Working with the sheep

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…

Giving nature (Manxies) a home

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.

An early morning chough watch…

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After a traverse across the clifftop, I sit high above the sea, lying back against the slope. The sun is long-risen and already strong on this mid-June morning, warming through the light cloud veil. My perch is cushioned by soft grass-covered earth and sheltered from the keen and cooling breeze by grey boulders, mottled by lichens of white, green and yellow. At my feet, the last of the pink topped thrift blooms jiggle in the wind like little candy floss-topped straws.

The distant views provide a backdrop to my vigil, both back to the mainland and out over the water. To my right, haze covers the distant Pembrokeshire hills, standing above the patchwork of fields hidden by the island’s curves. To my left, a two-masted sailor passes the outlying islets, with a freighter on a different heading in the further distance. The lighthouse is bright out on its rocky stand, lit by the sun gleaming on the white tower and shining back from the glass-enclosed summit. The blue hazy sky reflects beneath in the sea, a swell rolling into the land and hitting the cliff buttresses with white-topped waves. Standing strong against the elements, the tall rock faces tower above the surging and spilling water as it hits and covers the shoreline

It is a peaceful but not silent spot. The pounding of the sea provides a powerful constant base to the passing sounds of the birds. Gulls cry out from above and below, hanging on the rushing air or standing in wait. The coming and going of the razorbills and guillemots, from their busy and crowded perches, is accompanied by their revving moped calls. The ravens loiter on the cliff sides, an occasional cronk or caw highlighting their presence. The linnets chirp as they pass and the pippits pippit away from point to point. Only the fulmar are silent as they float past on their stiff, straight-winged glides.

After a wait, the chough pair appear from over my shoulder heading towards the nest, hidden behind a large carbuncled face, staring out to sea. Their joyous bouncing flight is accompanied by their cries, replying to each other with wall ricocheting bullets. As they approach their hollow, they harass a crow, standing too near for their comfort; they dive-bomb in a looping flight, returning time after time until their focus moves away, tired of their tormenting. They drop into their nest, now full of growing chicks ready to fledge, but not today; the wait goes on.

Monitoring Manxies

One of my main tasks in my first week on Ramsey Island has been helping with the Manx Shearwater survey. ‘Manxies’ are long-distance travelling seabirds which return to breed to the coasts on the western side of the British Isles each year, after spending the Northern Hemisphere winter off the eastern seaboard of South America.

These burrow-nesting birds were severely affected by rats on Ramsey but the eradication of the rodents 15 years ago has enabled the number of Manxies to slowly recover. The last survey in 2012 found 3,835 nesting pairs, and in 2016 it is hoped that numbers will have increased significantly.

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Following a survey of suitable nesting burrows earlier in the year (before the growth of bracken across the island made it much more difficult), the main survey involves the playing recordings of male and female Manxie calls down the burrows to check if any are ‘home’. My small role in the surveys was to help find the burrows into which the calls were then played. With the surveys now complete, the Island’s wardens now need to work out exactly how many Manxies are now breeding here.

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It’s not just when undertaking the surveys that the sound of Manxies can be heard across the Island. One of the most memorable aspects of a stay on Ramsey is listening to the giggling and gurgling calls of the birds as they fly into their burrows near the volunteers’ Bungalow home. The birds only come to land at night, so the calls are an erie accompaniment to many a night’s sleep.

In addition to the natural burrows that the Manxies use for nesting, the wardens have installed a number of artificial nests and another task was to check whether these were occupied. While doing this, the wardens take the opportunity to ring individuals as part of their research and I was lucky enough to be there on one occasion during this stay – and even got to handle one!

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One evening Manxie activity is to go out to the western side of the island at dusk to see the thousand upon thousand of these birds flying southwards, skimming just above the surface of the sea, to the much bigger colonies on the nearby islands of Skomer and Skokholm.

This link to the RSPB website provides a bit more information on Manx Shearwaters including a recording of their calls.

The first few days back on Ramsey Island

I’ve been on Ramsey Island, the RSPB’s reserve off the coast of Pembrokeshire, since Saturday but due to my stupidity have been without the internet until now. I was planning to blog each day but will have to start with a post about the first few days of my two-week stay.

