Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) commissioned this survey to provide up-to-date population estimates for complete colony counts at North Caithness Cliffs Special Protection Area (SPA). Several sites identified for renewable energy generation from offshore wind, tidal and wave energy are located along the east coast of Scotland or within the Pentland Firth and Orkney Waters. As part of the application process Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Habitats Regulations Appraisal (HRA), including appropriate assessment (AA), are required. The HRA and EIA processes require up-to-date population estimates to permit accurate assessment of the impacts of any development on the SPA qualifying features and other sensitive species. However, the lack of recent counts, particularly for colonies such as North Caithness Cliffs SPA, has increased uncertainty within these assessments. The foraging ranges of seabird qualifying features of the SPA overlap with several wave and tidal lease areas in the Pentland Firth and Orkney Waters.
Complete colony counts were undertaken in 2013 for the North Caithness Cliffs SPA, however, due to methodological issues, the results were considered unreliable. The most recent reliable counts for the SPA were undertaken in 1999 and 2000 ('Seabird 2000'). Previously, a full census for these sites was completed in 1986 (The ‘Seabird Colonies Register’). SNH’s recently published trend note (http://www.snh.gov.uk/docs/B1163280.pdf) has highlighted the declines of many seabird species in Scotland, therefore there is an urgency to establish current population estimates and condition status for the SPA. Without up-to-date estimates of population size the risk of inaccurate future impact modelling undertaken as part of the application process is increased.
Up-to-date counts will therefore enable SNH to provide better advice on marine and terrestrial developments to both regulators, such as Marine Scotland, and to individual project developers. The results of the counts will be included within the fourth national seabird census (‘Seabirds Count’). They will also contribute towards SNH’s Site Condition Monitoring (SCM) which is undertaken on a six yearly cycle. The third cycle commenced in 2014.