Skip to main content

Eider Duck: Marine Conservation Zones

Volume 636: debated on Friday 23 February 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Nigel Adams.)

After all that excitement, I hope now to take the House in a slightly different direction.

We might think of St Francis of Assisi as the original saintly animal conservationist but, although St Francis preached to the birds, Northumberland’s own St Cuthbert is popularly believed to have taken steps way back in the 8th century to ensure that some of Northumberland’s eider duck population enjoyed his personal protection.

There are a number of animal stories attached to St Cuthbert. A famous episode in Bede’s “Life of St Cuthbert” involved Cuthbert standing neck-deep in the sea and praying, after which two otters came and dried his feet with their fur. The animals were rewarded with a blessing and went on their way.

Perhaps the animal most associated with St Cuthbert today is the eider duck, or Cuddy duck—Cuddy being a shortened form of Cuthbert. The first we hear of their association with Cuthbert is in the 12th century, some 500 years after his death. The monks had a small cell and chapel on the island of Inner Farne, one of the beautiful Farne islands in my constituency that are now visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. The monks shared this island home with a large nesting population of eider ducks. Cuthbert is said to have tamed the ducks so well that they would nest everywhere, even next to the chapel altar, without fear.

Cuthbert also placed the ducks under his protective grace, so that no one should eat or even disturb them. Every spring, on the many Farne islands and on Coquet island, all in my constituency, Mrs Eider and her babies can be found snuggled into a shallow hole in the ground, safe from predators thanks to island life and the careful and diligent work of the RSPB and the National Trust rangers who look after the island reserves.

The ducks cannot have remained entirely undisturbed by the monks, as we note the appearance in inventories made of Cuthbert’s shrine at Durham of cushions made of “Cuthbert doun”—downy feathers from St Cuthbert’s eider ducks on Farne. Perhaps the sacred purpose of the plucked feathers excused the necessary disturbance to the ducks. Certainly, other monks who had eaten or harassed Farne’s eiders were struck down by Cuthbert’s curse, with one even dying after mocking the saint’s protection.

So it is that the association with place is very strong and that I have the great privilege of being the eider duck’s advocate today. In St Cuthbert’s time, only the Cuddy ducks of Inner Farne were protected; the eider ducks on the other islands were not protected. Today, in modern protection terms, many other species of our spectacular island birdlife are protected but not the eider duck.

The creation in recent years of 50 marine conservation zones by this Government, with more planned, would no doubt receive the approval of St Cuthbert, as the delineated zones along my constituency’s unique coastline provide protection for wildlife and our marine environment. The MCZs have been created to protect important marine wildlife and their habitats, and they form part of what is now popularly known as the “blue belt.”

Our spectacular Northumberland coast is teeming with wildlife, from seabirds as rare as the roseate tern to my personal favourite, the delightful and slightly ungainly puffin—she flies like a fast jet—to porpoises, grey seals, dolphins and even the occasional whale. And that is just what can be glimpsed from above the water. Below the surface, Northumberland’s blue belt is a bustling city of crustaceans and molluscs, alongside an extensive and healthy fish population.

It is wonderful that the creation of MCZs means that our rich and diverse sea life will now be further protected from the effects of dredging and trawling, so that many more future generations can enjoy, explore and learn about nature’s world under the waves. But St Cuthbert would be disappointed to discover that within the Coquet to St Mary’s MCZ lies the uninhabited—by humans, at least—Coquet island, which does not yet include the eider duck among its protected species.

The common eider is a large sea-duck that is distributed over the northern coasts of Europe, North America and all the way to eastern Siberia. It breeds in Arctic and some northern temperate regions, but winters farther south, in temperate zones, when it can form large flocks on coastal waters. Our Cuddy duck can fly at speeds of up to 70 mph. The eider’s nest is built close to the sea and is lined with eiderdown, plucked from the female’s breast. This soft and warm lining has long been harvested for filling pillows and quilts. Although eiderdown pillows or quilts are now a rarity, eiderdown harvesting continues and is sustainable, when it is done after the ducklings leave the nest with no harm to the birds.