The weather has been a bit mixed so far with the conditions only good enough for boats twice since I’ve been here. Yesterday, following two boatless days, we had a bumper load of visitors with an almost capacity crowd of 78. I did my first introductory talk of the year to a full boat shed, which didn’t go too badly and I even got a business card from a wildlife tour leader suggesting I should do a bit of tour leading myself!

On my first full day, the sheep shearers came across in the late afternoon to de-fleece the 96 Welsh Mountain ewes. I was a bit more actively involved this year, particularly in the first task which was to split the ewes from their lambs. The lambs were born over a few weeks from mid-April and have grown a lot since, so the task of dividing them from the ewes wasn’t without some of effort.

The shearers again amazed me with how quick they could get a fleece off a sheep with about one and a half minutes being  the standard. The closely-cropped ewes were soon reunited with their youngsters in the farmyard, all making a racket until they found each other.

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I’ve also helped with manx shearwater surveys and did a house martin survey at the farmhouse (despite what others have said, I was definitely not asleep!).  We also went out on Gower Ranger yesterday (the boat that links the island to the mainland) to do a kittiwake and fulmar survey of the cliffs that could not be seen from the island – a great way to do a survey!

The weather forecast indicates that boats may not come across for the next couple of days, so it will be quiet around the island again but I’m sure there will be plenty to get on with.  There will also be more time to look at the scenery and wildlife which are as good as ever.

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House Martin Nest Study 2016

My favourite summer migrants have returned – the swallows, house martins, sand martins and swifts. I’m fortunate that three of these species (not sand martins) breed in the area where I live and I can usually see them flying in the sky above my house. I’m even more fortunate that there’s usually a house martin nest on under my eaves; I say usually but in fact there has been at least one nest for the past 15 summers than I have lived here. I thought the unbroken record was going to come to an end last summer when the house martins failed to return around their usual time. There was no sign of them for most of the spring and summer until I retuned home from work in late August to find droppings on the driveway beneath the nest, which was still up there from the previous year. That seemed very late for a first brood particularly compared to the usual May or June in previous year.

The chicks fledged in late September and it wasn’t clear if this was by accident or design. I worked from home one day and in the afternoon there seemed to be lots of comings and goings from the nest. It was only when I left the house later on that I noticed the nest on the driveway and the fledgelings flying up to the point when it used to cling to the eaves. The next day they were all gone and I didn’t see any more house martins around my home again last year.

Over the years I have sporadically kept a record of when the house martins first arrived back at the nest and most records show it was around mid to late April. When the month changed into May, I started to suspect there would be another late return this year. However, when I was cooking my evening meal yesterday I had a spare moment and popped my head out of the kitchen and popped my head round the corner of my house and looked upwards. Up at the apex of the eaves was the ring of mud, all that remained of the nest, but there was something else up there too. At first it looked like a bit of black plastic blown up there by the wind but after I shaded by eyes from the evening sun, the shape was clearly a house martin and there was another flying around just above the roof.

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House martins are ‘amber listed’ in the Birds of Conservation Concern listings and numbers have been in rapid decline.  I’m sure that when first moved into my house, another pair nested under next door’s eaves and there were other nests in the area.  Now there is mine and very few others.  However, the pattern of decline isn’t uniform.  Ramsey Island for example (the RSPB reserve where I volunteer for a couple of weeks each year), didn’t have any house martins before a first nest in 2014 and it had eight nests last year (extra emergency artificial nests had to be shipped across!). Something is certainly happening to house martins but fortunately it’s been noticed and hopefully before it’s too late to reverse the overall declines.

Last year I took part in the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) House Martin Nest Survey. I was given an Ordnance Survey grid square, luckily for me the one immediately nest to the one in which I live, and I made several visits to record the number of nests on buildings and the amount of activity. This year there’s another house martin survey for the BTO. The House Martin Nest Study 2016 requires surveyors to choose a nest/nests and record the activity over the course of the spring and summer. The survey can be done with varying levels of detail and I hope to do as much monitoring as I can, doing daily records of activity whenever possible (holidays allowing). Now that house martins have returned to my home, I’m going to have a very convenient nest to monitor!

The chortling house martin chicks wafting in through my landing window on warm summer evenings as I lie in bed really is one of my favourite things about the season and I’m hopeful that it won’t be long until I hear those sounds once again. By doing the survey this year, I hope that I can make a small contribution to helping to ensure this will always be a sound of summer.