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Exploring the hidden wildlife on the Yorkshire coast

PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 September 2018

Puffin (c) Lynne Newton

Puffin (c) Lynne Newton

Lynne Newton

The hidden life below the waves is vital to the wildlife above it. Clea Grady from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust takes a peek into the North Sea

Grey seal (c) Tom MarshallGrey seal (c) Tom Marshall

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust currently maintains over 100 nature reserves on land; delivering projects and defending wildlife when it comes under threat from development and harmful policies. But it’s not only on land where wildlife desperately needs our help.

The North Sea is unique in terms of its sheer diversity and abundance of marine wildlife. It supports over 230 different species of fish, thousands of seabirds and an exciting variety of whales, dolphins and sharks. In an ecosystem, of which the North Sea is a giant example, all life depends on each other. When something within an ecosystem is threatened, the ripple effect is far-reaching – because iconic species depend on lesser-known creatures in order to survive. A puffin, for example, thrives on a diet consisting mainly of sandeels. If something causes the sandeel population to dwindle, then this will be echoed within the puffin population. In simple mathematical terms: fewer sandeels equals fewer puffins.

Sadly, when it comes to sandeels and puffins, we are not talking hypothetically. Overfishing, climate change, plastic pollution and a number of other pressures on the marine environment, are taking a massive toll on sea creatures, and the puffins’ favoured food source is declining rapidly. As a result, Atlantic puffins are classified as vulnerable. In other words, they are under threat of localised extinction. So what can be done to protect them?

Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, are effectively nature reserves at sea: designated to safeguard marine habitats and species. Their primary objective is conservation and recovery and although you cannot pack a picnic and explore them as you can a land-based reserve, it’s so important that we champion and support them. Without these sites, some of our most rare and vulnerable marine wildlife – from seahorses to living reefs – will remain at serious risk or worse.

Common Dolphin (c) Caroline WeirCommon Dolphin (c) Caroline Weir

The sea bed is a vital habitat for fish, for example, and fish are a vital food source for other much-loved species like seals and harbour porpoise. The ocean’s sandy floor is perfect for spawning, foraging, feeding and even acts as a nursery area for baby fish, but damaging practices have dramatically disturbed it and the species which rely upon its healthy existence.

Within an MPA, the protected sea bed is allowed to recover by removing those activities deemed to be damaging and – as all life in the water is cyclical – the fish once again begin to flourish. The more fish there are, the more food there is for magnificent mammals like seals, dolphins and whales. In short, if we care about seals, dolphins or whales then we should care about the lesser-known animals as well and how we can protect them.

It can be difficult to become passionate about something that seems so far away from our everyday lives, however. Luckily, we live in Yorkshire! Our coastline is host to a fabulous array of beaches, rocky coves and towering cliffs, and located along its length are two Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserves; Flamborough Cliffs (consisting of 400ft high chalk cliffs) and Spurn Point (Yorkshire’s very own Land’s End).

Our spectacular coastline provides many fantastic opportunities for wildlife spotting and regularly plays host to a variety of marine mammals and birds, including harbour porpoise, grey seals and puffins. We can and should be passionate about the life and plight of these animals because, ultimately, they are living right on our doorstep. In fact, this area of coast sits within an area so abundant in wildlife that it’s referred to as the Yorkshire Nature Triangle.

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