The common eider is both the largest of the four eider species and the largest duck found in Europe and in North America. The male is unmistakable, with his black and white plumage and green nape. The female is a brown bird, but can still be readily distinguished from all ducks. This species dives for crustaceans and molluscs, with mussels being a favourite food. The eider will eat mussels by swallowing them whole; the shells are then crushed in the gizzard and excreted. When eating a crab, the eider will remove all its claws and legs, and then eat the body in a similar fashion.

Eiders are colonial breeders. They nest on coastal islands in colonies ranging in size from as little as 100 to up to 10,000 in some parts of the world. Female eiders frequently exhibit a high degree of natal philopatry, returning to breed on the same island where they were hatched. This can lead to a high degree of relatedness between individuals nesting on the same island, so I feel that those eider ducks from Coquet island and from the Farnes are very much part of our family. Breeding eider fly from Coquet island and across the sea to use the mudflats adjacent to the Coquet estuary as a feeding ground for their young. Eider is a true sea-duck and is rarely found away from coasts. Throughout the year, breeding eider from Coquet feed in the intertidal zone of the Northumberland Shore SSSI—site of special scientific interest—and later in the year non-breeding eider also migrate here to feed during the winter months.

Although sea-bird and sea-duck colonies benefit from protection provided by the SSSI, these sites provide protection only on land. The site was designated in 1980 for about 500 nests, but by 2015 estimates of this number had dropped to about 300. The site is now being managed to address this long-term decline. The area is also an important winter feeding area for migrating eider from across Europe. Eider is a species listed as “near threatened” globally and “vulnerable” in Europe by the International Union for Conservation of Nature; a vulnerable species is one that has been categorised by the IUCN as likely to become endangered unless the circumstances that are threatening its survival and reproduction improve. These declines are thought to be driven by a range of threats, including the overharvesting of aquatic resources, pollution, disturbance and hunting.

In Britain, eider are currently classified as “amber” on the birds of conservation concern in the United Kingdom list. Disturbance is the primary threat to our eider; it results in a loss of access to feeding areas and increased predation at breeding grounds. There are several studies considering the common eider in relation to human disturbances. The study of the effects of human disturbance at breeding sites found that when disturbed, some or all ducklings and sometimes the mother dived, and the breeding colony was temporarily dispersed. During this disturbance, attacks by predators such as greater black-backed gulls and herring gulls increased. The study found that predation of chicks by gull attacks was more than 200 times higher on disturbed breeding colonies than on undisturbed ones, and this resulted in significantly lower numbers of chicks fledging each year.

The excellent Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 seeks to address management issues, such as disturbance, by creating marine conservation zones—MCZs. MCZs can be used to protect biodiversity in UK seas and are intended to allow a wide spectrum of protection. They form a key part of a wider suite of management measures including marine planning, ecosystem objectives, licensing and fisheries management. However, the designation of protected areas is the best means of securing the necessary commitment from marine managers and sea users to ensure that activities can be restricted, where necessary, to protect biodiversity.

Although the area used by eider around Coquet island and the Northumbria coast overlaps with an existing European marine site—EMS—eider do not receive any legal protection from the existing designation within the new MCZ. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has asked the Government to add the eider duck to the Coquet to St Mary’s MCZ list of protected species. Our friendly Cuddies reside within this zone all year round, yet are not covered by the existing legislation. Our Northumberland coast’s resident eider populations have continued to decline steadily over the last few decades, so protection of their sea-based feeding and wintering habitats is essential.

Across Europe, hunting, pollution and land disturbance means that other colonies are also in decline. The Coquet island colony is therefore all the more in need of protection. In so doing, the Minister would be allowing protection and management for these special birds to be put into place. Adding eider to the existing Coquet to St. Mary’s MCZ would enable proactive management to reduce and manage the threat of disturbance. The management requirements would be to carry out formal disturbance monitoring, management and enforcement, where necessary, such as by imposing speed restrictions or limiting boat traffic in sensitive areas.

