It’s taken me an age to get around to writing this post – must try harder! Towards the end of October I returned to the scene of some of my happiest times during my year off in 2011/12; the Isle of Mull. It wasn’t the first Scottish Island I’d visited, Islay and Jura came first, but this really was the place that kicked off my long, interrupted, odyssey around the Hebrides and Northern Isles.
I had promised myself not to return to previously visited islands until I’d been to all the larger islands or archipelagos but I had a choice – Shetland in October or a return trip to a previous spot. Of those I’d been to before, Mull was an easy choice; it’s relatively easy to get to, it’s less exposed than others to those autumn storms, and it’s just that little bit more cosy than some of the others.
I’ll stop talk about ‘I’ now as there were two of us on this trip, and that was another reason for choosing Mull. One of us hadn’t been there before and it was somewhere I had a good chance of playing the ‘Wildlife Guide’ for a week having previously spent a fortnight getting to know the place very well, or at least some of the best wildlife-watching spots.
The route to Mull was quite simple for us, up the M6 to the Border, past Glasgow and over the Erskine Bridge and then alongside the lovely Loch Lomond. Just past the northern shoreline, we turned left and headed west to Oban, where was found a lovely bright autumnal day. Having arrived early for our booked ferry we tried to get on an earlier one but in the end we were grateful that we didn’t. The short crossing to Craignure, only an hour, was spent up on the deck and we were given a spectacular view towards the setting sun with light shining between the heavy, brooding, rain-laden clouds.
Another reason for deciding on Mull was the cottage we found. I can very honestly say that it was the best holiday cottage I’ve stayed in and by quite some margin. That’s no reflection on some of the other great places I’ve stayed, rather it’s just that the Old Little Theatre at Dervaig is unique. We arrived as dark was descending so we didn’t get a great view of the outside but on opening the front door and walking in, it was even better than the photos had shown. It was once the smallest professional theatre in the world and, essentially, just a small stone garage-type building. Now it has been extended with the addition of several modern rooms at the front and sides, to make a stylish but quirky holiday home. Whilst it is in many ways very modern, it still has little touches of its old use with theatrical flourishes and artefacts dotted around the inside. The single bedroom has a huge floor to ceiling picture window which enables you to lie in bed looking out across a lovely wide, flat-bottomed river valley. The place is just about perfect!
With six full days on the island, we spent them looking for wildlife and at the scenery, despite the mixed weather. The rain and wind with some occasional sunnier weather were not exactly unexpected conditions for the Hebrides in the autumn. Our first full day was our only really perfect one, weatherwise, and our visit to the main town, Tobermory, included a sit on a quayside bench in the surprisingly warm autumn sun. We then did a big loop of the island driving around clockwise on the main road down towards the Ross of Mull before turning right onto the north side of Loch Scridain. There are actually two loops, a northern and a southern, which intersect at a short cut-through from Salen on the east coast to Gruline on Loch Na Keal on the west coast. On that first day, we did both loops, driving almost the entire road around the island but missing out the Ross. This then became a familiar route with parts of the loops done most days in amongst other activities.
For much of the route around the island, the road picks its way along the edge of sounds and lochs, sometimes coming inland to rise up through mountain passes. The road is often just a single track with passing places but there are sections of standard single carriageway along the east and southern sides of the island, making journeys a little quicker than along the west and north coasts. The scenery is dominated by hills and mountains as well as the hugely indented coastline. There is a mixture of green pasture and high grassy hillsides with many of the valley bottoms swathed in damp oak woodland. The autumn had brought an orange and yellow tinge to the views with the oaks and larches vibrant amongst the rusty-turned grasses and bracken.
