Rockabill, a small island off the Coast of Dublin, is the most important breeding site of the Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii) in Europe. It is strategically important for the survival of this species, supporting 82% of Irish, UK and French breeding pairs and 47% of the entire European population, including the Azores. Following its dramatic decline in the 1970s and 1980s, the species was listed as globally threatened, signalling the need for urgent conservation action. The Roseate Tern is a priority species for action under the EU Birds Directive and LIFE fund.
In 1988, Rockabill Island was designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) primarily in recognition of its importance for the conservation of the Roseate Tern. The following year, the Rockabill Roseate Tern Conservation Project was initiated. This is led by BirdWatch Ireland, in partnership with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and represents a long-term continuing collaborative commitment for conservation.
From the outset, prevention of disturbance of the tern through continuous wardening has been the priority. Through these efforts, including communication with local communities, the island is accepted as a safe, disturbance-free, refuge for the seabirds. This allowed more time to be allocated to managing the breeding habitat, ensuring the best possible conditions for successful nesting.
Building on earlier success, BirdWatch Ireland has continued over the last five years to protect and monitor breeding seabirds on Rockabill Island, manage their nesting habitat and minimise disturbance, leading to further recovery of the population. The initiative also involves researching the breeding ecology and population demographics of the populations, and strengthening the knowledge to improve future conservation actions for this species.
The key focus has been on ensuring that the habitat is optimal for successful breeding. Overgrown vegetation has been removed on an annual basis to maximise the nesting area available for the Roseate Terns. The birds have taken to using nest boxes that have been deployed at high densities along the terraces of the island. Breeding Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) have also benefitted from habitat management on the island. Breeding terns are very vocal and one can usually hear when 'things are going wrong'. The full-time presence of wardens throughout the summer season has ensured early detection of problems, which are quickly resolved.
These conservation actions have resulted in a remarkable increase in both Roseate and Common Tern populations on Rockabill. At the start of the initiative in 1989 the island was supporting just 152 pairs of roseate terns and 108 pairs of common terns. By 2017, this has increased exponentially to 1597 pairs of Roseate Terns and 2085 pairs of Common Terns.
The success of the recovery on Rockabill is also providing a source population of breeding birds for other colonies in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. This is all thanks to long-term dedication to conservation action led by BirdWatch Ireland on the island over the past 29 years.