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      May 2011 > Wear a hat is good advice...

Wear a hat is good advice...

Farne Islands, Northumberland, UKI’ve just come back from a long weekend in the Tweed Valley in the Scottish Borders – wonderful walking country – and, on the way north, we stopped off to visit the Farne Islands – a ‘must’ for anyone even remotely interested in wildlife.

With Arctic Terns just arriving back from their staggering annual migration to the southern oceans, and Puffins, Guillemots, Shags and Eiders nesting and burrowing everywhere, now is the time to see these wonderful islands at their most frenetic.

Shag and Guillemot, Farne IslandsThere are several boat companies that run trips to the islands, some that simply cruise round the cliffs, looking at the birds and seals on the shore, and others that land on Inner Farne. We went with Billy Shiels – the company has been running ornithologists out to the islands since 1918 – on a trip that lasted 2½ hours, including an hour on Inner Farne, a National Trust nature reserve.

The reserve is manned by enthusiastic young wardens who live in the medieval pele tower (no running water, though they do now have solar panels to power the television) for several months of the year, recording bird activity and sightings, maintaining the site and helping visitors with any enquiries. (Apparently, it’s good to have this experience on your CV!) As well as the ‘normal’ local inhabitants, this year they have seen Ospreys flying over on their way north to nest in Scotland, and dolphins and porpoises leaping in the bay. 

Grey Seals, Farne IslandsOther wardens live on the outer island of Brownsman, where their home is the old lighthouse keepers' cottage, sheltered beside the ruins of two lighthouse beacons. We saw the wardens from the boat as we passed, checking up on the grey seals which had hauled up onto the beaches here. The islands are home to one of Europe’s largest grey seal colonies and we saw many of them on the low rocky islets or bobbing their heads up near the boat, seemingly as inquisitive about us as we were about them.

The outermost island is dominated by the red and white tower of the Longstone Lighthouse, built in 1825 and manned until 1990. It was from here that keeper William Darling and his daughter, Grace, rowed out one stormy night in 1838 to rescue the survivors of a wrecked paddle-steamer, the ‘Forfarshire’, when it ran aground on a nearby islet. The heroism of Grace has since passed into folklore and she is buried in the churchyard at nearby Bamburgh.

Inner Farne, NorthumberlandBut it is the landing on Inner Farne (above) that makes a trip here so special. The cacophony of birds can be heard as you approach, and it wasn’t long before we were being dive-bombed by terns – “wear a hat” is good advice, especially during nesting season! The noisiest are Arctic Terns (2,198 pairs) though Sandwich (1,415 pairs) and Common (98 pairs) nest here, too. The island's other main inhabitants are Guillemots (48,126 pairs!); Puffins (36,835 pairs); Kittiwake (3,699 pairs); Shags (838 pairs); Eiders (681 pairs); Razorbills (332 pairs), and Cormorants (141 pairs) – from over 290 species that have been recorded here over the years.*

Puffins, Inner FarneThe exciting thing is that you can get up very close to the birds – keeping to well-defined footpaths - as they live out their lives on the grassy sward and clifftops. As we walked round, we noticed numbered markers at each Eider nest – the female ducks never flinched as we walked by – while Terns flirted and courted noisily all around us. Most people come to see the Puffin (left), a strange-looking, comical bird that never fails to captivate. We weren’t disappointed – they were flying in from all directions as our boat approached the jetty and waddled along the path in front of us as we walked up to the Victorian lighthouse, providing many great photo opportunities.

The nesting season is just beginning – the first Shag chick had just hatched when we were there, so over the next few weeks into June is the time to go. Combine a visit to the islands with a walk through the rolling Northumberland countryside, from Fenwick near Lindisfarne as you follow In the Footsteps of Saints (Saint Cuthbert lived on Inner Farne for many years) to Seahouses, the charming little fishing port from where the ferries depart…
Lighthouse, Inner Farne

*[2009 figures taken from]

Posted: 18/05/2011 10:16:10 by | with 0 comments
Filed under: islands, photography, UK, wildlife

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