Strings attached

Everything turned out well for the Long-eared owl in the end (see article on 2nd January 2013). It was lucky that the guys from the RSPB were able to respond so quickly and save it. But it is a shame that a carelessly discarded piece of fishing line was left hanging in the tree in the first place. If only people realised that there are still “strings attached” to their action of getting rid of their litter so thoughtlessly. The consequences can be very serious.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always end so happily. During the summer of 2012, whilst carrying out a survey of the breeding terns on Strangford Lough’s islands, I found an adult Sandwich Tern entangled on some nylon string which had probably been part of a fishing net. The bird was lying on its nest, but it had already died by the time we found it.

A Sandwich Tern tangled in string

dead tern

The dead tern happened to have a ring on its leg. The National Trust Wardens have been ringing seabirds at Strangford Lough for many years, so we assumed that it was a bird that had been born here some years before. But when we notified the BTO with the details of the number on the ring, it turned out that the bird had been ringed as a chick in 2006 at Lady’s Island in Wexford, in the South of Ireland. But 6 years is quite a young age for a Sandwich tern. Last year, a Sandwich tern was found in the south of England that a National Trust Warden (Davy Andrews) had ringed as a chick, in Strangford Lough, 32 years previously. So we know they can live for a long time.

a young chick being ringed

This young chick may carry its new ring for thousands of miles over several decades

It’s amazing to think that these birds fly all the way from here to southern Africa every winter and then make the long journey back each spring, and still have the energy to breed. And they can repeat that annual migration for over 30 years. It’s sad that a thoughtlessly discarded piece of string brought such an abrupt end to the life of the individual we found.

Some seabirds build their nests with pieces of seaweed and other vegetation. Unfortunately, many of them mistakenly add pieces of rope and plastic which can be a hazard to the chicks as they hatch.

A cormorant chick with plastic in its nest

This newly hatched Cormorant chick was going to struggle with the large plastic bag in its nest.

And it is not just birds that suffer from litter. You may remember a few years ago a Leatherback turtle came into the lough. Unfortunately, it died after only a few days here. Although it had an old head injury, this had healed over, so nobody was sure if this was actually the cause of death. However, when its stomach contents were examined, it was discovered that it had eaten plastic bags. It probably mistook the floating bags for its favourite food; jellyfish. Apparently plastic ingestion is one of the main causes of death among marine turtles.

A dead turtle is hauled out of the water

The body of the turtle was recovered for autopsy

Can we do anything to help? Yes of course we can. Last year, the National Trust Wardens and Volunteer Group collected more than 1,000 bags of litter from the shores around Strangford Lough. What a fantastic achievement. Not only will this make the “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” a little less of an eye-sore, it should also prevent other animals from ingesting or getting entangled on the litter.

a mound of rubbish collected from the shore of Strangford Lough

The following link takes you to a short film made on Midway Island in the Pacific.  Although it isn’t local, it effectively highlights the seriousness of the issue of marine litter.   We really can’t keep on pretending that we don’t see this problem.   So please come and help us.

We organise regular beach cleans throughout the year.  So if you want to lend a hand, please get in touch and we will let you know when we plan to go out next.  If enough of us help, hopefully we can prevent more of our wildlife from suffering in such a way.   Contact:


About National Trust Volunteer Group

We are a group of National Trust Countryside Wardens and Volunteers who regularly get together to do a number of interesting projects to inhance our countryside and wildlife. We spend most of our time around the internationally important site of Strangford Lough and some near by countryside sites. If you ever fancy joining us for a day out, you will be made most welcome.
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