The Wildlife Trusts has published its Marine Review for 2021, revealing both highs and lows for our coastal wildlife.
Compiled by the Trusts’ Living Seas teams, who are the eyes and ears of the UK coast, the report looks back at some memorable moments from the past year.
In good news, strong numbers of humpback whales were spotted around the UK. Until recently, sightings were extremely rare, but more than 75 sightings have been recorded since 2019 by Cornwall Wildlife Trust alone, showing how populations are recovering after bans on commercial whaling.
Two orcas, normally resident off the Hebrides, were spotted off the coast of Cornwall, and also Dover in Kent earlier this year. It was the most southerly sighting of members of this unique group of killer whales in over 50 years.
In April, a group of 10 white-beaked dolphins were seen off the Blackwater estuary – the first time the creatures have been seen in Essex since 2000. They are normally found in subarctic waters of the North Atlantic, and it’s very rare to see them in the southeast of the UK.
Bottlenose dolphins on Scotland’s east coast have also expanded their range in recent years, with two now resident at Weymouth Bay, Dorset, and some photographed as far away as Denmark.
Marine creatures from far-flung places made unusual appearances around our coasts too, providing further evidence of the impacts of climate change on our seas.
An arctic walrus nicknamed Wally captured the nation’s hearts as his progress was tracked around the UK. People sported Where’s Wally costumes, while The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust made a pontoon so he could rest. A second walrus was seen off Northumberland and around the Shetland Isles.
In October, Cornwall Wildlife Trust reported that a pufferfish was found on Downderry beach – the first time one had washed up in 20 years – while the ringneck blenny, a small fish found in the Eastern Atlantic or Mediterranean Sea, is now common in the Fal estuary, Cornwall, with signs of breeding in the English Channel.
The final release of sand lizards to Lancashire’s sand dunes took place in August, marking the end of a four-year reintroduction campaign. Since 2018, Lancashire Wildlife Trust has released approximately 400 hatchlings. England’s rarest lizard disappeared in the 1960s due to habitat loss, but recordings of spent eggshells and juveniles shows the population is on the up.
A project to bring back puffins to the Isle of Man led by Manx Wildlife Trust reached a milestone in 2021 when a pair of puffins were seen for the first time in over 30 years. Rats were eradicated and model puffins were used to encourage the birds to return and wardens are hopeful that more will arrive in 2022. The UK has 10% of the world’s Atlantic puffins, which are listed as a vulnerable species.
The Wildlife Trusts have also been busy restoring lost seagrass habitats – over 90% have disappeared in the UK – by transplanting seeds and plants to areas where seagrass once formerly thrived. These habitats provide shelter and sustenance for wildlife – including two species of seahorse – and are responsible for around 15% of carbon absorbed by the ocean.
In March, a new byelaw was established to stop harmful fishing methods off the coast of Sussex. Fishing with bottom-towed gear is now prohibited across 304 km2 of seabed, allowing delicate habitats to recover and kelp forests to be rebuilt, providing feeding and nursery grounds for mollusks, shrimp, and cuttlefish.
Highland dancer video © Lyn Murdoch
Cumbria Wildlife Trust spotted a highland dancer on Walney Island – less than 400 of these large sea slugs have been recorded in the UK and Ireland in 100 years – and adders were seen paddling in the waves on Wembury Beach, Dorset, and off Anglesey, causing great commotion as they’re normally found on land.
Ulster Wildlife’s Sea Deep project recorded its first juvenile flapper skate, the world’s largest skate, and dubbed the ‘manta ray of the Atlantic’ – while native oysters have returned to Belfast Lough for the first time in 100 years.
Although 2021 was good news for many native species, storms wreaked havoc for others. Hundreds of starfish, seal pups and other creatures were washed up after Storm Arwen, while a critically endangered Kemp’s Ridley turtle beached in Flintshire, more than 4,000 miles from where they are normally found in the Gulf of Mexico.
People’s recreational activities also made it harder for marine life to cope this year. Cornwall Wildlife Trust reported that disturbances of marine wildlife have tripled since 2014, with an increase of jet skis and motorboats a major cause for concern.
Beach-nesting birds had a hard time too on British shores due to disturbances from dogs and people. However, at Colne Point in Essex, the Share Our Shores initiative roped-off parts of the beach and were later able to report successful breeding of beach-nesting birds including ringed plover, oystercatchers, and little terns.
Main image: Humpback whale © Gillian Day
Concise Coastal Bird Guide
Wild Republic Puffin with sound
16 x 11 x 12 centimetres