A juvenile guillemot on the water

Reports of dead and emaciated guillemots have come in from across the north of the UK. © Caroline Legg/Flickr CC BY 2.0

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Guillemots dying in 'unprecedented' numbers off the UK coast

Concerns have been raised after reports of 'unprecedented' deaths amongst guillemots in the north of the UK.

The seabirds have reportedly been found starving and washed up dead along the coast of Scotland and northeast England. The birds have also been seen closer to shore than normal, away from their hunting grounds out in the open water.

Toxins, climate change and a lack of food have been suggested as causes, but the exact reasons remain unclear.

Dr Alex Bond, Senior Curator in Charge of birds at the Museum, says that while mass guillemot dying events, known as wrecks, aren't unfamiliar, this one is different.

'What's unusual about this is the timing,' he says. 'Wrecks normally occur in winter, and these are often associated with bad weather. Guillemots spend most of their time on water, not on land, so a big storm can beat them up a bit. 

'The fact we're seeing lots of them in unusual places suggests this wreck is something quite different.' 

A dead guillemot on the beach

Causes including lack of food and toxins have been suggested for the deaths. © Hugh Venables/Geograph CC BY-SA 2.0

Save our seabirds?

Guillemots are often found around the coasts of the UK, with their distinctive black and white plumage seen high up on sheer cliffs or over the waves. There are large colonies of the birds which nest annually on offshore islands along the Northumbrian and Scottish coast. 

The birds spend most of their lives at sea hunting for fish like herring and hake, only come back to land to rest and lay eggs. 

But in the last few weeks concerns have been raised as reports of the birds coming in close to the shore and heading up rivers started to roll in. Emaciated guillemots have also been brought into rescue centres, while others have been found dead on beaches across the north of the UK.

While the cause of this wreck is not yet known, a number of different causes have been suggested.

'It could be related to a lack of food, toxins or a harmful algal bloom,' Alex says. 'But whether or not it's one of these factors remains to be seen. 

'Seeing guillemots in strange places suggests it could be related to a hunt for food, but it could also be to do with algal blooms, or toxins more generally, causing strange behaviour in these birds.'

The cause is currently being investigated by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH). They have found guillemots which are half their usual weight and are analysing the corpses of the birds for evidence. Recent testing has ruled out bird flu, with other causes still under consideration. 


Dr Francis Daunt, from the centre, told the BBC that the level of deaths at present are 'unprecedented in its scale and number.'

He added: 'It's also been going on for some weeks so it's a serious problem.'

While the search continues, Alex advises that anyone finding guillemots in a bad way should get in touch with researchers.

'If you do find dead birds, or see unusual behaviour, then you should contact the CEH to let them know,' he says.

If you do come across a dead bird, experts advise that you don't touch it with your bare hands, but instead use gloves and other PPE to handle it if necessary.