Letting Ramsey back in

It is now over three years since I spent three late spring and early summer months as the long term volunteer on the RSPB’s Ramsey Island reserve. It seems like a lifetime ago and so much has happened in my life over the intervening years. A new job, COVID-19, a new house in a new area, and, most notable for me, a wedding, had put the island very much to the back of my mind. They were a fantastic three months, a highlight of my life without a doubt, but life very quickly moved on after I left, and bar the small matter of a global pandemic and cost of living crisis, very much for the positive, 

I used to think about Ramsey Island a lot more often, often stimulated by the painting of St Justinian’s (the launching point for boats to the island) above my bed and other prints and photos on the walls of my old house. Despite those pictures being transferred to my new home, they have somewhat melted into the background; familiarity moving those images to the periphery of my vision. I also think, knowing that I couldn’t go, as volunteers haven’t been able to over the past two visitor seasons on the island, putting it as the back of my mind stopped me moping about it.

However, the opportunity for another stay on the island could not be missed. Having got out of the routine of an annual stay, as it had been between 2012 and 2018, it almost came as a surprise to me when the day arrived to travel across England and Wales to the familiar coast of Pembrokeshire. My packing was a little haphazard and my food very much a last-minute consideration, but, I have everything I need for a week.

The weather was beautiful when I arrived and has been the same since; almost wall to wall sunshine leaving me feeling sun-kissed each evening, although some of that might be wind burn as the strength of the northerlies have increased over the course of my stay. Having had a recent close shave with the effects of the sun on skin, my application of factor 50 has been a little more liberal this time, as has the wearing of my caps; it’s pretty exposed out here and the breeze can easily disguise the strength of the sun.

Arriving on the late summer bank holiday weekend, I half expected the island to be busy with visitors every day but the winds have meant that boats bringing them have only run for two days of my week’s stay; and I’m leaving a day early for the same reason.

While my life and the world has changed so much over the last three years, there are some very stable things about Ramsey which are gently reassuring. The scenery, on land and sea; the familiar birds feeding on the pasture, across the heathland and out over the water; the boats around the island, the ships in the Bay and the ferries on their routine journeys across to Ireland and back; the sounds of manxies at night and chough during the day; the flickering lights on the mainland and Milky Way overhead, and the stunning sunrises and sunsets; they all give a sense of continuation and permanence, that Ramsey is a constant in an ever changing world.

But, things do change here. There is a new warden, Nia, and another long-term volunteer, Luke. There is a new dog, Jinx, who has been trained to sniff out rats on land and sea, and the sheep dog, Dewi, indisputably the best dog in the world, is now very much the old boy of the island. The Bungalow, the volunteer accommodation, has been transformed, but not quite finished, with a fresh, clean look inside with new interior walls, a new stove, more electricity with sockets in each bedroom, and double glazing all round. There is just the kitchen and bathroom to remodel this autumn and the change will be amazing.

Ramsey, also, cannot escape the global changes and issues that are being faced in so many other places. Like the most of the UK, and elsewhere, Ramsey has experienced exceptionally low rainfall this year; climate change is casting a shadow over the island. I’ve never seen the place so dry and the grass isn’t just brown, it is non-existent in some areas. Not helped by the enormous rabbit population as the moment, the grass is so poor that the sheep, already down to a couple of dozen from around one hundred when I was last on the island, will be taken to the mainland at the end of the season.

There is another shadow over the island which is bringing dread of what is to come. Before I arrived, the news emerged that Grassholm, the other main island that is part of the reserve, has been hit by avian influenza. After reading awful stories from further north in the UK, and seeing signs of it in the Outer Hebrides, the news that bird flu had reached this hugely important gannet colony was a massive blow. Both on Grassholm and on Ramsey itself, as well as on the other Pembrokeshire Islands, bird flu could do enormous damage and undo so much of the decades of hard work of the conservationists. Ramsey’s birdlife is still recovering following the rat eradication over the Millennium winter with further good news this year, after the latest survey, that Manx Shearwater numbers have increased strongly again. As the adults and fledglings leave the island this year, it is hoped that they have avoided bird flu in this colony but there is anxiety over what may happen if it gains a greater grip over the winter and when they return next year.

I can’t end this post on a sad note, however. My stay on the island has been as lovely as ever and I will be very sad to leave it behind again. It is a truly beautiful place, and that won’t change; day visitors and volunteers alike are very privileged to spend a little time here. For me, it is a place that once it has you, it won’t let go no matter how long you spend away from it. Even if the periods of absence do grow longer and my stays shorter, even if it is put to the back of my mind, the island is still a major presence in my little world. Those pictures on the walls of my home will surely come back to life and over the autumn, winter and spring, I will spend a little more time thinking of this amazing place.