For me, the most memorable moment of our rambling journeys around the island was on the last day. We were getting a bit desperate in our searching for an otter; we’d looked in all the places I’d had success before but without even a momentary glimpse. My otter-sense, which has worked very well on Mull and Skye preciously, was letting me down. We’d stopped at a pull-in to the north of Salen quite a few times, or so it seemed, but we had to give it one last chance. The conditions were just about perfect for otter spotting; a low tide and still, calm waters. We spent a little while scanning the water and were just about to give up when I spotted some movement in between some little, seaweed topped islets. I thought it would probably be just a rock, again, or another sea-going Mallard but after blinking a couple of times I was sure. The three little blobs in a row were unmistakable; an ottery head, back and tail. It didn’t take long for it to roll head first/tail last down under the surface and disappear. We thought that might have been it but we spotted it again a minute or two later coming around the far side of the larger of the islets. There we watched it for what must have been at least an hour; otters seem to have some kind of time-bending capabilities. It spent a lot of time climbing on and off the seaweed covered rocks and fishing in the shallows. At one stage a group of Brent geese approached but were soon paddling off when they spotted the otter close by. Eventually, we had to leave and we moved on as the otter disappeared below the surface and behind the islets again.
That spot north of Salen was like looking at one of those nature reserve information boards that has the view painted behind a selection of all the creatures you had even a slight chance of seeing but usually don’t. In this case, we were blessed with a view of so many of those creatures actually out there where they are supposed to be. In addition to the otter was a wide selection of birdlife. From the waders feeding at the water’s edge, curlew and redshank, and the range ducks, including mallard, widgeon and a solitary eider, to a few gulls and the ever-present herons. The corvids were there too with quite a few hooded crows picking amongst the seaweed and a raven cronking overhead. A few more water birds were dotted about with red-breasted mergansers in the outfall from the river into the sea and that small group of Brent geese passing through on migration. In the trees around where we were standing were newly arrived winter thrushes, with the redwings ‘seeping’ and fieldfares cackling. I have to admit, I do keep a record of the wildlife I see, not just birds but mammals, butterflies and amphibians too. I do so, not simply to have a ever-growing list of ticks, but to note just how rich, or otherwise, an area’s wildlife is. At that particular spot, I could see from all the species, just how rich in wildlife a place Mull really is. All the scene really needed was an eagle or two to fly across above us, and it would have been complete; if we’d stayed a bit longer, maybe we’d have see one!
The other memorable mammalian moment was on the second full day on the island when we went on a three hour boat trip from Tobermory Harbour out into the Sound of Mull and and beyond towards and past Coll. We spent quite some time looking for groups of feeding seabirds and finding many, with large groups of gulls and auks feeding on fish at and below the surface. Suddenly there appeared a minke whale amongst them and we watched for quite a few minutes while it surfaced and dived. The scene of the whale and the feeding birds was made even more wild by the sense of being surrounded by so many of the Scottish islands; Jura, Tiree, Coll, Barra, South Uist, Eigg, Muck, Rum and Skye as well as the Ardnamuchan Peninsula.
Our trip was slightly hampered by me being ill throughout the stay and we didn’t do much walking at all because of that but it was lovely just to drive around the island stopping at familiar spots to look at the scenery and watch the wildlife. Eventually, our time on the island had to come to an end and it was with heavy hearts that on a dark morning we closed the door to the Little Old Theatre behind us. I usually avoid talking about the journey home from holidays but this one was particularly memorable. The sun rose just as we got to the ferry terminal and the light revealed glassy still waters and snowy mountain tops. As we pulled out of Craignure, Mull looked fabulous in its autumn finery. Once on the mainland, the scenery was just as spectacular with deep valleys swathed in rusty yellows and oranges with snow scattered over the peaks. It was hard not to want to stop every mile or so to get out and stare at the views but it was a long journey home and we had to press on.
I don’t like to pick favourites amongst the Scottish islands, they are all beautiful in their different ways. However, Mull was an easy choice to return to and it turned out just about a perfect decision.
Sitting on the doorstep of the Bungalow, the silence washes over me. Not a total silence but an absence of manmade sound. Nature is here, all around, and the calls of the birds fill the landscape, from the sheep-clipped pastures to the hazy sky. It is so quiet at this spot, that I hear a swallow’s wingbeats as it urgently flies past gathering food in preparation for its long journey south. Behind me, above the rocky hillside, comes the harsh bullet-ricochet cry of a chough, eventually it descends past down to the drystone wall and further to forage in the grass.
