David Steel – SNH Reserve Manager, Isle of May. Speaker 24th Jan 18


The assembled members, at least 80%, will have had occasion to visit the Isle of May during the summer to capture images of the bird population there. A degree of anticipation hung in the air as our guest speaker took to the floor. And being from the North East of England, David in a very distinctive accent advised, ‘Geordie was compulsory’!
Having spent 14 years off the coast of Northumberland on the Farne Islands, David moved to the Isle of May where he has been for the last 3 years. Of which 6 months every year is spent in residence.
The Island is 1 mile long and ½ mile wide, covering 62 hectares. It has been a National Nature reserve since 1956. The human history stretches back to the 9 Century. Monks built a monastery on May and Pilgrims travelled to be cured. One excavation uncovered a skeleton with a scallop shell imbedded in its mouth. The scallop shell is the traditional emblem of St James the Great and is popular with pilgrims returning from the Way of St James and the apostle’s shrine at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Medieval Christians would collect a scallop shell while at Compostela as evidence of having made the journey.
The first lighthouse was erected in 1636 and burned 1 ton of coal every night. In 1816 a Stevenson lighthouse was positioned high on the island and is now lit using solar power. There used to be 7 families living on the Island. It is now mainly research teams and bird watchers and photographers who can rent the low lighthouse which has become the bird observatory.
The Island has become one of the largest breeding populations of birds in the UK. There are 20,000 Guillemots of which 4% are spectacled Guillemots. At 20-21 weeks the chicks make the 200ft descent into the sea below. They can absorb the fall due to the fact their bones are not formed at that age. They then swim out about 60 miles to get away from predation. Shags form an attraction to anything which is not tied down, including a very expensive long camera cable, part of the Springwatch team’s accessories, which they found entwined in a nest!
Some birds make an incredibly long journey to breed on the Islands. 6000 pairs of Kittiwakes make their way to the Isle of May, having wintered in Greenland. Of all the species present they are most at danger, with a 44% decline over 14 years. This is due to climate change and the availability of food, among other reasons.
Fulmars have been coming to the Island since 1935, one has been recorded at 62 years old. The Arctic is the furthest migrant in the world. Coming from the pack ice of the Antarctic, they live for 30 to 35 years and make the journey down south within 2 months of hatching. Also, on the Island is the Sandwich Tern and the Common Tern.
Not surprisingly most visitors come to see the activity of the 46,200 pairs of Puffins. Most who see these engaging and colourful birds will not appreciate their beak colouring drops off in the winter. But as they are out at sea for this period, they are not seen.
Come September the Arctic Tern colony is transformed into home for the 2500 grey seals and their pups. They can be quite ferocious, so it is not surprising the island is closed to visitors. As a Nature Reserve it carries out a variety of roles, including: Long term research, population counts, Visitor management, Education and habitat management.
David Complemented his talk with a wonderful selection of images of the Island’s residents, which reflected his thoughtful, informed and humorous presentation. Those visiting the Island in the coming years will understand better the ecology, environment and the history of a very popular tourist attraction and important nature reserve.