New protections on the horizon for Solent terns

© Kevin Crisp

A proposal for a new European 'Special Protection Area' for three tern species in the Solent brings with it new opportunities for wider wildlife protection

As a small local charity with limited resources we have to be very selective as to which local planning applications and policy documents we get involved in. We have strict criteria in place to help us decide but essentially we comment on those where there is the most to lose or most to be gained.

We were recently consulted by Natural England on the proposed new Special Protection Area (pSPA) for the Dorset and Solent coast, and considered that this should be a priority. The consultation title was in fact a bit misleading, since the proposed area extended from the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset to Bognor Regis in West Sussex and therefore we decided to provide a joint response from the three local Trusts’ (Dorset, Hampshire & Isle of Wight and Sussex). The proposal is designed to protect the three tern species, CommonLittle and Sandwich.

Little tern with fish

© Jason Crook

SPAs are EU-designated areas for the protection of birds, and require local authorities to protect particular species. Most of the Solent and Southampton Water coast is already designated as an SPA because of the presence of internationally important numbers of some wintering waterfowl (waders, ducks and geese) species and internationally important numbers of four species of terns (Common, Little, Roseate and Sandwich) and the Mediterranean Gull.

All seabird species are described as ‘central place foragers’, which means that they go out from and return to a central place (their nest) on every foraging trip whilst breeding. This means that they have a limited foraging range and forage as close to their colony as they can.

Currently their nesting sites are protected by the existing Solent and Southampton Water SPA, but the waters around where they forage are not - and it is these that need to be considered for protection.

An opportunity to protect terns

We welcomed the proposals coming forward to protect these foraging areas for terns, but felt that this consultation was an opportunity to protect other vulnerable species. Some of the key things we highlighted in our response to the Government were:

Terns and other species need sanctuary over winter as well as during nesting season

During the autumn migration period large flocks of terns gather at strategic sites to roost and feed. For example at Titchfield Haven NNR/Hill Head flocks of more thousands of birds of different species use the reserve and foreshore at low tide for roosting and bathing, and feed out in the Solent and off Cowes, on the Isle of Wight.

We’re also seeing increasing numbers of terns, particularly Sandwich, now over-wintering in and around the Solent. The current pSPA doesn’t take into account the presence of these birds outside of nesting season – but they are also need protection, particularly from recreational disturbance during the winter.

Amending the current Solent SPA boundary

The boundary of the existing Solent and Southampton Water SPA doesn’t include the exposed intertidal and shallow water areas below mean low water mark. However this area forms a key part of the feeding habitat for a range of waders, geese and ducks. We believe that this consultation provides the opportunity to include this area thereby protect the birds using it.

Over-wintering diving birds also need protection

The low intertidal and shallow sub-tidal areas covered by the pSPA are also important for diving birds such as sea-duck, grebes, divers and cormorants. For example 80 Black-necked Grebe were recorded in Shell Bay and Studland Bay south and west of Poole Harbour, during the winter of 2010.

If action is being taken to protect terns with the pSPA, we should also look to protect other species that rely on similar habitats and are present in internationally important numbers.

We look forward to seeing our recommendations taken into account as the Government considers the responses to this pSPA over the coming months.