One of the great things about volunteering on Ramsey Island is the chance to get involved (even in a small way) in the running of the farm, and in particular looking after the sheep. During my last two stays shearing took place, and last year I helped to round the sheep up and separate the ewes from their lambs ready for the shearers to do their stuff. Today, the ewes were given their anti-fly treatment and had to be rounded up with their lambs from the nursery fields and taken into the barn. Dewi, the island sheepdog (and without doubt the best dog in the world!), did most of the rounding up, although I did play the role of sheepdog in one field and ‘expertly’ drove a few ewes and their lambs to join the rest (and without as much as a ‘come by’ or ‘away’ having to be shouted at me!).
Here’s a few pictures…
Ramsey Island is home to a wide range of wildlife; small and large, rare and common. At present, however, significant efforts are going into, literally, making homes for one particular species; Manx Shearwaters.
When Ramsey was bought by the RSPB in 1992, there were only around 500 pairs of Shearwaters nesting on the island. The presence of rats had reduced the numbers of this species, and of other ground nesting birds, to levels far below those on the nearby rat-free islands of Skomer and Skokholm.
Back in the winter of the turning millennium, a successful rat eradication exercise was undertaken on the island. Since then, the benefits of doing so have shown in the increasing numbers of ground and burrow nesting birds. The last survey of Shearwaters, undertaken last year, and ‘helped’ by me, revealled that the upward trend was continuing with nearly 5,000 pairs recorded.
Whilst the increasing numbers of Shearwaters is very positive news, there’s still much work to do. Monitoring the population remains a key activity for the RSPB on Ramsey and this task is made easier by constructing nest boxes through which easier access can be gained to the birds while they are breeding. The birds usually nest at the far end of rabbit burrows and this makes them tricky to get of off but the nest boxes, with a door in the roof, make the job very simple. The monitoring includes checking on the health of the birds as well as ringing them.
One of my first jobs on the island this time was to help make nest boxes, some of the 100 to be installed on the island’s sheltered east coast. They’re relatively simple wooden boxes to build, with three of the four sides enclosed, one of the longer sides having a round hole cut into it, no bottom, and a thick roof, one half of which is hinged to give access for monitoring. Once installed, the round hole is fitted with a three-foot long tube through which the Shearwaters reach the nest chamber. In total, I put together 11 boxes and they’re now waiting to be installed.
During the last couple of afternoons, we’ve spent a while out on that east coast and installed more than a dozen boxes. The installation is also quite straightforward but requires a bit of hard graft. A hole just large enough to ‘plant’ the box is dug in the sloping side of the island, deep enough for the front of the box to be nearly flush with ground level. With the box in place, a channel is dug from the hole in the side and the is tube installed. All that is required then is for the back half of the box and the tube to be covered with soil and the job is nearly done. The last touches are to put some soft nesting material on the bare earth beneath the box and put up a small piece of bracken at the box end of the entrance tube; if this gets knocked over, it’s a tell-tale that the box has been visited by a Shearwater (or one of those pesky rabbits).
I’ve installed four boxes so far, and they’re more to be done.
One of the aspects of a stay on Ramsey that makes it so special is lying in bed on a dark night and listening to the odd chuckling and gurgling sounds of the Shearwaters as they come back from the sea and head to the burrows. Hopefully, making homes for them will help to play a role in further increasing their numbers and make the nocturnal sounds on the island even more special.
Well, it’s now my third whole day back on Ramsey Island and the time seems to be going very fast (as usual). Steve (the other short term volunteer on at the same time as me) and I were brought across the Sound by jet boat on Saturday as it was too rough for the normal passenger boat (Gower Ranger). After catching up with the wardens (Greg and Lisa) and the long term intern (Sarah), we unpacked and settled back into island life.
We were immediately put to work and each did a chough watch. Essentially, this entailed me lying in the sun for an hour at the top of the cliffs (it’s a tough life here!) looking across towards a chough nest and recording what activity I saw. The choughs will most likely have chicks in the nests now and it seemed to be the case where I was watching with the parents going in and out several times over the hour. I then went for a wander and reacquainted myself with the island – not that it takes a lot of reacquaintance as this is my seventh stay in six years.
On the first full day, the Gower Ranger was running again and we had the usual 10am and 12pm arrivals with 21 visitors in total. After helping them get onto the island and serving in the little shop until the visitors went on their ways around the island, most of us went down to the south. We spent the afternoon clearing the paths up the little, but steep, hill of Foel Fawr. We then had to be back at the shop for the 45 minutes before the Gower Ranger picked up the visitors at 4pm. In the evening, I had a wander around the north of the island and went to the sea watching hide but being an idiot I forgot my binoculars so couldn’t really see much.
Unlike the first day when the weather was lovely, yesterday was pretty awful and it hasn’t got much better today. Yesterday was quiet with no visitors but we spent some time in the workshop making Manx Shearwater nest boxes. It’s unusual for me to actually make something – I seem to spend much of my volunteering either sitting down watching things or chopping stuff down and setting fire to it! Well, after some initial guidance, I made ten boxes altogether and none have fallen apart yet!
Yesterday evening was the annual Wardens Dinner; the now traditional highlight of the island’s social calendar when Steve cooks the wardens (and other hangers on) a great feast, all accompanied by his usual great choice of wines. The evening also turned into an awards night as Steve was presented with his 15 year long service award for volunteering – I’ve got some catching up to do! This morning is a little fuzzy.
