We've saved the best for last! Our Seabird Policy Officer, Rory Crawford, recounts his incredible visit to the Isle of Rum.
In August last year I fulfilled an ambition I’ve had for some time: to visit the Isle of Rum, off the west coast of Scotland. Rum is a National Nature Reserve – a concept that appeals to me greatly. The SNH website says these sites are ‘areas of land set aside for nature, where the main purpose of management is the conservation of habitats and species of national and international significance‘. Perfect.
Rum is a truly wild place, and you feel that from almost the minute you arrive. It rains more on Rum than anywhere else in the world (apologies, I can’t actually back that up with any hard facts except from coming home from a couple of days there soaked to my very core). It is also home to the world’s most voracious, insatiable midge population. I spent days hidden underneath a headnet, lathered in repellent, shouting expletives at the tiny terrors. The ‘wildness’ of the island is also added to by the very small human population – the 2001 census found that only 22 people lived on Rum. This place is pretty remote.
Rory does battle with the midges.
But the real reason I went to Rum was for shearwaters, and it is the world’s biggest colony.
Unusually, the shearwaters on Rum nest predominantly on the slopes of mountains - the oddly-named Hallival, Barkeval, Askival and the most curiously named of all – Trollval. These names are not Gaelic – their origin is Norse, and they were thought to be named by Vikings in the 11th century. It is quite possible Trollval is so-called because the Vikings believed there to be trolls living under the soil, making the bizarre noises that the shearwaters are actually responsible for. Similar troll-related names exist on shearwater islands in the Faeroes, lending credence to this theory.
So, after arriving on the island, my compadres and I dutifully hiked upward, through bog, rain and midge to reach a small wooden hut, halfway up the mountain. This hut was to be home for a couple of nights – a welcome shelter, kitchen and place to sleep. From here, late on our second night, we ventured out to the shearwater colony on Hallival.
Home sweet home.
Being in amongst a massive shearwater colony is incredible. At first you wait – for what seems like an age – for it to get dark. It gets to the point where you wonder what you’re doing sat on a mountain at midnight, perfect midge fodder...but then the calls start.
If you’ve never heard a Manx shearwater call, you’re missing out. It’s a sort of otherworldly screech, and you start to hear birds circling over head – just a few at first, rising to thousands – blasting it out (listen to it here: http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/m/manxshearwater/index.aspx). Some get so close you can feel the whoosh of air as they glide invisibly over your head. Then the calls start to come out the ground – their partners shouting at the bird that’s been out feeding all day to hurry up and dive down the burrow to feed the chick they’ve been looking after. These birds have been on incredible journeys – Manx shearwaters have been recorded undertaking foraging trips from Rum of thousands of kilometres to find food for themselves and their young. These are truly some of the wildest birds I know of, on one of the wildest places I’ve been to.
Shearwater on the Isle of Rum.
The UK has the vast majority of the world Manx shearwater population – around 80%. Most of that is concentrated on three islands – Rum, Skomer and Skokholm (the latter two are both in Wales). This hasn’t always been the case. It is thought that, in Scotland alone, at least 12 island colonies have vanished in recent centuries. The impact of invasive non-native predators – particularly rats, which feed on chicks and eggs – have been the major driver for this. It is important that we take action to restore shearwaters to islands where we can, to build resilience into a global population which has been hacked back to, essentially, three islands.
Since the nocturnal behaviour of shearwaters makes them difficult to count, we don’t have a very good idea of what their populations are doing. But it is quite possible that they will be vulnerable to some of the same changes in the marine environment that we have seen affecting other seabirds. This is the species, excepting the Scottish crossbill, for which we are most internationally important. With great international importance, comes great conservation responsibility...
Another way to build in resilience to our seabird populations? Set up a network of marine protected areas at sea that properly support our seabird populations – sign the pledge here: www.rspb.org.uk/marinepetition.