National Trust's Farne Islands reserve

PUBLISHED: 22:56 14 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013

The staggering views of seabirds and their colonies are what many visitors remember about the Farnes

The staggering views of seabirds and their colonies are what many visitors remember about the Farnes

Steve Newman meets the five young men who spend a hardworking but vastly rewarding life on Inner Farne, the largest of the islands that form the National Trust's Farne Islands reserve.


Visiting the Farnes is an experience most of us in the North East have at least once in our lives. But have you ever wondered what those polite lads who take our money as we land and point out the different species of birds to us do for the rest of the time?

Sticking your hand down a puffin burrow on a daily basis may not sound the ideal career move, but competition for places is intense.

Each year when the job advertisement appears the applications come flooding in. This particular job description is part of the work carried out on the Farne Islands. The National Trust reserve two miles off the Northumberland coast is a place where the birds are totally contemptuous of human beings and have no hesitation in showing it.

'Adapting to island life is the biggest problem out here in the beginning,' says David Steel from Birtley in County Durham, Head Warden of the islands. 'We're conservationists and educators and it's probably true to say that the islands are the closest most of our visitors will ever get to nature in the wild.'

David is one of the nine wardens, five on Inner Farne and four on Brownsman, who spend between five and eight months on the islands carrying out conservation and scientific work, as well as protecting the birds from the effect of the thousands of visitors each year.

Home to over a quarter of million seabirds, the sounds and smells of the islands leave an indelible memory on you. The Arctic terns in particular have a way of dive bombing as you walk along the path that passes through their colony. A hard hat is definitely recommended to avoid injury.

'Visitors to the Farnes tend be of many types,' said David. Schoolchildren - over 4,000 a year - day trippers, families on holiday and serious birdwatchers combine to create 40,000 visitors a year to the islands.

To ensure that the birds are not continually disturbed, the landing times are staggered, which also allows the wardens to carry out their conservation work free from making sure over zealous visitors don't walk into the breeding areas or plummet over the cliffs. They also need to make sure the excitement of the islands means no one breaks into a run and accidentally treads on eggs or chicks.

As well as dealing with the public, the lads have a great deal of work to do. 'People tend to think we only work the three and a half hours each island is open,' said Davy Still, from Melrose. 'But, in fact, we're doing all kinds of work, including monitoring eider nests - each warden has 50 nests to look after - repairing fences and boardwalks or filling in paperwork. Mind you, if a rare bird lands we all drop tools and rush to grab to our scopes.'

'The Farnes is a prized posting for those who want to make their career in conservation,' said Jason Moss, from Norfolk. 'It's a really good one to get on your CV. It shows you can live for a long period of time with a small group of people and that you've been trained to carry out conservation work of the highest standard while dealing with the public.'

However, it's just not birding skills that are important. A flair for carpentry, plumbing and a definite 'haute cuisine' cooking ability all help. After spending eight months together, you'd think the lads would be tired of one another but, no, at the end of each season you often find them going off to explore India or some other part of the world and friendships forged on the islands often last a lifetime.

'The job out here is made easier because of the fact that you don't get people on motor bikes driving through the nesting colonies or playing football on at-risk areas,' said Paul MacDonald, from Cumbria. When each island is closed counts of the birds can take place. 'Trying to count guillemots in blocks of 50 on a cliff face isn't too bad. But it when has to be done from the inflatable beneath the cliffs, with a big swell running, it can be a bit hairy. June is a really busy month for us as we really get into the swing of the census. By the end of it we're all sure to be pretty drained.'

When the weather does turn nasty it means that the visitor boats from Seahouses can't land so a lot more conservation work can be done. It also means the food the lads have bought in Seahouses and the water supply sent out from the mainland comes into its own. Storms can cut the islands off from the mainland for over a week.

The freezer, fridge and TV are all powered by solar panels but toilets are flushed by using seawater, clothes are washed in the laundrette in Seahouses, but occasionally muscle power comes into it. On the day of my visit the pump for the toilets cisterns had broken down so before the visitor boats arrived the lads had to trudge from the beach with plastic containers filled with seawater to top up the header tanks - not much fun if its low tide and you've got to run the gauntlet of the tern colony.

The Farnes are a vital source of revenue for the economy of Seahouses and many of the boatmen who take visitors out to the islands rely heavily on this trade. Inner Farne and Staple are the two most visited islands but Longstone, further out, also has a landing stage. George Shiel has lived all his 55 years in Seahouses, has the contract with Trinity House to look after the lighthouses on Inner Farne, Longstone and Bamburgh and runs a party boat to the island on his boat, the Golden Gate. 'We have the licence to show visitors inside the lighthouse so they can see Grace Darling's bedroom,' he says, 'but people are just as fascinated by the wildlife and it's real pleasure to see their faces and know you're making it a really special day for them.'

The wildlife is not just limited to the islands as dolphins often come and play alongside the boats and, like butterflies and moths, these are recorded by the lads and filed at the end of the year with all the other data for research purposes.

All the cooking on the islands is done on gas bottles, which also supply the heating. The latter comes in handy towards the end of the year when the wardens are cold and wet from monitoring the seal pups. They work in pairs with one distracting the cow and the other applying dye to the pup.

'Heating helps with one of the one biggest problems because even in long periods of fine weather our clothes seem to be continuously damp,' said Adam Hicks, from Lincolnshire. 'Everyday life is so different out here. It can be very hard work but the rewards are immense.'

They all agree with David Steel when he says: 'You learn so much out here not only about nature but yourself. Whether you're trapping moths to monitor the species or getting a buzz out of the public's reaction to the birds, the days are always different. Apart from anything else, you're extremely privileged to live like this in the middle of nature. Plus,at the end of the day, on a fantastic summer's evening we get the barbecue out and relax there's nowhere else in the world we'd rather be.''

For more information about the Farne Islands and visiting times, contact the Tourist Information centre on 01289 330733 or go to the National Trust website, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-farnes


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