The Little Tern Sternula albifrons is the second rarest of all the seabirds in Wales, breeding at only one main site regularly. It is also the smallest of the five terns that breed in the UK but they more than make up for their diminutive size with chattering calls that carry on the air and a charming swallow-like flight, indeed the translation of the Welsh name for the bird, 'Mor Wennol Fach', is 'little sea-swallow'.
For decades now, the coastal area of Gronant in Denbighshire, has been synonymous with Little Terns amongst nature enthusiasts and birders. This dainty seabird has faithfully nested on the beach here going back at least 60 years. Before that, about 120 years ago, they nested a little down the coast at the Point of Ayr where there were up to 200 pairs. At this time, colonies of the species were reportedly so numerous around Wales they weren't all counted for the history books.
Disturbance during the 20th century, caused by several factors, combined to cause a drastic decline of the species, to the extent that Gronant is nowadays the only colony in Wales. The causes were: an increasing number of people with the time and money to go on holiday to the beach, reduction in nesting habitat through development and hard coastal flood defences plus an increase in predator populations such as Foxes and Badgers.
In the 60's the Clwyd Naturalists Society volunteered to help the terns at a time when there was literally just a pair or two left. Had it not been for this generous donation of time by a few individuals there would likely be no Little Terns left in Wales. Numbers of terns started to gradually rise and the RSPB took over the management of the colony in the mid 1970's. They managed the colony for the next 40 summers, conducting round-the-clock wardening and provisioning the site with electric fencing, helping the numbers grow to over 80 pairs.
Denbighshire Countryside Services (DCS) took over management of the site in the mid 2000's and continue that role to this day, employing a team of three seasonal wardens who are supported by a veritable legion of enthusiastic volunteers. In 2017 Gronant became the largest colony in the UK for the first time and as of the end of the 2018 season 174 pairs nested, fledging 192 youngsters.
The Gronant colony was one of 20 sites that benefited from EU LIFE+ project funding for five years to stem the decline of the species in the UK. At the start of this period Little Terns had declined to less than 2000 pairs. Running from 2014-2018, the project has funded an engagementofficer and provided the site with plenty of equipment to continue protecting the terns.
As part of the LIFE+ project, there was a move to involve the local communities because volunteer hours had declined. So the North Wales Little Tern Group (NWLTG) was formed and now has over 200 members. This community group is proud to be figure-headed by no less than Iolo Williams, TV presenter and conservationist. The assistance offered by the tern group to the work of DCS has allowed the running of the colony to go from strength-to-strength with a notable 2000 volunteer hours donated during the 2018 season alone. This is undoubtedly supporting the continuing increases in the numbers of birds breeding at Gronant.
The NWLTG has also benefited from grants from a number of sources in recent years including the Welsh Ornithological Society and the Big Lottery Fund which has allowed advancements to take place with a new visitor centre, monitoring hide, diversionary feeding of predators, optical equipment and live-streaming amongst other things. These improvements will help to study the birds and allow visitors to revel in the spectacle of the colony too.
A summary of the Little Terns at Gronant can't conclude without mentioning the involvement of the Merseyside Ringing Group, led by Professor David Norman, who for the last 36 years has been visiting the colony every summer to ring chicks. With funding from the LIFE+ project, colour-ringing has taken place recently which allows the rings to be read from a distance and has led to a substantial rise of re-sightings. Before colour-ringing, the Little Tern was the least studied of all the British tern species but this is starting to change and some fascinating information is being discovered about the lives of these wonderful creatures. For example, in 2018 a new world record was set when David caught a 25 year-old, a bird he had ringed himself as a chick. Continuing the research into the birds, plans are afoot to track some of their migrations during 2019 and 2020.
The success of this colony has relied on many factors but it always comes back to one thing in particular; involvement of people, whether they be staff, experts, scientists, volunteers or the public. If you would like to get involved, you can follow the progress of the breeding season by following the NWLTG on social media, by joining the group for just £5 a year for adults and £3 for children, or by heading down to Gronant (park at the free Shore Road Car Park) to spend a little time helping the terns as part of a friendly team, there's never a dull moment.
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