Well, that’s it, my stay on Ramsey Island is over and I’ve returned home. How can I possibly sum up my 13 weeks on the island? There was so much to it, it’s very difficult to know where to start.
I have to start with the island itself, of course. Before I arrived I had already stayed on the island in previous years during the months of April, May, June and July and had seen the landscape of the islands in those months. However, staying for so long, I saw the island transition from mid-spring to high summer and all the changes to the landscapes that this brings. The island at the end of April is a very different one to that of the end of July. At the beginning of the period, life was just returning and the first flowers were starting to appear while at the end, many different flowers have bloomed and died back with only the last major display to come. In May came the vast swathes of blue bells, huge carpets on the eastern valleys south of the farmhouse but also dominating the slopes of the two larger hills, Carn Ysgubor and Carn Llundain. These were joined by the smaller, more delicate spring squill carpets and then by the thrift on the cliff tops. These are then taken over by the dominance of the bracken which, in many places, grows with so much energy that is shades out the blue bells before they have finished. Finally, just as I was concluding my stay, the heathland started to turn a bright pink with the flowering of the heather.
The weather was relatively benign with no major storms, but there was plenty of wind and some rain, particularly during the middle third of my stay. More than anything, the temperature was the dominant aspect of the weather, with the island only really starting to warm up in the second half of June. The first few weeks were often spent wearing thermals and at night curling up in bed with extra blankets, hot water bottles, socks and a hat; seeing my breath while in bed wasn’t uncommon, particularly if there was a northernly wind, blowing against my bedroom window. During the last week of May and the first half of June, I did start to wonder whether I would see any summer weather while on the island as it was so cold, windy and sometimes wet. However, for the final few weeks I had fantastic weather and shorts were standard wear. Whilst this was lovely for me, by the end of my stay, the island was looking very dry. Last years’ drought followed by a relatively dry year so far had left the ground parched with the dark green bracken almost disguising wider brown tinge of the island.
One aspect of the island that always strikes me is the great variation between the east and the west and the north and the south. If days are spent purely in the north and east, on the sheep fields between the Bungalow and the farmhouse, it’s almost possible to forget how very different the other side of the island is. The high sea cliffs facing west out to the forces of the Irish Sea and the Atlantic are much more rugged and dramatic than the and gently sloping fields to the east, facing the low rolling patchwork landscape of the St David’s Peninsula. The west feels disconnected from the mainland while the east reaches out and almost seems to touch the rest of Wales. The other contract is between the agricultural north and the wilder south. The north is very much a working farm with short-clipped pasture and drystone walls whilst the south is open maritime heathland with fewer signs of human interaction. I tried as much as I could to give all areas of the island equal attention and I even found a new hidden spot in the north, away from public areas where it’s possible to get down to the sea.
The main purpose of volunteering, and in fact the RSPB’s existence on the island, is to support the wildlife; and that wildlife can be pretty spectacular. As might be expected, the birds dominate and two species in particular; chough and manx shearwaters. The island is a strong hold for chough with nine pairs successfully breeding (of around 400 pairs in the British Isles) this year and by the end of the my stay, the family groups were splitting and larger flocks forming, especially in evenings, as the following video shows:
It would be hard not to see the joy in how they fly and I’m sure they play in the air for fun. Their calls ring out across the island throughout the year and during the day time are the dominant bird species out on the sheep fields. The shearwaters, however, dominate the night-time and their nocturnal calls are a memory many volunteers take away from the island. I had plenty of involvement with both these birds during my stay but perhaps the most memorable wildlife spectacle of the entire 13 weeks was seeing vast rafts of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of shearwaters on a flat calm sea as they waited for night to fall so they could make their landing onto islands of Skomer and Skokholm to the south of Ramsey. As the birds lifted, they appeared like swarms above the water, streaming south in great waves of life. I’ve never seen such a mass of wild life in one place and I’ll not be forgetting that evening quickly.
