LIFE Project Cover Photo

Improving the conservation status of the little tern in the UK through targeted action at the most important colonies

Reference: LIFE12 NAT/UK/000869 | Acronym: LIFE Little Terns



The decline in the population of the little tern (Sterna albifrons) in the UK since the 1990s is a cause for concern. The principal threat to this shore nesting species is from human disturbance. After a decline between the 1930s and 1960s, the population recovered through protection and surveillance by wardens of breeding sites. However, in recent years the population has fallen again due to a range of factors, including disturbance, predation, habitat change and high tides linked to summer storms. There has been a reduction in the number of colonies, a loss of range in the west of the UK and, in general, there are poor levels of productivity. Sea-level rise also poses a threat to a number of current colonies. The total UK population is estimated to be less than 2 000 breeding pairs. The project will be the first nationally co-ordinated programme of action for the species, working with 29 colonies (about 65% of the total population) in 15 Special Protection Areas (SPAs) of the Natura 2000 network.


The overall aim of the project is to lay the foundations for the long-term recovery of the little tern (Sterna albifrons) in the UK, by securing robust breeding populations at key sites throughout the country. This will be achieved by:

  • Increasing the total population of little terns across the project sites (SPAs) through enhanced management of existing breeding sites and restoration and creation of new sites. This will help to offset colony loss through the predicted effects of climate change and sea level rise. The main focus will be on the implementation of intensive, targeted management actions, including the control of public access and predation at 20 of the most important sites in the UK, selected primarily on colony size. This is expected not only to improve the species’ status at the targeted sites but also to increase the population at the national level;
  • Securing commitment from statutory agencies and local authorities to support little tern conservation in the longer term. It will be essential for conservation actions proposed for key little tern sites to be aligned with wider and longer-term policy and legislative frameworks, such as ‘Shoreline Management Plans’ for flood risk management;
  • Ensuring that the general public is sympathetic to the project and supports the long-term protection of the project sites. Signs will be erected at key sites and information materials disseminated. Most little tern breeding sites experience heavy visitor pressure, and management of recreational users is key to the long-term viability of the colonies at these sites. Where access is to be restricted in the breeding season it will be important to secure public support.
  • Expected results:

  • Management of the key sites enhanced to address issues of predation, disturbance, habitat change and high tides, supported by enhanced wardening;
  • Habitat suitable for new breeding colonies created or restored at four of the targeted sites;
  • A programme of site monitoring carried out to inform project management decisions;
  • A colour ringing programme to allow for the development of a robust population model to inform the species recovery strategy and longer-term plans;
  • A little tern species recovery strategy for the UK;
  • Longer-term plans agreed with statutory agencies and local authorities for targeted SPAs, to secure continued improvement in the conservation status of little terns after the project;
  • Public support increased by the end of the project, as a result of engagement work and as demonstrated by public attitude surveys;
  • Two peer-reviewed papers prepared by the end of the project, along with a document for other site managers highlighting best practice in little tern management;
  • The end-of-project conference will present project findings and their application.
  • Together, these actions will lead to an increase in the breeding population of little terns across the project sites, from the current figure of 1 241 breeding pairs, the mean breeding productivity across targeted sites will be at least 0.75 chicks per pair per year and sites for sustainable colonies will be identified where current colonies are threatened.


    Reference: LIFE12 NAT/UK/000869
    Acronym: LIFE Little Terns
    Start Date: 02/09/2013
    End Date: 31/03/2019
    Total Budget: 3,287,140 €
    EU Contribution: 1,643,570 €
    Project Location:


    Coordinating Beneficiary: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
    Legal Status: PNC
    Address: The Lodge, SG19 2DL, Sandy, United Kingdom
    Contact Person: Nick FOLKARD
    Tel: +44 1767 693207

    LIFE Project Map



    • Birds


    • protected area
    • nature conservation
    • management plan
    • endangered species


    • 0 - Non applicable (i.e.species project)


    • Sterna albifrons


    Type Code Name
    SPA UK9006011 Lindisfarne
    SPA UK9006061 Teesmouth and Cleveland Coast
    SPA UK9006111 Humber Estuary
    SPA UK9006131 Northumbria Coast
    SPA UK9008022 Gibraltar Point
    SPA UK9009031 North Norfolk Coast
    SPA UK9005081 Morecambe Bay
    SPA UK9009131 Hamford Water
    SPA UK9009245 Blackwater Estuary (Mid-Essex Coast Phase 4)
    SPA UK9009271 Great Yarmouth North Denes
    SPA UK9009291 Benacre to Easton Bavents
    SPA UK9011011 Chichester and Langstone Harbours
    SPA UK9012041 Pagham Harbour
    SPA UK9013011 The Dee Estuary
    SCI UK0013027 Morecambe Bay
    SCI UK0013043 Winterton - Horsey Dunes
    SCI UK0013104 Benacre to Easton Bavents Lagoons
    SCI UK0013690 Essex Estuaries
    SCI UK0017097 North Northumberland Dunes
    SCI UK0019838 North Norfolk Coast
    SCI UK0030059 Solent Maritime
    SCI UK0030131 Dee Estuary/ Aber Dyfrdwy
    SCI UK0030170 Humber Estuary


    Name Type
    Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Coordinator
    CWT(Cumbria Wildlife Trust), United Kingdom Participant
    NT(National Trust), United Kingdom Participant
    DenbighCC(Denbighshire County Council), United Kingdom Participant
    NCC(Northumberland County Council), United Kingdom Participant
    NE(Natural England), United Kingdom Participant
    LWT(Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust), United Kingdom Participant
    DurhamCC(Durham County Council), United Kingdom Participant
    SBOT(Spurn Bird Observatory Trust Ltd), United Kingdom Participant