The busy meadow pipits scurry amongst the other chough, feeding around the tussocks while family groups of linnet chatter on their way above them. Two crows harshly call to each other from opposing sides of a field while an autumn robins sings a soft melody from a wall-top perch. A raven on the wing cronks and croaks as floats its way towards the peak and a gull yelps in amongst a flock gliding above the bay. Deep below from amongst the rocks and boulders, the cries of seal pups rises up the cliff face and spreads out across the island, with their mothers bickering as the tide rises around them.
In the distance, the rolling breakers rumble into the shallow-sloping beach as my focus is sharply brought closer as bee bumbles past my eyes, after the last flowers of the slowly fading summer. The peace is abruptly broken by the sudden burst of rabbits boxing in front of the narrow field gate and now I notice the only human sounds; the passing of a high-level airliner to the new world and a conversation drifting across the still waters from the mainland.
The bright September sun is burning off the cloud and reddening my skin. The landscape of the St Davis’s Peninsula laid out in front of me has the first hints of autumn. The heathland heather is losing its purple haze, the patchwork of fields have been stripped of their crops and are now dotted with bales, and the banks of bracken are starting to rust as their stands dry and slowly topple.
I could sit in the spot forever but time has come and I need to make steps down to the harbour and return to the human cacophony of the outside world.
Last weekend I popped back to the island for just one more night, to take part in the annual Ramsey Island 3 Peaks Race. It was my first ever competitive run and I came third of the normal people who only did three peaks. I did for a moment, not far from the end, consider joining the nutters and doing another lap but my body decided against it.
After a late night to follow, in the morning while Alys, who took over from me as long term volunteer, and the three shorter termers left the Bungalow to start their day’s work, I stayed behind to sit and contemplate on the Bungalow doorstep.
Sitting there for half an hour, I immersed myself in the surroundings; my favourite view laid out in front of me and almost only natural sounds around me, save for a plane or two. My home life isn’t exactly noisy but it’s impossible to get away from manmade sounds and my worklife, in the centre of Manchester, is by comparison surrounded by a loud medley of urban intrusions into my hearing.
Oddly, maybe, I find absolute silence slightly unnerving, especially when accompanied by the pitch blackness of a remote night-time hour. I sleep with a window open at home and the distant hiss of road noise is in some ways comforting.
However, sitting on that doorstep for those few minutes, I came to the realisation of one of the things I miss the most about the island; that silence from manmade sounds.
Sitting in the caravan, it rocks, shakes and creaks as the wind rushes past and barges into its thin, slab-like walls. The two old oak trees above are tormented by the gusts and their leaves are bent back, together forming sails against which their branches fight to keep their form. In the sodden meadows, the long grasses are buffeted with the movement of waves at sea. The river is rising and the flow has more purpose, sliding with weight past the muddy banks. The pillars of the narrow concrete footbridge catch the passing debris, building up as the water is momentarily obstructed in its path. A surge of large-dropped rain clatters onto the roof of the my little haven, immediately turning the windows into a myriad of streams. It’s not cold but the clinging dampness keeps my jumper on but my shorts might have been a bit of a mistake. The sparrows don’t mind the weather, chattering in their little parliaments on the ivy-topped stone walls. The cows shelter beneath the bows of oaks while the swallows skip low across the fields, avoiding the worst of the gusts. At the top of the fir tree in the little copse across the wet grass, the nest sits empty, swaying as the storm. The ospreys, both adults and young, have retreated to the lower limbs of neighbouring trees. Has autumn come early to the Glaslyn valley?
My first and probably only shift of the osprey summer was met with very unseasonal wind and heavy rain, more like autumn or late winter. I had just a peak into the osprey world this year, with only a month or so before they leave for Africa. I’ve missed the adults arriving and the eggs being laid, I’ve missed the night shifts during incubation and the hatching of the chicks, and I’ve missed them growing and finally fledging. After the loss of one chick, it was good to see the remaining two looking so healthy, if a little damp and windblown. With the exception of the weather, the shift was rather unremarkable, with fish delivered later in my stay and the birds spending most of time away from the nest, sheltering under the trees.
