Preserving the Farnes - The wardens who work hard to keep the Farne Islands special

PUBLISHED: 10:29 06 June 2012 | UPDATED: 21:28 20 February 2013

Adam Hick heads out of Seahouses harbour in the zodiac off to the islands. ‘Everyday life is so different out here, it can be very hard work but the rewards are immense.’

Adam Hick heads out of Seahouses harbour in the zodiac off to the islands. ‘Everyday life is so different out here, it can be very hard work but the rewards are immense.’

Steve Newman meets the wardens who spend a hard but rewarding life on the National Trust's Farne Islands Reserve

Visiting the Farnes is an experience many of us have at least once. But have you ever stopped to wonder what those polite lads and lasses who take our money as we land and point out the different species of birds to us do once weve returned home?

Adapting to island life is the biggest problem in the beginning. says David Steel from Birtley in County Durham, the head Wwrden of the islands. Were conservators and educators and its 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 11 wardens, six on Inner Farne and five 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 effects of the 45,000 visitors each year.

Home to over a quarter of million birds, the sounds and smells of the islands leave an indelible memory. 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.

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 were doing all kinds of work, including monitoring eider nests. Each warden has 50 nests to look after, we also repair fences and boardwalks and do the paperwork.

But its not only the birds that play a role in the teams wildlife duties. When the islands close to the public in September and the birds start to leave, the emphasis switches to the seals and their pups.

That can be fun too, said David. One of you has to distract the cow from looking after her pup and avoid her teeth so the other can daub the pup with a paint spot so we can trace their movements if theyre spotted along the coast.

And there are other imnportant skills for would-be wardens, too a flair for carpentry, plumbing and a cooking ability all help and they also 13need a high level of diplomacy skills, as was demonstrated on my visit to Staple Island when the wind kicked up and the ebbing tide produced an ever growing swell.

The boatmen radioed into warden Adam Scott from north London saying they wouldnt be able to pick up from the island if the swell got much bigger. We had to make a decision to evacuate the island, said Adam. It was bit scary for us hanging on to the mooring ropes in that swell.

What he doesnt say is the professionalism of the team in getting more than 100 people off the island, some with thousands of pounds of telescopes and camera lenses, very quickly with no grumbles or mishaps.

The Farnes are vital to the economy of Seahouses and the strong link is cemented by the annual Wardens versus Boatmen football match and the after-match session in the pub.

Many boatmen who take visitors out to the islands rely heavily on the 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 life in Seahouses and has the contract to look after the lighthouses on Inner Farne, Longstone and Bamburgh and takes people to the islands on his boat The Golden Gate.

We have the licence to show visitors inside the lighthouse so they can see Grace Darlings bedroom, he says. But people are just as fascinated by the wildlife and its a real pleasure to see their faces and know youre making it a really special day for them.

Dolphins often come along and play with the boats and, like butterflies and moths, these are recorded by the wardens and filed at the end of each year with all the other data for research purposes.

When the weather does turn nasty it means the visitor boats from Seahouses cant land, so a lot more conservation work can be done. It also means the food the team have bought and the water supply sent out from the mainland come into their own. Storms can cut the islands off from the mainland for more than a week at a time, so the team have to make sure they have enough food in the cupboard.

Freezers, fridges and TVs are all powered by solar panels and, while clothes are washed in the laundrette in Seahouses, the public toilets on Inner Farne are flushed using seawater and occasionally
muscle power is needed to keep them in operation.

On the day of my visit the pump for the cisterns had broken down so before the visitor boats arrived the wardens had to trudge from the beach with buckets filled with seawater to top up the tanks not much fun if its low tide and you have to run the gauntlet of the tern colony.

Sticking your hand down a puffin burrow each day may not sound much fun either, but David said: You learn so much out here, not only about nature but yourself.

Whether youre trapping moths to monitor the species or getting a buzz out of the publics reaction to the birds, the days are always different. Apart from anything else we know that we are extremely privileged to live like this in the middle of nature.

Plus at the end of the day on a fantastic summers evening we get the barbecue out and relax there really is nowhere else in the world any of us would rather be.

At home on the Farnes

Saint Cuthbert introduced special laws in 676 protecting the eider ducks, and other seabirds nesting on the islands; these are thought to be the earliest bird protection laws anywhere in the world. Today eider ducks are still called Cuddy Ducks in his honour.

Other famous Farne Island residents include St Aidan, Grace Darling and Elsie The Lesser Crested Tern. From 1984 to 1997 she took a right turn at Gibraltar instead of left during the spring migration and ended up in Northumberland instead of West Africa.

The print version of this article appeared in the June 2012 issue of North East Life

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