Britain’s great seabird colonies are normally situated on remote offshore islands, inaccessible to all but the most hardened research scientist prepared to endure a treacherous crossing across turbulent seas to the likes of St Kilda, Skomer or Bass Rock. However, the journey to see another of these great seabird colonies requires somewhat reduced navigational skills other than traversing the commuter traffic and speed cameras along the A675!

Bolton Sailing Club members frequently enquire as to “how are the birds doing?” when they see us “˜conservation types’ skulking around the car park; the answer this year was very well indeed as the colony achieved in 2011 the accolade of becoming the largest Black-headed Gull colony in Britain.

Whilst our gulls are technically “˜seabirds’, they are not the true “˜seagull’ which is a term usually associated with the Herring Gull. Black-headed Gulls are, in fact, the most inland of our gulls with many rarely, if ever, visiting the coast.

Our Black-headed Gulls have bred irregularly on the island, albeit in small numbers, since the 1950’s, but it is only in the last decade that the population at Belmont has increased dramatically to become a very noticeable visual and audible spectacle. Indeed, the sight and sound of a large Black-headed gullery in spring has been described as “˜one of Britain’s great wildlife spectacles’. The growth at Belmont is against the national trend, as most large colonies have declined or disappeared over the last 25 years gaining the species the unenviable “˜amber’ status as a species of conservation concern.

Such has been the increase in numbers at Belmont that following consultation with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (the government advisory body on wildlife) and United Utilities, a relatively new technique in counting seabird colonies was trialled at Belmont in 2011 which involved aerial photography of the colony from a light aircraft. This flight was undertaken on 4th May with the resulting prints subsequently enlarged and the number of incubating birds laboriously counted. The result was a staggering 6738 nests. This figure means that Belmont is of considerable national importance as it now hosts over 5% of the entire UK population and gives the site some protection as it now exceeds the threshold for qualification as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).

In 2011, the gulls were first back in numbers on 24th February when 400 arrived. Numbers grew daily thereafter up to an estimated 12,000 on 29th March. Peak egg-laying was during the third week of April, peak hatching at the latter end of May with the majority of the 10,000+ juveniles fledging in late-June. Whilst 99.9% of the colony are Black-headed Gulls, there are a couple of pairs of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a larger predatory species similar in appearance to the Herring Gull plus a handful of pairs of the rare Mediterranean Gull, another species for which Belmont is nationally important.

Whilst we appreciate that the gulls are not everyone’s favourite bird, we all gain from their presence with the island cut-off trench being excavated for their protection in 2010 and the national importance of the site effectively maintaining the status quo in respect of reservoir management.

The continuing support of sailing club members is very much appreciated and all can help by keeping vigilant as to any unauthorised persons on the island or reservoir shoreline, so please don’t hesitate to call UU staff /wardens if you see anything suspicious – emergency numbers are on the club notice board.

In conclusion, we should all be proud that we share the reservoir with one of Britain’s great wildlife treasures and in light of Belmont’s new national fame, I think a new club pennant is in order!!!

Steve Martin
September 2011