Another great spectacle I witnessed on the island for the first time was the fledging of the young auks (guillemots and razorbills) from those high sea cliffs on the west coast. The chicks make a ‘willocking’ call in response to the adults calling up from the water at the base of the cliffs. Eventually with enough encouragement, the flightless chicks fledge by leaping off the narrow ledges and into the water, hopefully not hitting too many rocks on the way down. I spent an evening watching the splashing of the fledging, with an eye kept on the passing shearwaters too. It was so strange that after seeing the cliffs full of life for so long that, after a few days of not going to the west coast, I found the cliffs empty of life, except for the small colonies kittiwakes.
The final spectacle came with a free trip out to Grassholm, which is home to 36,000 pairs of Gannets and around 80,000 individuals altogether. I had seen the white-topped island from afar many times standing on Ramsey but getting up close was something else. The sound of all the birds was incredible and the mass of birds moving to and from the island really has to be seen. I was just sad that I didn’t, in the end, get to go out again and land on the island; hopefully another time!
In all, I saw 69 species of birds during my stay, way more than I normally would over two weeks but I did miss a few that others saw. However, I did get great views of the one species that some people made long trips to see. The myrtle warbler, an American vagrant, appeared on the island for 24 hours and I managed to get some good photographs of it. Photos have now appeared in Birdwatch Magazine and will do in the Dutch equivalent. On news spreading that the bird was on the island, some die-hard twitchers booked on the first boat across the next morning; some travelling from Manchester and London just to see it. Unfortunately, despite the bird being seen at 9:30 that following morning, by the time the twitchers got up from the boat to the farm buildings at around 10:15, the bird had gone.
The island and the surrounding waters are not just home to birds, however, and I had great views of the seals, with the first pups of the year being born just before I left, and many sightings of harbour porpoise on both sides of the island. The most memorable mammal sighting was of somewhere between 50 and 100 common dolphin one lunchtime. From outside the farmhouse, we watched the dolphins for around an hour as they fished in a number of groups out in St. Bride’s Bay, with some pods coming quite close to the island. In amongst them was at least one minke whale, which passed through Ramsey Sound, but unfortunately, despite seeing the visitor boats watching it, I didn’t see the animal itself.
The smaller land mammals also made regular appearances with the rabbit numbers being particularly high at the beginning of my stay. With such high numbers, the variation in colours really stood out with many more white, black and ginger versions around than I think I have seen before. The island voles also made their presence known quite often in the Bungalow by running around the rooms and behind the walls. However, I didn’t have the experience that others have had when sleeping in the ensuite room; having a vole curl up in bed with you!
Overall, it was just special to spend so much time being in amongst so much wildlife and so frequently stopping for a moment to observe nature. Having a pair of binoculars around my neck was the norm and it feels odd not to have them there anymore.
I do have to highlight to some that this wasn’t just a three-month holiday, it wasn’t equivalent to going travelling for thirteen weeks either. Even my usual short-term volunteering for two weeks each year is a working holiday but this time I had the opportunity to get more deeply involved in the running of the island and supporting the conservation activities. This list summarises all the work I did (probably forgotten something):
- Helping visitors alight from and board the boats each day
- Introductory talks to each boat-load of visitors
- Staffing the island shop for each boat arrival and before the last departure
- Leading guided walks
- Weekly chough nest observations (up to one hour watches at nests during breeding season to record activity e.g. incubating, feeding or fledging)
- Breeding bird surveys
- Chough transect surveys
- Wheatear transect surveys
- Manx shearwater nest burrow response surveys
- Manx shearwater chick weekly weight surveys
- Supporting Manx shearwater leg ringing
- Casual bird observations
- Building maintenance and decorating
- Maintaining and cleaning visitor facilities
- Fence and stile maintenance
- Bracken and thistle control – scything and bruising with the quad bike
- Path maintenance
- Helping to lead the short-term volunteers
- Using the quad bike to move luggage and goods around the island
- Cake baking, pizza making and pancake frying
I loved all the work and the great variation made sure each day was different and I took away more experience and more skills than I had before. There were, however, a few tasks that I particularly enjoyed. Driving the quad bike and using it to bruise bracken, which was just plain fun, but I probably enjoyed the work with the manx shearwaters the most including helping with ringing, the response surveys and the weekly chick weighing. I also enjoyed leading the guided walks; spending three hours showing the island and its wildlife to a group of 16 interested visitors was a joy. However, I have to say that there is something very lovely about lying at the top of a cliff in the sun watching the activities of a breeding pair of chough around their nest site – tough work but someone has to do it!
