Part of East Lothian that even residents seldom see are our islands. All four are nature reserves under various owners and landing is restricted. But SOS Puffin, a volunteer project sponsored by the Scottish Seabird Centre since 2007 has changed that. It aims to bring under control invasive tree mallow plants that had taken over the islands of Craigleith and Fidra, threatening nesting puffins and other seabirds. Originally brought from the Mediterranean, it was planted on the Bass by lighthouse keepers as its large soft leaves make good wipes. The massive gannet population on the Bass keeps all vegetation there under control but when it spread to other islands it sprouted into forests taller than a man. Puffins lost access to the burrows they live in and their numbers plummeted.
Between August and April, work parties have been organised on weekends whenever the limitations of boats and tides permitted. Inevitably in the winter the weather prevented many planned trips from going ahead. The number of volunteers coming on each visit has varied from 8 to 23 with a mean of nearly 12. Since the project began in 2007 nearly 800 people have been out helping on the island visits, with many coming more than once.
The work can be quite hard, using loppers to sever the 2m high plants at the roots and dragging them into piles to allow natural decay. But it is a privilege to scramble onto and explore unspoiled islands close to us that so many see but so few visit. It’s also great fun to share the adventure and hard work with others. The work has been helped by harsh winter frosts killing seedlings and a recovering rabbit population. The whole programme has been organised by John Hunt and most of the landings done by Dougie Ferguson in Braveheart.
If you do visit North Berwick and take one of the boat trips to marvel at the rafts of puffins, their colourful beaks and their comic, clockwork-toy flight overhead, spare a thought for the adventurous volunteers who helped out our migrating neighbours so that they too had a decent home to come home to.