My summer has been very different this year, spending three months away, but it’s nice to return to some of my usual haunts before the autumn really arrives. The summer has gone so quickly after seeming to take such a long time to arrive. Hopefully there will be some more warmth and sunshine to come.
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
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.
My final week on Ramsey was a short one. This was intentional but was also eventually shorter than planned. I would have usually left on the Saturday but I planned a trip to Sweden to stay with family and also to have enough time at home on my return to settle in properly before going back to work. My plan was to leave on the Thursday but the weather for that day looked poor so I left on the Wednesday evening instead; this gave me a night in St. David’s, softening the blow slightly of leaving the island.
The tasks this week were limited to introductory talks to the arrivals on the visitor boats, more bruising bracken and my final weighing session for the Manx shearwater chicks – all tasks I really enjoy for my last week. We also went swimming again a few times and attracted some interest from the grey seals; I even had one come right up to me, which inspected my fins – a pretty special experience.
My hope that the heathland flowers would be out in full bloom before I left was not met – well much of the heather was out but the sunsets and sunrises weren’t sufficiently nice to provide the light I needed for good photography – maybe next time! ‘Maybe next time’ was a thought that passed through my head a lot this last week across a whole range of activities – and I concluded that there certainly would be more ‘next times’! At the beginning of a stay on Ramsey, I often this that each stay would be my last, at least for a while, but usually during the course of a stay this changes to coming back for a shorter than usual period, and eventually, changes to returning properly. This happened again this time, despite the much longer stay.
Leaving the island was quite painful really. After 13 weeks on Ramsey it felt like home even more than usual and I had totally settled into the way of life. I was given a lovely send off with even a round of applause for my last introductory talk and being waved off by Greg and Alys, as well as the two current short-term volunteers., Ali and Vicky. Lisa, and her friends who were visiting the island for the day, helped me with all my kit but at least it was all a little lighter than on my arrival with all the food gone (or left behind).
After a night in St David’s, I couldn’t help myself but head down to St Justinian’s, the quay from which the boats to Ramsey sail, for one last look at the island before making my long, hot drive home.
This was the week when my stay on the island really began to draw to a close with only a partial week remaining. It was also when it dawned on me that I’m actually going to have to leave very soon. It was one of the most eventful weeks too with whole range of experiences to look back on.
The week started with the St David’s Music and Arts festival. The sloping ground outside the farmhouse with its benches makes a perfect amphitheatre with a great backdrop of the harbour, Ramsey Sound and the Bitches. We had a good turnout of visitors and lovely warm, sunny weather, with five solo artists singing with acoustic guitars. The afternoon seemed to last forever and has to have been one of the most memorable of my stay. We had a barbecue after all the visitors and musicians had gone – slightly interrupted for a couple of us watching the Cricket World Cup Final – and the evening concluded with the first of several night walks back up the island to the Bungalow. The moon was so bright that we didn’t need head torches to find our way home.
One day this past week, when it had been an exceptionally still and warm day, I headed out to the west coast of the island to see the shearwaters flying past and watch the sunset. I was treated to a true wildlife spectacle. With the sea almost glassy smooth, I could not only see the usual mass passing of the birds on their way south to Skomer, I could also see them rafting off the coast of Ramsey. There were tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of birds passing or sitting on the water. When the rafts took to the air, the shearwaters looked almost like swarms of insects and I don’t think I have ever seen so many birds in one place. There have been many spectacular wildlife moments in my life over the past few years and this one must rank with some of the best.
While I was out for that walk I had a look across the seabird cliffs on the west coast of the island; they were almost empty. Save for the kittiwakes, virtually all of the other birds, the guillemots and razorbills had left. The chicks of these birds have been leaping off the cliffs into the water for the past few weeks and I have been looking at the cliffs full of birds ever since I arrived at the end of April, but now they are almost completely deserted. This is another sign that my time on the island is coming to a close as I knew with would happen shortly before I was due to leave.