It probably doesn’t need to be said that life on the island is very different from my norm, living on the edge of the Cheshire countryside and commuting daily either to Manchester city centre or across to Lincolnshire. Spending three months as an islander is very special and not something the vast majority of people get to do. It is very much a simpler life, with a much slower tempo. Now that I have returned home, I keep noticing odd little luxuries such my electric kettle, not sharing my food cupboards with a range of invertebrates or an oven that stays in one place when you try opening the door. However, my life at home doesn’t necessarily seem improved by these things and in some ways my life feels a little diminished by them.
When the visitor boats are running to the island, there is a very fixed routine, seven days a week. Whilst I had a day off a week, I didn’t always feel I needed it but it was good to get off the island every two or three weeks to make sure my food stayed interesting and that I didn’t go completely feral!
With a shorter working day and a much shorter commute than usual, there was much more time on the island for pleasure and leisure; whether that was going for a walk, photography, meditation, going in search of wildlife, reading, or just sitting and looking at the world around. When the better arrived, so did a new pass time – swimming in the sea. I have to admit, before my stay on the island, the last time I swam was over 25 years ago and at that point I could barely swim. So after sitting out two sessions, I was finally persuaded to enter the water (thank you, Nia!) and I haven’t looked back. I’m sitting writing this post at Stockholm Airport on the return from a short stay out in the Swedish countryside and I swam in a nearby lake every day, eventually swimming over 50 metres in one go – thanks to my friends on Ramsey, this is a fairly dramatic change!
The biggest difference between the island and being at home is living communally and it is perhaps the aspect of my stay I will miss the most. I really enjoyed living with people, all of them, and it was always sad to see each short-term volunteer leave but great when each new one arrived. It took some getting used to, particularly the change over periods; having settled into one little Bungalow community, the patterns of life always altered slightly when volunteers left and new ones arrived. The Bungalow felt even more like home than it usually does and it was sometimes hard not to be a bit grumpy when things were not done in the ways that had become the norm – something I never have to get used to at home. However, when I now get home and shut the door, shut out the outside world, the house will be silent, save for the ticking clock; I will miss sharing the Bungalow with others.
Another key aspect that is so great about staying on Ramsey is spending time with like-minded people and those who also love the island. In my normal life, away from the island, I have less connection to people who are so passionate about nature, the environment and conservation, and some people see such interests as odd or out of the norm. Being on the island means being with people who share interests and a common cause, and in for a very intensive period of time.
It would be a little risky to list all the people that made such a positive impact on my stay on the island, I would be bound to forget someone. However, there are some who must be mentioned. I have to thank Greg, the Site Manager, and Lisa, the Warden, for asking me to come for three months in the first place, but then for putting up with me for all that time! I owe them so very much and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay them (except in pancakes and pizza). I also have to mention Alys, the other long term volunteer who took over from me for the second half of the season. She put up with my grumpiness but also share great times in the Bungalow with other volunteers – although I did have to listen to far too much talk about Love Island!
All my fellow volunteers should be mentioned too; John, Sylvia, Steve, Chris, Dave, Sonia, Peter, Linda, Gwyneth, Julianne, Ali and Vicky. They all made living in the Bungalow a joy and life would have been emptier and less interesting and fun without them!
