AN RSPB Scotland project to aid conservation efforts for puffins has been awarded £49,800 by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Puffins are one our most recognisable seabirds with their colourful bills and eye markings, but in recent years their numbers across the UK and Europe have plummeted, leading to the species being declared vulnerable to global extinction, with further declines of between 50-79% estimated by 2065.

Warming seas, caused by climate change, affecting puffins’ food sources are thought to be one of the main threats to their numbers. Now, thanks to the HLF grant, an innovative project to help the species will take place this year.

Project Puffin (UK) combines the latest technology with 'citizen science' to tackle three of the biggest challenges hampering conservation efforts – discovering more about what puffins feed their chicks, where they go to find food, and how their numbers are changing.

As over 80% of the British and Irish population of puffins is found in Scotland, much of the project’s work will focus here. Counts will take place at a number of puffin colonies. GPS trackers will also be fitted to puffins at two sites in Scotland. During the summer, these 31 tags will provide information on where parent puffins go to fish to feed their chick. This will then be combined to generate maps of their offshore feeding areas during the tracking, and also detail what conditions they need to feed.

Further information on the diet of puffins will be gathered through the citizen science aspect of the project. Visitors to puffin colonies across the UK and Ireland are asked to take photographs of the birds with fish in their bills, while they are feeding their chicks during June and July.

The project will provide clear guidelines for this to ensure puffins, which are very sensitive to human presence around their burrows, are not disturbed, and so that the photographs provide the most useful data possible. An online portal will be set up to submit the photographs to; which will build a picture of what the chicks are being fed.

Ellie Owen, who leads on the RSPB’s seabird tracking work in the UK, said: “Puffins are wonderful birds that are in desperate need of help to ensure the long term survival of the species here. We’re immensely grateful to HLF for funding this vital work.

“Across the country there is great affection for these birds and this project will give people the chance to get involved with the work being done to save them. The project’s webpage will feature regular video blog updates from the team, people will be able to see where puffins have been tracked to, what information has been gathered on what they are eating, follow the stories of individual birds, and hear first hand experiences from our puffin counters.

“In the future we expect the project data will advise government on the best ways to protect puffins at sea," she said. "RSPB Scotland is doing all it can to conserve this species and this project is crucial to our ongoing effort to turn puffin fortunes around.”

Head of HLF Scotland, Lucy Casot, said: “Our natural heritage is a most precious resource and, thanks to National Lottery players, HLF grants have helped to protect an amazing range of landscapes, habitats, and species of plants and animals. HLF is delighted to support Project Puffin that will stimulate people’s interest in the natural world and so help them conserve it for future generations.”