The other wildlife spectacle of this week was one lunchtime when we overheard radio chatter from the visitor boats that there were common dolphins in St Bride’s Bay, just south of the island. We rushed to the vantage point by the farmhouse and watched somewhere between 50 and 100 dolphins, in a number of different pods, moving around the bay. We usually see porpoise each day but I think this was only the second time I’ve seen dolphin from the island.
Another sign of the changing seasons and part of the yearly cycle of Ramsey was the birth of the first grey seal of the year. This was a little early as the usual peak pupping period is September and October. My previous stay on Ramsey was in September last year and coincided with that peak, enabling me to see many pups across the island during the two weeks.
A professional photographer, Alex Ingram, came across for a couple of days to continue his ‘Gatekeepers’ project to photograph wardens on remote islands. We showed him around the island and he took shots of us doing ‘wardeny-type’ things and I might even get into his collection, when he publishes it – it’s a long-term project so it might be a while!
The work to control the spread of bracken on the island took a bigger step this week with the ‘Bruiser’ being brought out from the tractor shed. The Bruiser looks like a larger version of the cutting blades from a cylinder lawnmower with a towbar attached to be pulled behind the quad bike. This heavy contraption breaks and crushes the stems of the bracken and over several years of doing this over the same locations will hopefully reduce the coverage of the plant. To be honest, I love driving the quad bike and this was immense fun – although you do have to be careful not to damage either the bike or the Bruiser by running over rocks or mounds. The task seemed a bit like driving a mini-combine harvester – maybe I should retrain as a combine driver!
With this post written, there’s only one more weekly update left, and that will be a short one!
The weather continued to be lovely and my eleventh week was a quiet one really. We did quite a lot of bracken and thistle scything, and did the weekly weighing of shearwater chicks in the nest boxes on the east coast of the island.
There were a couple highlights. The first was jumping on one of the evening shearwater and puffin boat trips out to the Bishops and Clarks. It’s always nice to get a trip on the boat and the evening sailings give a chance to get closer to the shearwaters which we normally only see in the daytime from a distance. The following evening, on the same trip, the boat, Gower Ranger, made front page news after she struck a submerged tree and started taking on water. Fortunately all the safety procedures went to plan and everyone returned safely to the land, with Gower Ranger now out of service awaiting repairs.
This week I also continued my new hobby of sea swimming! I had several evening and one morning swim, in my newly purchased shorty swimsuit. On Saturday we all went in after the last boat and were joined by my birthday present; a huge inflatable pink flamingo. Tethered to the beach, all six of us managed to get on it in one go! It was the funniest birthday I’ve had in a long time!
This was the first entire week of my stay when we had all scheduled boats running. The weather has been lovely and even hot at times, giving even more excuses to go swimming in the sea, either before or after our day visitors have been and gone.
The work to control the spread of bracken across the island is now well under way and we spent time scything patches in some of the sheep fields. This is quite hot work in the heat of the day but just the sort of exercise I like.
Whilst bird surveys have largely come to an end, that isn’t the end of the bird-related work or interest on the island. One of the main ongoing tasks for the next few weeks will be weighing the Manx shearwater chicks in the nest boxes. Whilst this task will continue well after I have left the island, and therefore isn’t really my task, I was there for the first weekly weighing and will hopefully pop along for the next few.
Another bird related activity this week was going to the seabird cliffs on the west coast of the island in the evening and watching the guillemot chicks fledging from the narrow ledges upon which they have been reared. They make a ‘willocking’ call as they are about to jump; their parents below encouraging them to make that first leap. They can’t fly when they go and simply fall to the water, hopefully missing the rocks on the way down. We drew a blank on the first visit but had some success on the second with quite a few plopping into the water as we watched from a distance.
Lastly, I had a day off the island on Friday and spent it walking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path from St Non’s to St Justinian’s. It wasn’t the longest of walks but given the summer temperatures, it seemed long enough. I stopped for some time on the path opposite Ramsey Island, watching the harbour porpoise in the ebbing tide as it flows into St Bride’s Bay.