The Farne Islands; a group of between 20 and 30 islands, how many depends on the state of the tide; one and a half to nearly five miles off the mainland; resistant igneous Dolerite; home to over 100,000 seabirds. I’d not visited them since childhood and had very mixed emotions after standing on them for the first time in over 50 years.
It couldn’t have been more different than my recent visit to Bass Rock. There it had rained, I was one of only seven people in amongst the seemingly incalculable numbers of Gannets; an interloper on an island completely taken over by birds.Â A humbling moment, an assault on all the senses.
Simply too Busy
Here on the Farnes I was once again on islands with extraordinary numbers of birds, close to them, touching distance but with one uncomfortable difference from the ‘Rock’. I shared this particular spectacle with hundreds of other folk, and it changes your ability to immerse yourself in the enormity of what’s in front of you. The day was fine, very fine, perhaps that was it too. On Bass Rock there was a sense of everything being enveloped, sounds contained and birds held close by mist and rain. Here it felt like a day when everyone wanted to be out and to me it felt they had all chosen the Farnes.
It’s a difficult one. I want to go there and so do so many others. I have no more, or less, right to be there than anyone else, yet I wanted something of them to myself and it was hard to find. We took the first boat out in the morning to get as long as possible on the two main islands, Staple and Inner farne. It was packed out and there are four private companies running trips of various times and combinations and these were all full too, but then I fully understand that the 40,000 visitors a year to this archipelago help to sustain breeding populations of seabirds from the rather expensive landing fees charged by the National Trust.
Once we had been dropped of on Staple Island, one of the middle group of islands, the boat went back for more and more. At least we had the first hour with only one boat load to contend with. We had two hours on Staple and a further two on the closer to shore Inner Farne, with a trip around the islands as well. For getting close, really close, to some enigmatic species there is no better place and if for just a few moments you are able to shut out the rest of the world and commune with them you will have experienced something very special!
The islands are too small to lose yourself in them, the quietest moments we found were on the jetty of Inner Farne and the gap overlooking Brownsman Island from Staple. The jetty of Inner Farne, once our boatload had disembarked and headed for the toilets and information centre, was a little haven for perhaps half an hour before the next boat arrived. Here there was a large colony of Arctic Terns that would periodically lift as one for no apparent reason with high pitched grating screams. We stayed with them for most of our time, the majority of others preferring the Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills and Shags on the slighter higher ground, or chancing their luck through the dive bombing nesting grounds of the Terns around St. Cuthbert’s Chapel.
This behavior, of all the Terns lifting for no apparent reason, is described in a classic of Tern literature, ‘Sea Terns or Sea Swallows’ by George and Anne Marples published in 1934.
From secure hiding-places which ensured that the Terns were not affected by the ordinary”alarm” due to the presence of an intruder, we have watched successions of these “dreads” without being able to detect any cause for them.
On this islet there was no cover whatever, not even a large stone to hide an enemy, yet, time after time,these birds beat of in a ,”dread,” leaving the island obviously bare and untenanted by rat or anything which could have affrighted them. The passing of a hawk overhead would seem an adequate cause, but the Terns deal with such a menace by means of direct, bold attack, quite different behavior from the nameless fear which produces the “dreads”
What happens during a “dread” is this. It is early in the season. The Terns are going about the ordinary business of the day. They are courting on the ground, displaying, nest-making: many are in the air above, making love. Suddenly the diverse calls which produce the normal ternery clamour become unified, the volume of sound increases. Those on the ground rise precipitately, adding their voices to the babel until the sky is filled with beating forms, each one shouting loudly, every bird in the ternery being in the air. Then with extreme suddenness they drop into dead silence, during which they wing their way rapidly seaward. low over the water. Abruptly they turn and drift back to the nesting ground on horizontal wings. Reaching the ternery they find their voices, and the normal noise breaks out as the flutter and drop to the ground to resume their former occupations.
Killing the Experience
The Arctic Tern is a special bird for me, a true bird of light as it follows the long day throughout its year of globetrotting between the hemispheres and can rack up a quite astonishing 1,5000,000 miles in its life. It is a bird of agility, pureness and aggression and one that links our summer to both the poles in the north and south. I’d struggle to go a season without being in their company somewhere in the British Isles without feeling I’d missed out on something that links me to a wildness and an innate sense of simply being part of a web of connectedness that we are losing.
Will I go back to the Farnes? Unlikely, and if ever I do I’ll chose a wet dreary day in the hope that I can get a piece of it to myself. It was, of course, wonderful to see Guillemots, Bridled ones too, Razorbills, Puffins, Kittiwakes, Shags, Eiders and three species of Terns all so close. But there’s a balance between maintaining an experience that is special and unique to a place and losing it to too many people being there. The balance on a good late spring day like we had on the Farnes seems to be tipping in the wrong direction.
There is a chapter in Stephen Rutt’s fine book ‘The Seafarers’ that looks at the Auks of Northumberland. It would appear that he also had problems with the the number of people the Islands attract.
Boats keep arriving. The density of people become extraordinary, almost rivalling the density of the Guillemots. The only uncrowded part remains the side looking out to Brownsman Island, over a thin gap of sea. My inner Razorbill insists I stand there. There are no cliffs here, and there are no Puffins, so the people are fewer.
I found this spot too and spent most of my time there, but as Stephen Rutt continues,
It is solitude I seek, so I sit there, on the flightpath between those guillemots and the sea. Solitude is an absurd idea here, the busiest island for birds and people.
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