Seabird Group Seabird Group

A Census of the Atlantic Puffins Fratercula arctica breeding on Orkney in 2016

Robert D. Hughes 1*, Fabrice Le Bouard1, Gareth Bradbury2 and Ellie Owen1

* Correspondence author. Email:

1The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, North Scotland Regional Office, Etive House, Beechwood Park, Inverness, IV2 3BW, UK;

2The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Slimbridge, GL2 7BT, UK.

Full paper


Atlantic Puffins Fratercula arctica were counted at all known colonies in Orkney (excluding Sule Skerry) during the 2016 breeding season. Counts of individuals (IND) were made during pre-laying and incubation at all 20 sites and at six sites where burrows where physically accessible. In 2016 the Atlantic Puffin population of Orkney was estimated to be 6,675 breeding pairs (based on the counts of apparently occupied burrows [AOB] where available, and assuming that one individual represented one breeding pair for the other sites). AOB counts were higher than the IND counts at all six colonies where both methods were used. Previous Orkney Atlantic Puffin population estimates of breeding pairs were mostly based on counts of individuals on land (INDL) made during late incubation and chick rearing. While caution must be used when comparing INDL counts between years the results suggest a decline in line with studies of other Northern Isles colonies.


The Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica (hereafter ‘Puffin’) is a rocky crevice and burrow nesting seabird, whose range is restricted to the cold waters of the North Atlantic (Harris & Wanless 2011). Due to the Puffins’ nesting habits, often in remote or inaccessible locations, accurately determining their population size is difficult. Since 2016 the species has been placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of species vulnerable to global extinction (BirdLife International 2016), and has been classified as a red-listed Bird of Conservation Concern in the UK (Eaton et al. 2015). Current threats to Puffin populations include introduced predators such as cats and rats; environmental pollution; and declining sandeel Ammodytes sp stocks due to competition with industrial fisheries (Harris & Wanless 2011) and as a result of climate change (summarised by Heath et al. 2009). National seabird counts are important for assessing the status of the UK’s internationally important seabirds, identifying large-scale changes in their populations and assisting in informing of marine planning.

The Seabird 2000 census (1998–2002; Mitchell et al. 2004) estimated the Puffin population in the UK and Ireland to be 580,700 breeding pairs, approximately 10% of the world population, of which 61,758 pairs bred on Orkney. Excluding Sule Skerry, which held 96% of the Orkney population, the Seabird 2000 count for Puffins on Orkney was 3% lower than the first national seabird census, Operation Seafarer, in 1969–1970 (Cramp et al. 1974) and 11% higher than the Seabird Colony Register census in 1985–1988 (Lloyd et al. 1991). Since the Seabird 2000 survey, only sporadic counts have been made of Puffins in Orkney, at a small number of sites. This paper reports on a single-season survey of all known Orkney colonies, except Sule Skerry.


We thank A. Leitch, S. Money, A. Phillips, S. Sankey and M. Wilson at Orkney’s RPSB office for their advice and logistical help during the census period. The work would not be possible without the various boatmen helping us access the islands and the kind landowners that allowed the team access to their islands. We also thank two anonymous reviewers that provided helpful comments on the manuscript.


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