Unfortunately my laptop has stopped working but I can still blog using my phone, so hopefully there will be a few more posts over the next two weeks.
…and I’ll be back on the right side of Ramsey Sound!!!
The next layer of watercolour is being painted across the slowly disappearing pencil sketch, as the earliest of spring’s signs fade and the next flourishes begin to take form over the canvas of the Glaslyn Valley. Perhaps today, however, isn’t one of the days when too many flourishes appear; the spring seems to be taking a breather under the dark cloud lying heavily over the landscape. There’s a strong and chilling easterly wind which seems to be keeping the heads of the wildlife down and under shelter. The vividness of the season is washed out by the greyness of the light and the eruptive sounds of spring are held back by the breeze. The hill and mountain sides are masked under a veil of mist and haze with an occasional spot or two fine rain, taking more warmth away from the air.
The whooper swans have returned to their still snow-locked breeding grounds on their north Atlantic island, arriving while winter has still to loosen its grip. The fieldfares and redwings regain their strength feeding on the lawns of Scandinavian summer houses amongst the pines and lakes; even there the days can switch from warm summer-like mornings to afternoons of sleet, the land still not out of reach the slowly retreating fingers of winter. Back above the Glaslyn, on the moor tops, the birds are starting to settle into their nests wth both the curlew and hen harrier on eggs.
In the shelter of the woodland, there is now a riot of colour as the bluebells are in their prime, covering the floor with delicate blooms. Other flowers, however, have been and gone; only the standing leaves remain of the daffodils and the bright yellow of the gorse is starting to fade and dry. The last few trees remain without leaves while many are still to be in their full flush. More is to come, however, with the bramble in leaf but yet to flower and the irises and foxgloves are starting to grow tall on the wet verges. Down on the river bank, with the water now well below its winter flood, there’s a sprinkling of cuckoo flowers giving a backdrop to a paddling mute swan.
The young badger and fox cubs are becoming more confident by the day, taking greater steps away from their underground homes, and the otter pups have had their first dip into the river. The bank voles are starting to appear more frequently on top of the drystone wall, feeding on seed left out for the birds, and the bats are out in the evenings, hopefully taking a few midges from outside the caravan.
More summer visitors are arriving from the south with the swallows now flitting across the meadows at the end of the journey I saw the beginning of only a few weeks ago. Someone saw a swift nearby but I’ve yet to see my favourite bird and the house martins are in the area but also unseen by me. Finally, a cuckoo breaks the gloom’s spell, a true herald of spring and now an occasional patch of blue comes out from behind the grey clouds.
Having found mates and laid eggs, the birds are now in the long wait for hatching and then the energy of spring really will come to its peak. Endless cries for food will spark parents into a frenzy of gathering and providing. High up in the wind buffeted copse, three eggs now lie beneath the warming breast of an osprey but it will be weeks until the first cracks appear in their shells.
It was a very quiet shift today, not a lot to mention at all; there wasn’t even a fish delivery to write about. Aran was around the Glaslyn nest for most of the day but did disappear at one point and visit the ‘other woman’ at the Post Croesor nest but returned quite quickly and shared the incubation duties with Mrs G. This really is the calm before the storm; once the eggs hatch, Aran won’t have much time for hanging around.
It’s an unusual thing to do, sit alone in a cold caravan or shed for hours on end making sure that no one interferes with the eggs of a wild bird, but people do it and many do other similar things.
Volunteering may seem to some like a selfless act but I think it’s just as much about the volunteer as it is about the cause. We wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t something in it for us – well, my volunteering certainly isn’t selfless.
I volunteer for a whole range of reasons and, yes, supporting causes I care about is right at the top of the list and I wouldn’t volunteer if I didn’t feel I was personally making a difference (and sometimes I do have doubts). However, another major reason I volunteer is because I feel it makes me more three-dimensional. It gives me something more interesting to talk about than what’s happened on Eastenders, who won the game last night or what I bought at the weekend. It also stops me being solely defined by my work and I love the fact that my volunteering is so utterly different to my job. I enjoy my work, and I like working in a big city. However, days surrounded by managed air amongst the glass and concrete lead to yearnings for the fresh air and greenness of the countryside. Just working and making little of my weekends makes me miserable, and as I have a lot of spare time with which do whatever I wish, there could be a lot of time to be miserable.
Through doing a range of things I wouldn’t ordinarily do, or at least wouldn’t have done in the past, volunteering also expands my mind, increasing my knowledge and understanding, and leads to even more interests. It’s just difficult to decide what to look into next.
Through volunteering you can have opportunities to go to places and do things that most people can’t – I don’t know many people in my day-to-day life who get to stay on a stunningly-lovely, almost deserted island for two weeks each year for free— and you get a whole raft of experiences to talk and write about. You also get to meet fascinating and like-minded people, with whom to share those experiences; the only problem being they always seem to have done many more interesting things than me – I must try harder!
Volunteering can change you – even a meat-eating, car-loving, shaved-headed person like me can turn more veggie, beardy and earth-loving given enough influences from the right people. I’m certainly not the same person I was when I first began volunteering nearly six years ago – for a start, back then I wouldn’t have dreamt of posting soppy creative writing on the internet for the world to see!
Overall, however, I see the volunteering I do as a privilege; not everyone can or is able to do it and the experiences have made memories that I will never forget.
It will be a month or more until I return to Glaslyn (I have two weeks on a stunningly-lovely, nearly deserted island before then) and hopefully there will be chicks in the nests when I do.