3D-printed birds welcome migrating terns to Scottish breeding sites

22 June 2023

Species on the Edge partnership news release

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As part of a new species conservation programme, Species on the Edge, the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Outer Hebrides and RSPB Scotland have been collaborating to produce 3D-printed terns to signal safe breeding sites to returning terns.

Species on the Edge is a new innovative and ambitious partnership programme of eight nature conservation organisations, all dedicated to improving the fortunes of 37 priority species found along Scotland's coast and islands. The partnership consists of:

Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fun, the four-and-a-half-year programme is active across seven areas in Scotland: Shetland; Orkney; the North Coast; the East Coast; Solway; the Inner Hebrides and Argyll; and the Outer Hebrides.

Together, the eight Species on the Edge partners are working on nine species recovery projects. One of these projects, titled Terning the Tide, aims to support declining populations of three tern species, Arctic tern, common tern and little tern, by using measures to protect and enhance established breeding colonies which tend to nest in large numbers on beaches on islands and coastal areas.

As part of these measures, new areas of tern nesting habitat have been created through effective habitat management. But how do terns find these new nesting areas when they return to Scotland to breed?

To give the returning terns a helping hand, the Terning the Tide project teamed up with the UHI Outer Hebrides Technology Department to create 3D printed replicas of Arctic and little terns. These replicas, termed decoys, are exact copies of the tern species 3D printed in white plastic. Once painted, the decoys are then placed in the area of newly created nesting habitat to act as a signal to the returning terns that this is a safe place to settle and breed.

Doug Rattray from UHI Outer Hebrides said: "We were really happy to work with the RSPB on this project. It was a great opportunity for staff in our Engineering department to put our skills to good use in support of a good cause. With our 3D printers at UHI Outer Hebrides we can create protoypes, batch manufacture, make moulds and useful jigs and fixtures. All we need is a CAD model to work from, which our team can help you create using our computer-aided design (CAD) software."

Species on the Edge Programme Manager, Fiona Strachan, said: “We’re grateful to UHI Outer Hebrides for their help and support for Species in the Edge through making these decoy terns. Our team have been busy enhancing tern habitats in our project areas so any help we can give the terns to find them is really important.”

The tern decoys will be used in several of the Species on the Edge areas: Islay and Tiree in Argyll and the Inner Hebrides and the east coast of Sutherland.

Find out more about Species on the Edge and follow Species on the Edge on Facebook (@SpeciesontheEdge) and Twitter (@SpeciesEdge).