The publication of codes of conduct increases public awareness of species of interest in an area, which may increase local tourism with benefits to the economy, so the proposals should include education and awareness of conduct in the MCZ.

Are the Government willing to include eider ducks in the Coquet to St Mary’s MCZ? Will they go further and commit to giving them protection across the Farne islands, too, as these unique islands and surrounding waters become incorporated into the MCZ as it reaches further north in the months ahead? I understand that informal conversations are already taking place and urge the Minister to drive them forward, so that my constituency’s extraordinary coastline and her feathered residents, whom I consider constituents worthy of representation just as much as the human ones, can live in a place of safety and protection and so that their long-term future is assured.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) on securing this debate. It is a nice, uplifting debate on which to finish after several rather fractious points of order during the last private Member’s Bill debate.

As my hon. Friend said, the common eider ranges widely across the Arctic and northern Europe, but is listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. As she pointed out, the eider duck has a long-established association with the county of Northumberland, where it was the subject of one of the first acts of conservation. She said that it was in the 8th century that St Cuthbert took action to protect this wonderful species, but I am reliably informed by my Department that St Cuthbert is recorded to have established protection laws—the very first wildlife protection laws we had in this country—for Northumberland’s eiders as early as 676. That shows how important a species it is.

As St Cuthbert is the patron saint of Northumberland, it was natural that the eider should be chosen as the county’s emblem bird, and eiders are still often called Cuddy ducks in the area, with Cuddy being the familiar form of Cuthbert. A stained-glass window in St Cuthbert’s church in Amble commemorates this long-held association. Around 5,000 eiders—approximately one third of the English eider population—are still to be found in Northumberland.

The collection of eider down for use in quilts is recorded as far back as the 14th century. The practice almost led to the eider’s extinction in the 19th century. These days, the greatest threats to eider ducks are nest predation and the degradation of nesting habitats. Adults can also be disturbed by boat traffic at sea, which disrupts their feeding, as my hon. Friend pointed out. Eider ducks are already protected off the Northumberland coast in the Farne islands and Coquet island sites of special scientific interest, and in the Lindisfarne special protection area. They are also included in other designated sites in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

As a wild bird, common eider are also protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Land-based conservation measures are currently implemented to protect eider colonies on the Coquet and Farne islands. Principal activities involve vegetation management to ensure the continuation of suitable nesting habitat, biosecurity checks, and lethal control measures for rats and gulls, where necessary.

Marine conservation is important to protect our seas, preserve underwater habitats and help sea life to flourish. Oceans are our greatest natural asset and must be protected for the health of our planet and for the prosperity of future generations. In the 25-year environment plan that we published last month, we set out how we will fulfil our ambition to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, building on existing strategies and identifying key areas of focus. We want even cleaner air and water, richer habitats for more wildlife, and an approach to fishing, agriculture and land use that puts the environment first.

Plastic in the seas is of course a hazard for our seabirds. We have regulated for the world’s toughest ban so far against plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products. We must reduce the global reliance on plastics, as well as incentivise the recycling processes to improve waste management, and promote maritime practices that prevent harmful materials from entering the seas.

The UK is at the forefront in establishing marine protected areas. We are committed to delivering a well-managed blue belt around our coasts. We currently have nearly 300 sites protecting 23% of UK waters, 133 of which cover 35% of English inshore and offshore waters. We have 50 marine conservation zones already, protecting a range of marine animals and plants and the seabed habitats on which they depend.

The UK is particularly blessed with seabirds. The UK hosts more than half the seabirds in the EU during the breeding season, with approximately 3.5 million pairs across 26 species. Our seabirds are principally protected by sites of special scientific interest, set up under domestic legislation, and by special protection areas, set up under the birds directive. Across the UK, we now have 106 marine special protection areas, protecting birds and 18,000 square kilometres of the marine habitats on which they depend.

