More than a third of hospital trusts have turned to actively recruiting nurses from overseas as they struggle to keep wards adequately staffed, it has emerged.

Workforce experts say the findings are proof of the start of a new NHS registered nurse shortage, which has led some trusts to recruit dozens of nurses from across Europe and further afield.

Of the 105 acute trusts that responded to a Freedom of Information request by HSJ’s sister title Nursing Times, 40 had actively recruited nurses from overseas in the last 12 months – leading to more than 1,360 nurses coming to work in England.

In total 41 hospital trusts said they planned to actively recruit nurses from overseas in the next 12 months.

Nurses involved in recruitment said hospital trusts were struggling to get enough nursing staff to apply for posts and warned that wards could have to close if no action was taken.

Nottingham University Hospitals Trust currently has around 200 nurse vacancies, despite having recruited 30 nurses from Portugal. Maria Bentley, who oversees its nurse recruitment, said: “We are definitely in the midst of a nursing shortage. It has become more acute over the last year but it’s been going in a general direction over the last couple of years. In the last six months we are just not getting applicants [for vacancies].”

Spain and Portugal have so far proved to be the most popular countries targeted by trusts seeking nurses. Overall 29 nations have contributed nurses to the UK health service.

According to the data supplied, the 40 trusts recruited a total of 503 nurses from Portugal, 472 from Spain, 155 from Ireland and 111 from the Philippines. In addition, 32 nurses have come from Italy and around a dozen each from India, Greece and Poland.

The largest overseas recruiter identified was University Hospital Southampton Foundation Trust, which gained a total of 144 nurses - 90 from Portugal and 54 from Spain. Not far behind was King’s College Hospital Foundation Trust, in South London, which recruited 96 nurses from the Philippines.

Weston Area Health Trust in Somerset has recruited 39 Spanish nurses.

The findings follow warnings made earlier this year of an impending nursing shortage in the NHS, sparked by repeated reductions in the number of education places in recent years.

The number of places on nursing courses has fallen by 2,500 in the three years between 2010 and 2013, tempered slightly by a small increase of 334 for 2013-14.

The Centre for Workforce Intelligence has also predicted a likely shortage of 47,500 nurses by 2016.

Royal College of Nursing director of policy Howard Catton said: “When employers are getting on planes to recruit nurses you know you have a crisis in workforce supply that is happening right here, right now.”

Latest figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show the number of full time equivalent nursing posts in the NHS fell by 3,000 since 2010, while the total headcount has reduced by more than 5,000.