The lost tern colony at Dungeness

Windy, rainy, sleety then snowy, all delivered with a dollop of cold. Not a day for venturing outside - something that I would have done once upon a time, all wrapped up but still getting wet, with my optics steaming-up all in the quest for my birding fix. Today that birding fix will come via the medium of nostalgia - when I say nostalgia, it isn't my nostalgia but that of other people's memories, committed to paper in the early 20th century (yes kids, even before I was born!)

Looking east from beneath the beach ridge
Taken some way inland, looking towards the sea
The two images above show the 'west beach' at Dungeness, which today shares part of its great expanse with a nuclear power station. You can still walk along the top of the beach from the peninsula's point to Dengemarsh Gully, which is a crude indicator of the extent of the 'west beach'. This area of shingle also runs inland for a good mile or so and was once a wilderness - apart from fishermen, coastguards and the odd birdwatcher is was barely explored. And it was here that a vast seabird colony could once be found...

Apart from the power station compound, I have wandered all over this area and have been captured by its wildness and 'other-worldly' feeling. It is a place of big skies. Although the seabird colony disappeared long before I was born, I can mourn its loss and imagine what once was here. Ticehurst reported that large numbers of Common Terns bred on the beach in the late 19th century but had 'declined to 200 pairs by 1907'. By the 1930s the population had risen once more, concentrated in a single colony that stretched for 1500m and to a depth of 200m - this was estimated to hold 1500 pairs - a remarkable sight. Military disturbance during 1939-45 moved the birds on, not to return in such numbers to the open shingle.

Jack Tart, a local fisherman and part-time RSPB watcher, kept an eye on the terns during their heyday, and reported back the number of birds present in the colony for 1933: Common Gull (5 pairs), Lesser Black-backed Gull (5 pairs), Little Tern (40 pairs), Common Tern (1000 pairs), Arctic Tern (40 pairs - although there has been doubt cast on this count in recent years), Black-headed Gull (500 pairs) and Herring Gull (400 pairs). If this lot tried to nest here in 2018 the eggs and chicks would be decimated by the number of Carrion Crows, foxes and badgers in the area. If you consider that he also reported 16-18 pairs of Stone Curlew and four pairs of Kentish Plover, you get some idea of what a wonderful place the west beach was.

In more recent times the gravel pits further inland became the place of choice for nesting terns, but not in the high numbers of the 1930s, although Sandwich Tern, that was scarce back then, became much commoner. Roseate Terns have never been anything other than erratic and scarce breeders over the years, and they too swapped the beach for the gravel pits, although they have not bred at Dungeness for a considerable time. Today, high water levels and an increase in predators have seen low numbers attempting to breed, with very poor results. Island re-profiling that was carried out on the pits in 2017 will hopefully rectify this situation. Little Terns hung on for longer, with 100 pairs being recorded in 1943 and 1950 before the building of the power station and the increased human footprint became too much for them. They last bred in 1976.

So the next time you venture down to Dungeness and look out towards the power station, cast your eyes over that empty, largely bird-less shingle - then imagine the blizzard of wings and the cacophony of sound that once used to hold domain over that very same beach. I certainly do.


Arjun Dutta said…
That's a lot of birds; Kentish Plovers as well!
Derek Faulkner said…
Unfortunately, lack of rigorous and regular predator controls is one reason why some reserves fail to raise the number of young birds that they are capable of doing. I'm minded of how one rogue badger was allowed to decimate a whole breeding colony of terns and avocets in a Springwatch programme a couple of years ago.
Arjun Dutta said…
I remember that too. I try not to think that one of the main reasons for the electric fencing put up the following year was more because it was seen by thousands on live tv.
Steve Gale said…
Derek and Arjun - for me, the RSPB needs to adopt some of the 'old school' wardening techniques that might not go down well with 'modern' thinking - in other words, controlling predators. A tern colony is more important than a few crows, foxes or, dare I say it, badgers.
Derek Faulkner said…
On some RSPB reserves Steve, that is the case, but far too often they spend more time being critical of old fashioned shooting estates that do just that, rather than looking after the birds that they are supposed to be protecting.
Derek Faulkner said…
Sat within 100yds of 144 Whitefronts on The Swale NNR 'safternoon while doing a WEBS count. Lovely sight in the sun. Who needs Hawfinches!
Steve Gale said…
You certainly don't Derek!

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