Through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, we will make sure that marine protected areas set up under European directives will continue to be effectively protected after we have left the EU. We aim to complete our blue belt, and our contribution to the international ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas, with the third and final tranche of marine conservation zones. This will also fulfil our domestic obligation to form a network of sites that protect the range of features in our seas.

The third tranche of marine conservation zones will be consulted on this summer, with designations taking place in 2019. It is at this point, that I will turn to the specific proposal from my hon. Friend relating to the MCZ in Coquet to St Mary’s. Our general view has always been that MCZs are best suited to protecting features rather than highly mobile species—but not exclusively. Indeed, a number of years ago, we established some criteria against which we could judge where it is appropriate for MCZs to be used to protect birds.

As part of this third tranche, we do now have an opportunity to include some designations for highly mobile species, and that could include, for instance, eider ducks, where this is supported by evidence that their conservation would benefit from site-based protection measures. This is likely to be, as I have said, the exception rather than the rule. To that end, we gave the opportunity to conservation charities to propose a number of sites to us. We had 21 proposals for sites that were recommended by non-governmental organisations, which claimed that they fitted the criteria that we had set out. Eleven of those sites were from the RSPB, and that does include one relating to eider ducks, which I will return to a little later.

A couple of years ago, as I have said, we established some criteria against which we would judge where it is appropriate to use the MCZ process to protect mobile species. First, we need to be sure that area-based protection will be the most effective approach to protecting highly mobile species, compared with other conservation measures that could be applied more widely. This is likely to be the case where the highly mobile species use a specific area for part of their life cycle. That could include nesting and feeding areas, which is why we already have protection for many seabird breeding colonies, and the adjacent foraging areas that they use.

Other criteria that are important in our consideration of the proposals are the year-on-year presence of the species within the site in significant numbers and the suitability of the size of that site. In selecting which sites may be suitable as marine conservation zones, we are also looking very carefully at what it will mean in terms of possible restrictions on people who use the area to make their living, or who use it for recreation. We aim to strike the right balance and achieve our ambitious marine conservation aims, but doing so in a way that has the least impact on sea users.

The RSPB has specifically proposed that eider ducks are added as a protected feature to the existing Coquet to St Mary’s marine conservation zone, principally to protect them while foraging. We are considering that proposal very carefully, and the comments that my hon. Friend made in highlighting that in this debate today were well made. I will ensure that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who leads on this issue, and the officials dealing with the MCZ process, are informed of the points that have been made.

In our consultation this summer we will set out which marine conservation zones we are proposing for inclusion in the third tranche. We will explain why they are important for protecting our sea life, and the likely impacts on sea users. I hope that hon. Members will all urge their constituents to take part in that important consultation on a large range of new marine conservation zones.

Of course, it is not enough just to set up marine protected areas; we also need to ensure that they are well managed. So far, 29 new byelaws and 17 voluntary measures have been implemented in marine protected areas specifically for marine conservation purposes. A further 21 byelaws are expected before the end of this year. As we complete our network of marine protected areas we will make sure that the new sites are well managed.

If eider ducks are included in the Coquet to St Mary’s marine conservation zone, management is likely principally to focus on reducing boat disturbance of eider ducks while they are foraging, giving them a better chance to survive and breed successfully. I am informed that one of the key concerns is that, because these are large and heavy ducks, frequent disturbance—by speedboats and the like—when they are trying to forage can cause them to expend a lot of energy, which can affect their survival.

We have had a good debate. My hon. Friend raised some important points. I hope she will understand that I am not able to say today exactly what the conclusion or shape of the consultation will be, but I hope I have reassured her that my Department is much sighted on the issue. We are passionate about the importance of the eider duck. I assure her that her proposal is receiving very close attention indeed.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.