Irish sanctuaries offer hope to the endangered puffin
Ireland may become a precious sanctuary for the Atlantic puffin - now facing the threat of extinction.
Puffins, which have a small but sturdy population here, as well as the European turtle dove, have been added for the first time to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of species at risk of being wiped out.
However, numbers here, estimated at about 22,000, appear to be relatively steady, according to Birdwatch Ireland, at a time when numbers are plummeting in the usual north Atlantic puffin breeding grounds and in Britain.
"We have consistently called for a survey of all our seabirds and we understand that some preliminary work has been carried out by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. However, our best information is that numbers here have remained steady and we have not experienced the same precipitous drop as other locations," said Birdwatch Ireland spokesman Niall Hatch.
He says that Ireland should make more of puffins as a potential tourism target.
"In other countries with far smaller populations in difficult places to access, a whole industry has built up around watching puffins," he says.
Puffins spend most of their lives at sea but they are summer visitors to sea stacks and cliffs here from March to September, mainly along the west coast. They build their nests underground.
Though the west coast is the best place to see the puffin, a member of the auk family, there is a scattering of east-coast sites, including Ireland's Eye and Lambay.
Great Saltee Island and the Cliffs of Moher in Clare, as well as Horn Head in Donegal, are also accessible sites.
The Skelligs in Kerry also have puffins and nearby Puffin Island, close to the mainland, is another good site for the species. Puffin Island also holds important populations of Manx shearwaters and European storm-petrels.
The worrying crash in Atlantic puffin numbers is most evident in Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, which account for about 80pc of the European population.
Scientists suggest climate change and fishing practices may have played a role in the sharp decline.
Across the Irish Sea, the populations on Fair Isle and the Shetland Islands in Scotland have also faltered.
People who were lucky enough to see puffins this year should know that those birds are now off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada.
Later in the winter, they will be bobbing in the middle of the Atlantic before flying back here to breed.