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National Nature Reserves- Part 2- St. Abbs Head

As a child I was fortunate to be able to call the village of St. Abbs my 'summer home'. For 10 consecutive years I spent at least 2 weeks enjoying this little village and the surrounding area. Set on the coastline of the Scottish Borders , St Abbs is a picturesque fishing village with welcoming people and glorious sea views. A place completely influenced by the elements.

St Abbs Head National Nature Reserve

Within view, but just a short walk away from the village, is one of Scotlands most dramatic National Nature Reserves (for a full description of what NNR's are see here) owned and managed in the main by the National Trust for Scotland.

St Abbs Head NNR is designated by UK and EU Law as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Area for Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Area (SPA). It's main interest is the geological and geomorphological features and the species of conservation concern are the thousands of  breeding seabirds which make the towering sea cliffs their home.  Those listed as being of particular importance are; guillemots (Uria aalge), razorbills (Alca torda), kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), herring gulls (Larus argentatus) and shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis). You can also expect to see gannets a range of other gulls and fulmars. Historically the odd puffin has also been noted.


Razorbills are in the auk family, the same as guillemots and puffins. The RSPB estimate there to be at least 130,000 breeding razorbills in the UK.  Although they have short wings under water these birds take on a new life. They are perfectly adapted for deep sea diving to catch their fish prey at depths of 25m or more.

Evidence from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee Seabird Monitoring Programme shows that across the UK the razorbill population has increased by 32% between 1998/2002 and 2015.


Kittiwakes, although similar in appearance to other  common gulls are much more dainty in stature. They are also easily distinguished by their vocal and easily identifiable call of 'kittiwaaaake kittiwaaaake'.

Unfortunately the UK’s kittiwake population has declined by 70% since 1986 because of falling breeding success and adult survival (Hayhow et al., 2017). Climate change has reduced the availability of the sandeels they rely upon in the breeding season.

Added to that pressure I witnessed a rather harrowing moment as a kittiwake nest was robbed by a crow. After scaring the adults off the nest, the corvid was able to gobble up the protein rich eggs as seen in the sequence below.


Again in the auk family, guillemots are in amongst the razorbills at St Abbs Head but are more numerous. They can be identified by their narrower bill and smaller stature. Some also sport a white eye stripe. As with razorbills, across the UK guillemots have experienced an increase in their breeding numbers of 5% between 1998/2002 and 2015 (JNCC, 2015).


Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) are the equivalent of an albatross in the Northern hemisphere. The most elegant of fliers they glide effortless above the water and around the sea stacks. In the petrel and shearwater family they have a 'tube nose' which is prominent on top of their bill. They are also known to be monogamous and form long term bonds!

Worrying declines of seabirds

Although some of the species of seabirds at St Abbs have shown an increase in their UK populations the situation is not that rosey in general for marine life. The most recent State of the UK's Birds highlights the trends in breeding seabirds. The UK seabird indicator stands at 22% below the 1986 baseline, with most of this decline occurring since the mid-2000s. Climate change, a reduction in fish stocks and a combination of the two are key reasons for the decline in the UK's seabirds.

Visiting St Abbs Head

For me, returning to St Abbs fills me with a glowing nostalgic feeling but anyone and everyone would be impressed by both the magnificent sea cliffs and the full sensory (the noise, the sights and the smells!) experience of being within a seabird colony.

There is parking at the base of the headland with a visitor centre and tasty cafe. The walk then takes you up and along one of the most spectacular bits of coastline in Scotland. Visit here for more information on Scotland’s National Nature Reserves. Visit here for more information on visiting St Abbs Head.

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