(Above) Gannet chicks © Vic Froome (below) Gannets © Vic Froome, and Tracking photo © Jenni Godber. Map © AWT
Putting the UK’s largest seabird under surveillance highlights the need for a precautionary approach to development in the English Channel
A new and experimental project was launched today offering an unrivalled insight into the lifecycle of Britain’s largest native seabird, the Northern Gannet. The project entitled ‘Track a Gannet’, or T.A.G. for short, is jointly run by Britain’s smallest Wildlife Trust, the Alderney Wildlife Trust (AWT), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the University of Liverpool, and has enabled Gannets to be put under surveillance using the 3G mobile network. The project is unique in that:
- T.A.G is the first time 3G live tracking has been used on seabirds and is a world first for ‘real time’ tracking of a seabird being available to the general public.
- T.A.G is delivering daily discoveries into the vital importance of the English Channel to these birds as they fish over vast areas. The maximum track for a single trip recorded since the tags were enabled on the 8th June is in excess 800km.
- For the first time real time tracking has been combined with a live streaming webcam www.teachingthroughnature.co.uk/t-a-g
- Data collected from the tags will be vitally important in understanding the potential impacts of off-shore developments in the English Channel and will be used to respond to a variety of development issues.
Alderney’s Gannet populations are the most southerly in the British Isles
Northern Gannets are identified as an ‘Amber listed’ in the Birds of Conservation Concern 3 (Joint Nature Conservation Committee), and perhaps one of the most charismatic of British breeding seabirds.
Simon King OBE, The Wildlife Trusts’ President, said: “In the last decade webcams and television have brought the drama of ‘the bird nest’ into millions of people’s homes. At the same time GPS tagging has helped scientists to understand so much more about what birds get up to, from where they forage to how they travel thousands of miles on migration.
“What’s being done in Alderney uniquely combines both technologies and more. By using real time 3G mobile transmitters T.A.G gives a stunningly detailed look into the life of perhaps the most extra-ordinary British bird, the northern gannet. This project gives everyone a chance to follow the unfolding soap opera of life within a gannetry and then to follow the birds as they leave their nests, travelling hundreds of kilometres to forage for their chicks. It really is incredible!”
Joan Edwards, The Wildlife Trusts’ Head of Living Seas, says: “Tagging these magnificent birds is already showing that if you build a wind farm in English waters it might have an effect on the birds of Alderney and other far-flung breeding colonies. Animals move big distances and we need to take this into account when off-shore developments are planned.”
The project gives everyone a chance to follow the unfolding soap opera of life within a gannetry and to join in the discovery of finding out where these birds go when they leave their nests travelling across the Channel foraging for their chicks.
The tracking is done by fitting prototype GPS tags which have been developed by the BTO and the Universities of East Anglia and Lisbon and transmit data in near real time. The devices were attached to the tail feathers of 20 Northern Gannets by a team from the AWT, BTO and University of Liverpool, and connect the birds with any 3G enabled mobile network they come into contact with, at which time the tags download the track of where the birds have been.
The tags transmit the flight paths of the Gannets to the www.teachingthroughnature.co.uk/t-a-g website which updates every time a bird comes within range of the European 3G network. The website offers the most ‘real time’ form of monitoring ever attempted on birds at sea.
Watching the nesting Gannet colony LIVE online
The same webpage also has a live streaming GannetCam webcam which is situated on the Ortac Gannet colony. The webcam enables both scientists and the public to get a much more detailed glimpse into the birds’ behaviour within their colony. In fact, several of the birds with tags on are nesting in front of the camera and can therefore be followed live both through the transmitters and the camera.
The Ortac birds already have small chicks which will soon be big enough to see on the webcam and it is these chicks the Gannets are feeding on their long foraging trips. It is hoped that people watching this GannetCam will be able to follow the birds’ progress as they raise their single chicks until they fledge in September. If tags survive until the chicks have left it is hoped that the project will yield the first live streaming data from Gannets heading to their wintering grounds.
Protecting the Gannets for the future
The Island of Alderney hosts a number of important seabird colonies in the English Channel and with 6 wind* and 3 tidal** developments proposed in waters surrounding the island under consideration by UK, French and Alderney governments, the Alderney Wildlife Trust is increasingly concerned about the need to understand and protect its seabirds. Our vision for ‘Living Seas’ includes ensuring development in our seas is ecologically sustainable and it is only with increased knowledge of the marine environment that this can be fully achieved.
T.A.G. is an AWT co-ordinated project which has been jointly supported by the University of Liverpool, the Alderney Commission for Renewable Energy (ACRE), local businesses and members of the general public who have sponsored and named birds themselves.
