain. Sadly, some of these remain because they are tethered to the ground by plastic line, strapping bands, nets, and other materials which the birds use for their nests. MCS Communications Manager, Richard Harrington, and Litter Policy Officer, Dr Sue Kinsey, have just come back from Grassholm after spending the day with the island’s RSPB wardens. They saw the entrapment first hand, and helped free some of the ensnared birds. Most trapped birds we found were ensnared by one or both legs. The material would have wound itself many times around as the bird struggled to free itself, giving no chance of escape. It was satisfying to cut this from an otherwise healthy bird, and especially so when one or two of these immediately flew out to sea. Of the other survivors, wings would be snagged and sometimes broken, or bills and necks wrapped in a tight loop of line; these could be freed, but not always saved. Some carcasses on the ground showed signs of having swallowed quantities of line and fabric. The story repeated itself as we walked around the site. We freed twenty seven birds in all, each with a better chance of survival than before. This was an improvement on the previous year, when more than a hundred chicks had needed assistance. The sheer volume of plastic material on view is striking, but warden Greg Morgan explained that it just isn’t practical to remove it, and would ruin the fabric of the nest sites to do so. He has taken sample sections from a nest, finding decades-worth of accumulation put together by generations of gannets. Anything resembling a colourful bit of seaweed has been used. Balloon ribbons and attachments are commonplace, and lengths of pipe (a little like kelp stipes) stand proud of the floor. They will be there for many generations to come. The birds we freed represent only a tiny fraction of the site’s breeding population and so, despite the obvious suffering, it can’t be considered a threat to the species’ continued existence here. Personally, though we found the experience to be a graphic reminder of just why MCS needs to keep up the anti-litter message, and to seek to find ways to reduce the sheer volume of waste entering the sea. Many thanks to the RSPB for hosting us and doing such good work - read their blog about the day. A full article will appear in the WInter edition of Marine Conservation magazine, sent to all MCS members.

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Did you know?…

On UK beaches levels of litter have doubled in the past 20 years

Every year, volunteers give us over 1,000 days of their time

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is thought to be 6 times the size of the UK