Film footage to help save Purbeck puffins from extinction

Puffins have returned to Dancing Ledge in Dorset for 2024 but this year, cameras have been installed on nearby cliffs to find out why the much loved birds have failed to breed successfully at this location for the last 10 years.

In the early 1900s, puffins were abundant in Purbeck and along the Dorset coastline but there’s been a severe decline over the last century and it’s now the last known nesting site for puffins on the mainland of southern England.

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Dancing Ledge and puffin
Pete Christie

This pair in 2023 managed to hatch chicks but the pufflings didn’t survive for more than three weeks

Small and isolated colony

The colony on National Trust land near Dancing Ledge is at high risk of extinction not only because the puffin population is small but also because it’s isolated – the nearest being Alderney on the Channel Islands, the Isles of Scilly off Cornwall or Lundy Island off North Devon.

The initiative follows research completed last summer by marine ornithologist Dr Richard Caldow, who noted that there were three nesting pairs of puffins on the site, but all failed to breed successfully. He said:

“Every day, the puffins seemed to be taking plenty of fish to the nests which indicates that the food source wasn’t a problem. But after three weeks, they stopped their deliveries.

“The pufflings (chicks) need to be fed for six weeks before they leave the nest, so there must have been a reason why the adults stopped taking them fish – such as the chicks having been predated by rats, gulls or crows.”

Dancing Ledge and puffin camera installation
Pete Christie

Specialist rope technicians were used to scale the cliffs along the coastline

Dancing Ledge and puffin camera installation
James Preston

The cameras have been carefully secured to the rock at strategic positions to capture the birds’ activity

Precarious installation on sheer cliff face

The project is being supported by Dorset Wildlife Trust which has provided expertise and advice, and sourced cameras and other equipment. Two of the cameras are on a free loan from wildlife camera company NatureSpy.

The cameras to monitor the seabirds were lowered approximately 20 metres down a sheer cliff face and have been fixed into place with masonry screws.

The precarious installation was carried out by trained rope access conservators from specialist contractor SSHConservation.

Puffins arrive at Dancing Ledge for breeding season 2024
Pete Christie

The first puffins returning to Dancing Ledge for 2024 were spotted by the team as they installed the cameras, just in time for the breeding season

“Help collect really important evidence”

Area ranger for the National Trust in Purbeck, Ben Cooke said:

“These cameras will be key to helping us plan for the future of these special, rare seabirds. They’ll help collect really important evidence of what’s happening with the puffin colony, then we can assess if there is anything we can do to help.

“For example, if rats are the problem, we can look at ways to protect the nests from them. Along with our partner organisations, we’re committed to doing whatever we can to prevent the loss of this much-loved species.”

An attempt to film the puffins was tried in 2018 but the findings were inconclusive, so it’s hoped that there will be more success this time, now that technology has advanced and the cameras are more strategically located.

Dancing Ledge and puffin
Pete Christie

No privacy for the puffins in 2024 as experts try to find out why their chicks fail to survive at Dancing Ledge

Spot the puffins on a boat trip

Dancing Ledge is a highly popular spot on the South Purbeck coastline, used by walkers, climbers and other activity groups.

Because of the inaccessible location of the puffin nests, the easiest way to spot them is from the sea – there are guided boat trips run in the summer by Durlston Country Park and Birds of Poole Harbour.

Ben added:

“While enjoying this spectacular landscape, we ask that people take their rubbish home with them, including left-over food. If rats are identified as the main problem for the puffins, then discarded food will exacerbate the issue.”

Dancing Ledge and puffin
Pete Christie

The iconic and easily recognisable puffin

Puffin decline

The puffins come in from the sea to Purbeck each spring and are here for about three months. Over the last 10 years there have rarely been more than half a dozen seen.

No chicks are known to have fledged for a decade or so now, but puffins live for 20 years or more and are loyal to their nesting sites, so will keep coming back to try.

Further information

  • More about Spyway and Dancing Ledge owned by The National Trust
  • Seabird boat trips to see the puffins and other birds along the Purbeck coastline start from Friday 10th May 2024 and are bookable via the Durlston Country Park website

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