THE highest number of little tern chicks for 17 years has been recorded at an island in Essex following work to raise their beach habitat above high tides.

A total of 42 little tern chicks fledged at Horsey Island, in the Walton Backwaters. during this year’s breeding season – the most recorded since 2006, the RSPB said.

Little terns are one of the country’s rarest seabirds and the smallest of the tern species that come to the UK from their wintering grounds in Africa to breed during the summer months.

The 42 chicks fledged after a project to raise the height of the beach, using 50,000 cubic metres of deposited sand and shingle material.

This came from a channel-deepening project carried out by Harwich Haven Authority.

Kieran Alexander, RSPB site manager for Old Hall Marshes, said it is hoped that the work will protect the little tern colony from climate change and expected sea level rises for the next 50 years.

“It is heart-warming to see so many young little terns fledge from Horsey Island this year,” he said.

“It really is a testament to the project which has raised the land level of the tern’s breeding sites, keeping the nests safe from the sea.

“This adjustment to the island will help secure the future of the most important little tern colony in Essex, estimated to protect it from climate change and expected sea level rises for the next 50 years.”

The raised beach provides a safe nesting habitat for little terns to breed, and the island location means that the breeding site is relatively free of disturbance from people and predators.

Marcus Pearson, of Harwich Haven Authority, said: “We are all very excited to see that all the works have been a success at Horsey Island and the Little Terns have returned in such large numbers to breed and make the new habitat their home.”

He said projects to place sediment beneficially would be considered “for all our maintenance and capital dredge programmes going forward”.

“We look forward to working closely with the RSPB to identify, plan and complete the next project as soon as possible,” he said.