Friday, 13 April 2012

Looking back at the Isle of May ‘experience’ – John Shelton (SNH)

As David and Jeremy get settled into Isle of May ready for the season ahead, I too find myself getting back into my usual routine, looking back with fond memories at my short time on the island during the first week of April.

The Team

Despite working for SNH, living and working near Glasgow makes for relatively few opportunities to visit the Isle of May. Two previous attempts to get the island were thwarted by bad weather and my own bad time keeping. Therefore, to be given the opportunity to “help out” for a week on one of Scotland’s most spectacular National Nature Reserves was an opportunity too good to miss.

Arriving on the bus from Edinburgh to Anstruther on a rather stormy Monday I watched as a rigid-hulled inflatable boat, or RIB, came into harbour with some thoroughly soaked passengers on board. Little did I know at the time that this boat would soon be transporting me and a small band of volunteers (Fiona, Marshall & Graham) to the Isle of May cutting a trail through the wind, rain and swell. Thankfully Jeremy placed himself in the front of the boat selflessly (or rather conveniently) sheltering me from the worst of the weather and spray! As we got closer squadrons of guillemots and razorbills tore off the cliffs joining other newly arrived birds such as puffins and kittiwakes in the waters around the island. A truly breathtaking spectacle and an excellent taster of what was to come!

Despite the relatively small size of the island, it soon became clear that there was no shortage of jobs to be done -a brief summary of our experiences can be found in one of David’s earlier blog posts ( Although this work mostly entailed various odd-jobs (which makes a change from the usual desk-based work!), it was a great opportunity to find out about various ‘visitor management’ concerns. In other words, how you enable thousands of people to visit the island every year without compromising the island’s wildlife or ongoing research efforts? To gain a broad overview of these issues from the people charged with managing the island was a great experience.

Undertaking various tasks in rather challenging conditions provided an insight into the precarious existence of the island’s inhabitants (both man and wildlife) who have resided on the Isle of May over millennia. Sitting exposed within the Firth of Forth, the Isle of May takes the brunt of the easterly storms that occasionally batter the island. Having witnessed the swell that gets whipped up against the rocks it is no surprise that this island was the first fully manned lighthouse in Scotland in the 17th Century and subsequently the site for Robert Stevenson’s grand lighthouse c.200 years later. Although this may help protect the shipping in the Forth of Forth, a thought should be spared for the thousands (potentially hundreds of thousands) of birds and other wildlife that return every season to isle of May. Despite its exposed nature, the Isle of May represents a sanctuary for a plethora of wildlife that utilise every nook and cranny of the Island (not to mention the marine life below the waves!). It was fantastic to witness this situation first hand and it was clear that the wildlife was a lot tougher than us mere humans huddled around the coal stove for warmth.

A magical view of a Puffin in the hand close up

After a few days the wind, rain, hail sleet subsided and the sun broke through the clouds. The constant chatter of the gulls interspersed with the calls of visiting migrants, or the mad chatter of birds as a peregrine falcon takes flight, was an incredible audio-visual experience. This, mixed with the beauty of the island, added to the magical essence that the Isle of May offers visitors and residents alike.

The mixture of rubbish and firewood picked up from Pilgrims was one of the tasks completed

It is hard to imagine as April progresses the numbers of birds on the island will continue to grow steadily (along with the visitors who visit!). This, combined with a fascinating social history and wonderful isolation, makes for a wonderfully diverse and breathtaking experience away from the hectic bustle of modern living.

The SNH staff, David and Jeremy, who reside and manage the island for the benefit of wildlife, visitors and researchers continue to deliver a fantastic service. A lot of blood, sweat and (possibly) tears goes into managing the Isle of May. You would be hard pushed to find more knowledgeable and dedicated individuals.

The Isle of May really has so much to offer, however, you have to visit the island to appreciate this first hand. Already I am planning my next trip back in June. If anyone reading this has yet to visit the island, then what are you waiting for?

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