Down at North Berwick Harbour this morning, I was delighted to find yet another full crew of volunteers preparing to board one the the Seabird Centre RIBs and head out to Craigleith, one kilometer off shore and blighted until recently with ‘Bass Mallow’.
Craigleith was originally the town’s rabbit warren. When they were wiped out by myxomatosis in the fifties, puffins that had shared the island by living in abandoned burrows became spoiled for choice and numbers burgeoned from a few thousand to over 20,000 by the noughties. But then, observers noted a steep decline in numbers and traced it to an invasive plant that was blocking the burrows.
Known locally as “Bass Mallow” because it grew around the lighthouse on Bass Rock, it is tree mallow, a monster relative of the geranium originally from the Mediterranean. The theory why it’s here is that an ex-sailor lighthouse keeper planted some on the Bass because of its large soft leaves for the occasions when storms isolated the keepers and fresh supplies of toilet paper could not get through. Kept in check on the Bass by the trampling of 150,000 gannets, seeds were carried to nearby islands where they easily established themselves in the soft soil around each burrow entrance.
Under the auspices of the Scottish Seabird Centre, over 140 work parties have made regular trips out to Craigleith and neighbouring Fidra island to cut down the tree mallow, with the project being run and supported entirely by more than 700 volunteers, know colloquially as the ‘mallow bashers’. Thanks to their tremendous support, excellent progress has been made. Monitoring is shows puffins are returning to the islands to re-use old burrows where mallow has been removed. The ‘season’ is when the puffins are at sea, which is August until around now, so today was one of the last parties to land.
How successful it has been can be measured but the larger numbers of puffins recorded last year and the fact that all of the mature mallow (grows up to 3m tall— a daunting size for a 15cm bird) has been cut down and the parties are now dealing with the myriad seedlings still springing up. Response from volunteers to work these trips has been magnificent, with John Hunt stellar as the organiser and usually the leader of each 12-strong squad. On a day like today—dazzlingly spring-like—the 5 hours spent on the island will have been an otherworldly and inspirational experience for all involved.
If you’re keen on some mallow-bashing yourself, there’s a page on the SSC website where you can sign up. You need reasonable mobility, some warm and waterproof clothes (Forth weather is not always as idyllic as today) a packed lunch and a sense of adventure. You won’t get any ‘thank-you’ from the puffins but a boat trip out to see them in a couple of months—as they bob around in sociable rafts or gather in kaffeklatch groups on the grassy slopes or whir overhead like clockwork toys with sand eels in their colourful beaks—should be reward enough for the much good you’ve done.