The Farne Islands, a sanctuary for seabirds and seals, celebrate 90 years as a British jewel of conservation
Puffins always draw the summer crowds to the islands off Northumberland, which are the favourite UK wildlife site of Sir David Attenborough
Saturday 15 August 2015 12.20 BST
A couple of miles out to sea, off the Northumberland coast, some uncut jewels in the firmament of England’s natural heritage shimmer. The Farne Islands, ancient and sanctified by the hands of St Cuthbert, can only be reached on one of a fleet of boats that ferry hundreds of visitors each day in high summer. Drive through country roads until pasture gives way to sand and you are in Seahouses, the little coastal village where time, when it reached 1969, liked what it saw and decided to tarry.
Each summer the area rises anew out of coastal mists and returns you to childhood holidays of fish suppers and rococo confectionery. Gusts of petrol and herring lead you to a harbour braided by pastel-coloured dwellings. There, glorious Beryl Cook ladies, pink underneath straw hats and horn-rimmed sunglasses, chastise their children and say “sorry, love” as they barrel past you.
On one of Billy Shiels’s fabled vessels you head out to the islands with 60-odd others, drawn there by the sanctuary they provide for 23 species of seabirds and a sprawling colony of seals, which seem puzzled at these creatures who jostle and stretch to point their digital instruments in their direction. Ninety years ago this month, the National Trust finally bought the islands for £800 from the industrialist William Armstrong after a two-year public subscription, a transaction which must surely rank as one of the shrewdest transactions any national organisation has ever conducted. Because of it, millions have shared in a gold standard of conservation, education and access of which the heritage body is justly proud and which is being celebrated this summer.
Sir David Attenborough describes the islands as his favourite wildlife site in the UK. The puffins, all 39,962 breeding pairs, are the tourists’ darlings, but among the other seabird species are fulmars, Arctic terns, guillemots, razorbills, eiders and shags. A few handfuls of barn swallows, rock pipits and pied wagtails are also to be found bobbing and weaving about the place. In all, these islands are home to around 150,000 birds. In 1951, the islands became one of the first designated sites of special scientific interest and were declared a national nature reserve in 1993. Each day, the nine National Trust rangers in permanent residence perform a conservation high-wire act in which they balance their absolute commitment to conservation with a desire to educate the public about their work. As such they are always vigilant about visitor numbers to ensure minimal disruption to the breeding birds. Protecting their habitat is the rangers’ highest priority. It was only in 1971 that the National Trust was able to manage visitor numbers. Previously, the islands hosted an unedifying free-for-all each summer with unlimited numbers of people landing at will and roaming where they pleased.
In high season on these islands the birds must still protect their young from up to 400 pairs of human feet which the boats bring into their homes each day. The National Trust must balance the sacredness of the nesting sites with the bounty that tens of thousands of paying customers bring. These funds are necessary for funding the personnel and their science work. Nathan Wilkie, one of the rangers on Inner Farne, said: “People are generally very sensitive now to the vulnerability of nesting seabirds. They know they are guests in the homes of these birds and are very receptive to our simple guidelines while they are here.”
Today, we are witnessing the tailend of the puffins’ mass migration to their winter playgrounds. In a five-day period straddling the end of July and start of August, almost 80,000 of them embark on a startling natural airlift that sees them plot a course towards the north coast of Scotland and on to Iceland, where they will live in the sea for nine months before returning here to breed.
Puffins form part of that anointed group of land and sea creatures over which the British public likes to bill and coo. Along with hedgehogs, deer and badgers, they belong to a family which, if it had a Latin name, would be called Cutem cuddlius. God has blessed them with facial features that make them look like lovable juvenile scallywags, ducking and diving and getting up to mischief. As such they are destined always to be favoured by a good old-fashioned British outcry whenever it seems they have been victims of cruel and unusual treatment at the hands of human beings. …
Yet if life on the high seas were to be likened to life on the streets of some of Glasgow’s edgier arrondissements, then the puffins are wee hard-men who are well capable of looking after themselves. As well as spending most of the year living on some of the world’s iciest seas, they can dive below the waves to Jules Verne depths. And in places such as the Farne Islands the multiplicity of their numbers, at a time when other seabird species are in decline around the globe, have remained robust. Despite a global rise in sea temperatures which has depleted stocks of sand-eels, the puffins’ favourite food, the puffins and their seabird chums are still popping in and out of the water with their wee gobs stuffed full of their oily prey.
“Historically, the waters around here have always been rich in sand-eels,” said Wilkie. He was relaxed at recent reports suggesting the Farne puffins had been adversely affected by an extremely wet summer resulting in flooded burrows and a fall in the number of puffin chicks. This year, out of 100 burrows monitored by National Trust rangers, only around 50 were discovered to have produced pufflings; there were 92 last year.
“Certainly, the bad weather has not been good for the puffins,” said Wilkie. “But what needs to be factored in is that we have 34,000 breeding pairs here and we only monitor 100. And although the figure of 50 pufflings seems bad, last year’s figure of 92 was probably abnormally high.” Instead, he pointed out, the rangers are more concerned with trying to find non-invasive ways of discouraging hungry grey seals from encroaching on to the puffins’ breeding-grounds.
In the era of low-budget, stack-them-high air travel, the Farne Islands are inviting us to participate in our own David Attenborough films closer to home.