Seabird sites in Northern Ireland

This section outlines some of the important seabird sites in Northern Ireland.

Rathlin Island

Rathlin Island is a large inhabited marine island situated some 4km from the north Antrim coast of Northern Ireland. There are basalt and chalk cliffs, some as high as 100m, as well as several sea stacks on the north and west shores of the island. Rathlin Island is designated a Special Protection Area (SPA) for its important populations of seabirds and Peregrine Falcons Falco peregrinus.

A 2011 survey of the island has shown that it is now the most important site in the UK for breeding Guillemots Uria aalgae and Razorbills Alca torda. Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla have shown a steady decline over the last 20 years. In the last 15 years the numbers of Puffins Fratercula arctica have declined by over 50% and it is thought the Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus may now be extinct as a breeding species. These declines are thought to be attributable to ferrets and rat populations on the Island. The Great Skua Stercorarius skua has started to breed on the island, part of an expansion southwards of the Scottish population.

Rathlin is by far the largest seabird colony in Northern Ireland and remains one of the most important seabird breeding site in the UK and Ireland.

Copeland Islands

The Copeland Islands are located at the mouth of Belfast Lough. There are three islands – Big Copeland, Lighthouse and Mew Islands. The Copeland Bird Observatory is located on Lighthouse Island. The islands host the only extant colony of Manx Shearwaters in Northern Ireland, of approximately 5000 pairs. There are 800-1000 pairs of Common Gulls Larus canus annually and good populations of Lesser black-backed Larus fuscus and Herring Gulls Larus argentatus. The islands have the largest single Arctic Tern Sternsa paradisaea colony in Ireland which sometimes tops 1100 pairs, with small number of Common Terns Sterna hirundo and Sandwich Tern Thalasseus sandvicensis. Conservation projects are currently underway to protect and increase the numbers of breeding terns on the islands, and to encourage Atlantic Puffins to breed.

The Copeland Islands were declared a SPA in 2010 due to their important populations of Manx Shearwater and Arctic Tern. The islands are also an Area of Special Scientific Interest.

Larne Lough

Larne Lough is designated as a Special Protection Area. The Lough has extremely important populations of breeding Common and Sandwich Terns, and is the only remaining breeding site for the Roseate Tern in Northern Ireland. Significant number of Black Guillemots nest in the Lough. A few kilometres to the north of the Lough, The Maidens islands have the largest colony of Shags Phalacrocorax aristotelis in Northern Ireland.

Strangford Lough

Seabirds on Strangford Lough nest across a number of small islands. There are large populations of Arctic, Common and Sandwich Terns, all the common gull species, Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle and Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo. Strangford Lough is Northern Ireland’s only Marine Nature Reserve and is also designated as a SPA.

Loughs Neagh and Erne

Lough Neagh is positioned in the centre of Northern Ireland and has shores on five of the six Northern Irish counties. Lough Neagh has a number of island sites which hold good colonies of Common Tern, Black-headed Gull and Lesser black-backed Gull. There has been some decreases in Black-headed Gull colony sizes in recent years but as the islands are not regularly monitored it is unclear what is driving these changes how big they are.

Lower Lough Erne is located in Co. Fermanagh. There are a number of small islands which host breeding seabirds including Common Tern, Sandwich Tern, Black-headed Gull and Lesser black-backed Gull. The nesting sites are monitored and conserved by the RSPB. The Sandwich Terns feed at sea, in Donegal Bay, and must fly 25 miles to feed.