Alderney Wildlife Trust Manager Roland Gauvain said: “Seabird populations in the Channel have declined dramatically in the last 50 years, with the Gannets one of the few successful species. Alderney prides itself in having some of the most significant seabird populations left in the region. The Trust has worked alongside its partners to setup the T.A.G project to help Alderney better understand the unique dynamics of its stunning wildlife, in order that it can work to protect them into the future.”
Phil Atkinson, Head of International Research at the BTO said: “The marine environment and seabirds as top predators are under threat from a range of factors ranging from climate change, fishing practice and renewable energy generation. BTO's next generation tracking devices give us rare look at the lives of these amazing animals and will give a real insight into how these threats will affect their populations.”
Dr Jonathan A Green, Senior Lecturer in Marine Biology at Liverpool University said: "Marine Renewable Energy Installations have the capacity to make a major contribution to meeting CO2 emissions targets, but the impacts of these installations to biodiversity are still very uncertain.
Our work at Alderney is one of a very small number studies which is trying to make an assessment of how seabirds might be impacted, whether positively or negatively. We are very excited to be working in partnership with AWT, ACRE and the BTO. Using the very latest generation of tracking devices we can gain unparalleled insight into the behaviour and ecology of these fascinating seabirds."
Watch the webcam
Watch the Gannet webcam live
Contact: Roland Gauvain, Alderney Wildlife Trust Manager: Tel:+44 (0) 1481 822935
Mob: +44 (0) 7781 415468 Email:
Alderney - the 3rd largest of the Channel Islands and home to the most southerly gannetries in the British Isles, Les Etacs (approx. 5,500 pairs) and Ortac (approx. 2,200 pairs). The island has long recognised the economic and cultural importance of its seabirds, creating the first seabird sanctuary in the Channel Islands as far back as 1986 and designating the area of water around its main colonies as an internationally-important wetland (Ramsar) site in 2005.
Ortac - the smaller of Alderney’s 2 gannetries Ortac is a 70ft high dome of sandstone and was the natural choice for siting of the project as, though it is further from mainland Alderney at 3 miles off shore, it is clear of sheltering cliffs and therefore has a stronger mobile signal to allow the tags to update and a direct line of site for microwave transmission for the GannetCam .
Developments - At the time of publishing, there are understood to be 2 UK and 4 French offshore wind farm, and 3 tidal farm proposals in Channel Waters, all at various stages of proposal and most of which are well within the foraging range of Alderney’s Gannets. During the first 48 hours of operation, 3 Gannets passed by or within areas where developments are proposed, on both sides of the Channel.
The AWT, as the founder of the T.A.G project, supports the need for a detailed understanding of the region’s marine ecology prior to the commencement of these new developments, in order that impacts, both positive and negative, can be identified quickly and responded to. This is of especial importance given other proposed impacts likely to take place in the next 5 years, including changes in EU policy on discarding of fish caught at sea.
Gannets (Morus bassanus) - Gannets are the largest Breading Seabird in European Waters. They build nests on steep rocky coasts or offshore stacks and congregate in large colonies. Adults are 85-97cm long and have a wingspan of 170-192cm and as such are the largest European breeding seabird at an average of 3kg in weight. They are mostly white in colour, with black wing-tips, yellow head and bright blue eye. They are powerful hunters entering the water at high speed, over 100kmph, an action known as plunge diving. They protect themselves from the impact with the water by folding their wings against their body and by closing a third (opaque) eyelid to protect their eye. The average life span of a Northern Gannet is about 17 years but the record for the oldest is 37 years, and recently a record for a bird born in 1983 on the Les Etacs colony in Alderney was returned from the Netherlands.
Gannets breed on Alderney from February till late September and are the longest staying of all migratory bird species to visit the island.
Status in Alderney: Very Common Breeder Internationally important population
Status in UK (RSPB Criteria): Amber
Worldwide Status (IUCN Red List and Population Trend): Least Concern; Increasing
How to see Alderney’s Gannets For anyone wanting to see both the Gannets and the tags first hand they can visit the new website www.teachingthroughnature.co.uk/t-a-g for a Live minute by minute snapshot into these majestic birds’ lives.
The AWT also works closely with www.visitalderney.com to enable visitors to Alderney to get out and see Alderney’s seabirds, especially the Gannets, but also the largest breeding Puffin population in the English Channel proper.
Getting to Alderney by:
Aurigny Air Services from Southampton, Guernsey or Jersey (via Guernsey) +44(0)1481 822886 www.aurigny.com
Bumblebee Boat Cruises from Guernsey +44 (0)1481 720200 www.bumblebee.gg
Lady Maris ll from Cherbourg and Guernsey +44 (0)7781 100829
Manche lles Express from France, Guernsey and Jersey www.manche-iles-express.com
For more information and recent updates regarding air and sea links, please visit the official Alderney website www.visitalderney.com, section ‘How to get Here’.