There is also a wider community beyond the island itself that volunteers are part of, no matter how long they stay. This community includes Derek, the farmer who supports the island, the lovely boat skippers and crew, the slipmasters and the booking office team plus a whole range of others who visit or work on or around the island and the neighbouring mainland.
There also needs to be a mention of the visitors who make the short trip across Ramsey Sound each day. Looking after and talking to visitors is a big part of what the volunteers do, from helping them get on or off the boats, giving introductory talks, serving them in the shop, guiding them on walks, answering questions and queries, to just having a chat. Over the years I’ve met and talked to some very nice people and now even recognise some regulars as they get off the boat. They have also been very nice to me including giving me a enthusiastically sung rendition of Happy Birthday as they arrived on the second boat on my ‘big day’ and giving me a round of applause at the end of my last introductory talk.
I think my birthday also needs a special mention. The only previous time I had a birthday on the island was a day I left, so it wasn’t exactly a good one! However, my birthday this year was a couple of weekends before I vacated the Bungalow. I have to say that it was one of the best, and certainly the funniest, I’ve had. With Greg, Lisa, Alys plus Julianne (short-term volunteer) and Nia (former Reserve Assistant), my birthday was made most memorable by being presented with my present from Alys; a giant, inflatable pink flamingo/swan, later named Penny. We inflated it and then launched it on the water in the bay behind the harbour, tethered to the land by a very long rope. At one point we had all six of us on it and there are plenty of photos which should probably not be made public! I’m not sure I’ve laughed so much in years!
There is a final person who can never go unmentioned. Well, not a person in the truest sense, but he’s just as important as anyone else to the island; Dewi the sheepdog. In fact, he’s so much part of the island life, he’s now been immortalised in paint on the walls of the Bungalow. Love you, Dewi!!!
I suppose all the above paragraphs are talking about me anyway but there are a few extra points. Whilst I’ve gained more skills and experience in conservation which I can take forward into future volunteering, I’ve also gained more personal insight.
I have recognised again that I need to make each day count, live in the moment and say ‘yes’ to opportunities more often. I also really need to stop looking too far ahead; I couldn’t stop continuously counting down the weeks and days I had left on the island – always annoying but it’s just me. I have also recognised again that the simplest of things can give the greatest pleasure – the first sunny day after weeks of wind and rain, the taste of freshly baked bread, picking up a manx shearwater chick. We surround ourselves with so much in modern life that the simple things so often get missed.
I’ve already said this wasn’t a holiday, not even a working holiday this time, it was in many ways living a different life for three whole months, just as my blog post before I arrived stated. However, in some ways that was misleading. In reality, it was almost a fantasy as I didn’t have the usual day-to-day concerns that everyone else has when doing this for real. When I’m on the island, those concerns are shut off in the life I have left behind and paused, when I’m there I’m free of them, most of the time at least.
I also very much have a feeling of a job not completed. My stint spanned the first half of the open season on the island and there will be so much happening in the second half. Life, obviously, continues on the island without me and I would have loved to have seen the rest of the season through.
All the paragraphs above are why it is has been an absolute privilege to stay for so long on the island having experiences you can’t pay for and making memories I won’t forget. Each time I leave, there is a sense of loss and this time it has been so much harder. I managed to keep my composure as I left the island, just, and it would have been easier not to have done. This sense of loss comes from a love for the island and a love for that life. It is, however, a shared love, a shared love for the island and all that it gives us. Like many, the island has given me far more than I have given in return.
Now that my time on the island has come to an end, I feel the need to break free from the grasp the island has on me. It feels like cutting off my nose to spite my face but I have a strong urge to leave the island behind to reduce the hurt of leaving. I have no doubt that I will be back to stay again on the island but when, I’m not sure, and when I do return, for how long. Without doubt I will be back to visit for a day or so, maybe even later this year, but when will I be back for another stay? I don’t know; I know what I would like but we can’t always have those things.
Thank you Ramsey Island!