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Covid Restrictions Protecting Saltee Gannets

23rd October 2020
Professor John Quinn with the Gannet colony sign on the Great Saltee Islands Professor John Quinn with the Gannet colony sign on the Great Saltee Islands Photo: Tom Mason

COVID-19’s impact on visits to offshore islands may be benefiting the gannet seabird colony on Wexford’s Great Saltee.

A new University College Cork (UCC) study has recorded the level of disturbance to the birds caused by tourists in the summer of 2017.

Great Saltee does not have a warden, and many tourists unwittingly cause a disturbance, leading to parents leaving their nests temporarily, exposing them to predators who quickly seize the opportunity and steal the gannets’ one and only egg, the report says.

Gannet colony on the Great Saltee Islands off the County Wexford coastGannet colony on the Great Saltee Islands off the County Wexford coast

Many tourists, especially those looking for that perfect photograph of birds on their nests, got too close to the gannets, often to within less than one metre.

This led to a 60% reduction in breeding success compared with birds at undisturbed parts of the colony, according to Debs Allbrook, a UCC masters in science student.

“On one occasion we saw nine disturbance events over a two-hour period. This directly led to eggs from nine gannet nests being stolen by herring gulls, who seem to have learned to watch the interactions between tourists and people,” she said,

“ One photographer ran right through the colony trying to retrieve his camera lens rolling downhill, leading to disturbance of about 30 nests,” she said.

As part of her research, Debs Allbrook tested to see if tourists would pay attention to an information sign warning them that their actions could be damaging.

The sign said: “These birds are breeding. Under the Wildlife Act (1976) it is illegal to disturb nesting birds. Please do not approach the colony as doing so may result in the abandonment of eggs or the death of chicks. Thank you for your consideration.”

The vast majority of people paid attention to the sign. People stayed away from the birds and fewer disturbance events were observed.

“This showed that it was largely lack of knowledge that led to the disturbance in the first place. People did not understand the harm they were causing,” she noted.

“The disturbance often caused confusion in the colony and it only took a second for a gull to zip in and steal an egg,” she said.

The full publication can be accessed now online here

Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

Email The Author

Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004) on Irish helicopter search and rescue; and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010).

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Marine Wildlife Around Ireland One of the greatest memories of any day spent boating around the Irish coast is an encounter with marine wildlife.  It's a thrill for young and old to witness seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales right there in their own habitat. As boaters fortunate enough to have experienced it will testify even spotting a distant dorsal fin can be the highlight of any day afloat.  Was that a porpoise? Was it a whale? No matter how brief the glimpse it's a privilege to share the seas with Irish marine wildlife.

Thanks to the location of our beautiful little island, perched in the North Atlantic Ocean there appears to be no shortage of marine life to observe.

From whales to dolphins, seals, sharks and other ocean animals this page documents the most interesting accounts of marine wildlife around our shores. We're keen to receive your observations, your photos, links and youtube clips.

Boaters have a unique perspective and all those who go afloat, from inshore kayaking to offshore yacht racing that what they encounter can be of real value to specialist organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) who compile a list of sightings and strandings. The IWDG knowledge base has increased over the past 21 years thanks in part at least to the observations of sailors, anglers, kayakers and boaters.

Thanks to the IWDG work we now know we share the seas with dozens of species who also call Ireland home. Here's the current list: Atlantic white-sided dolphin, beluga whale, blue whale, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Cuvier's beaked whale, false killer whale, fin whale, Gervais' beaked whale, harbour porpoise, humpback whale, killer whale, minke whale, northern bottlenose whale, northern right whale, pilot whale, pygmy sperm whale, Risso's dolphin, sei whale, Sowerby's beaked whale, sperm whale, striped dolphin, True's beaked whale and white-beaked dolphin.

But as impressive as the species list is the IWDG believe there are still gaps in our knowledge. Next time you are out on the ocean waves keep a sharp look out!

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