It was the size of it that struck me first. It really was just a rock in the ocean. As we approached in our little boat, I found myself wondering what an earth I was letting myself in for. Then a group of puffins arrived, speeding along right beside our boat, and I remembered why.
Spending a lot of my childhood growing up on the Isle of Arran, I had fallen in love with the sea and the birds that call it home. So when the opportunity came up to work as a ranger with seabirds, I jumped at the chance. One successful interview later and I was packing for 4 months and heading to the majestic sounding Farne Islands. These are a collection of tiny islands off the coast of Northumberland, owned by the National Trust and home to thousands of seabirds. Unlike my normal experience with the National Trust, this was not an elegant property that you could stroll around and have tea and a slice of lemon cake at the end (much to the disappointment of many of our visitors!). This was a wild place. And I was bubbling with excitement.
I cannot truly describe the noise. Or the smell for that matter. The birds were everywhere and they weren't shy about letting us know about it. I've never had such an assault on my senses before or since. Quite overwhelming. Incredibly invigorating. But what shocked me most was how close I could get to these birds. Clearly, years of experience with human neighbours meant these birds couldn't really be bothered to give us a second glance. This was demonstrated when I was able to get inches away from nesting shags. This is a species that I have squinted through binoculars at regularly. I watched in amazement as my colleague casually passed one of these birds a twig and the shag, after a moment's inspection, decided to accept this gift and added it to its already impressive nest. What is this place?
Of course, many of the visitors were fascinated by the birds. But I would say a fair majority of them were also fascinated by us rangers. A bizarre strain of humans that greeted visitors covered in seabird poo and I'm sure smelling pretty atrocious. More than once I got asked whether this was paint. I wish. They wanted to know how we could possibly live on these islands. I do understand their confusion. The facilities were almost non-existent. We lived in an ancient 'tower' (not as fairy-tale as it sounds) with no running water, heating, occasional flushing toilets and fairly intermittent electricity, depending on how much poo had accumulated on the solar panels. It could be bleak. We were able to experience some civilisation with returning to the mainland once a week to top up on food and, more importantly, shower. That is, if the boats sailed. But all it took was an apparently mild northerly wind and we were stuck.
As for our work, this was split between monitoring the birds and engaging with visitors. That, and keeping the island up and running, which could be a chore in itself when litres of water needing to be lugged to the toilets that had once again decided that flushing was impossible. As you can imagine, spending time with the birds was my favourite. This involved monitoring breeding progression of most of the species on the island. Not always easy. Finding the right angle to observe your section of birds was key. I was often squashed up against tiny windows in the tower, praying that the birds would stand up. Just for a moment. So I could see what was underneath. Counting eggs from this position could be a challenge. Alternatively, I could be in tiny inflatable boat, attempting to count hundreds of guillemots nestled into the cliff face. I quickly learnt that sea-sickness tablets were a must for this work.
The only way to survive this island was to become part of it. We were absorbed in the highs and lows of the natural world. We tried to help when we were able, with many ducklings rescued from beneath board-walks and pufflings (yes, this is what puffin chicks are called!) that had lost their way returned to the sea. But the lows were extreme. One ill-timed storm meant that I woke up one day to find most of my shag nests wiped out. My heart still aches when I think of this. Yet, with these deaths, there was inevitably so much life. One of my absolute highlights was the puffin monitoring. Crawling around amongst the puffin burrows (they choose to next in burrows rather than cliff faces like many seabirds) then carefully reaching in, often right up to the shoulder, hoping to find the reassuring warm bundle of feathers of a disgruntled chick. And sometimes an adult as well. I'll tell you, for all their cuteness, they could be ferocious little birds. I has a few drops of blood to add to my general attire of poo and now mud. Excellent.
I learnt so much from my time on these islands. Not just about the birds, but about myself. I not only coped but thrived in this wild environment. Being an animal lover (understatement, as anyone who knows me will tell you) I surprised myself at being able to cope with these sometimes daily tragedies. I usually love a plan, taking pride in my organisational skills, but I had to drop all of this after stepping foot on these islands. We were at the mercy of the sea, just like all the birds around us. Although, you could clearly see that they were far superior in coping with this. Flying directly into storms as we huddled by the log fire and calculated food rations. This taught me a life-long lesson that planning is no always possible. That, and a sense of humour can carry me through most things. This was a wild debut to my conservation career and what an unforgettable experience. After all, its not every day that you wake up to a puffin in your bedroom. Unfortunately.