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Tree mallow leads to puffin decline 31st August 2005

 

Centre for Ecology & Hydrology scientists are running a new project to investigate puffin decline on an island on the East Coast of Scotland.

Puffin © Akinori TakahashiPuffins on the island of Craigleith, in Scotland, are being forced out by giant alien plants. Puffin numbers have halved in recent years as the invasive tree mallow took over the island, growing in the manure-rich burrow entrances and preventing the puffins from breeding.

Scientists are now asking people for help, as part of a new three-year study funded by the Scottish Executive. The researchers need to find out why the tree mallow has suddenly expanded and develop practical approaches to control its growth. The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology have set up a new website (see link below) where people can find out more.

Project leader Dr René van der Wal from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology research site in Banchory said “We need help to sort this problem out. The tree mallow expansion is probably due to recent mild winters and the efforts of the puffins which provide great conditions for tree mallow to grow. However we have very little information and need to know more, fast.”

He added, “People can help us in three ways. First, they can visit our new tree mallow website to find out more about the problem and how to identify the alien plant. Second, we’d like them to both alert us and send in any photos, new and old, of coastal areas where tree mallow has been seen growing. Third, we would really like some local schools to get involved by planting tree mallow seedlings outside their classrooms and letting us know how they grow as the weather changes. We shall, of course, ensure that no seedlings escape.”

Tree mallow flowerPuffins are a vitally important tourist resort and birdwatchers come to Scotland from round the world to see them and other Scottish seabirds. Although Atlantic puffin numbers are increasing rapidly across most of the east coast of Scotland, at Craigleith near North Berwick the reverse has been the case. The decline has been blamed on the rapid expansion of the tree mallow which grows in dense stands up to 3m tall and prevents the puffins from accessing their burrows. The number of burrows in which puffin pairs breed reduced from 28,000 in 1999 to 14,000 in 2003.

Tree mallow is believed to have escaped into the wild in East Scotland after being planted in coastal gardens. In particular, lighthouse keepers grew the plants and used the large woolly leaves as an effective compress to cover wounds. Whereas tree mallow has been on the Bass Rock for more than three centuries, the species has rapidly expanded on other islands during the last fifteen years in the Firth of Forth region. Scientists do not know why this is the case. Hopefully this mystery will be resolved within this project.

The project is being run in collaboration with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Seabird centre at North Berwick.

 

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