Even in as delightful a place to live as East Lothian, people get into the usual habits of life. As we zip from home to work to shop and then off to evening class or golf course or pub, we are not always aware of changes happening along our regular commute paths, let alone in the wider environment.
One such example happened over the last decade on the islands of the Forth near North Berwick. These provide a scenic backdrop to our picture postcard beaches and, until the Scottish Seabird Centre started frequent trips and studies of the wildlife on them, most locals were pretty ignorant of how well of badly things were doing. From the gradual spread of white all over the crown of Bass Rock, it was pretty clear that the gannets were doing well and, when Prof Brian Nelson spent his year-long soujourn on the rock studying them, he confirmed that was the case.
From a few thousand nesting on the cliffs when they became protected a century ago, their population has boomed to over 150,000 now. However, the other seabirds, being smaller and less obvious, were something of a mystery. What was know was that the highly photogenic puffins liked Craigleith because the myriad of rabbit burrows from the days when it was the town warren provided them with ready-made nests. By the turn of the millennium, their numbers had reached around 40,000—not as many as on the larger Isle of May but still impressive numbers.
But then numbers started to decline. At first, no-one but a few keen birdwatchers noticed. But then the regular boat trips by Sula and observers using the remote cameras in the SSC remarked that the rafts of puffins on the water and the ranks of them socialising along the skyline of the island seemed to be fewer each season. A cursory examination of the island six years ago identified the problem almost immediately.
Although looking equally green as the grass that normally covered it, Craigleith had become infested with tree mallow, a plant not native to the area. Originally from the Mediterranean and related to the geranium, tree mallow grows large soft, circular leaves. The theory is that lighthouse keepers grew some as reserve toilet paper for the times weather delayed their supply boat. Once the keepers were taken off in 1996, it grew wild and some of its seeds were carried to Craigleith.
There it found a cosy home. Puffins are good housekeepers and clean out their burrows each season. This means the mouths of the burrows always have plenty of soft soil—which makes an ideal seed bed. Initially small, the mallow plant stem becomes woody after the first season. By the second season, it can be 2m high and produce thousands of seeds. Not only are the burrows blocked by ‘cell bars’ of mallow at their entrance but small puffins can’t land or take off in the middle of a mallow jungle. Even people disappeared in the denser stretches.
Supported by the SSC who provided boats to take the volunteers out, naturalist John Hunt has been organising regular ‘mallow bashing’ trips, together with wildlife expert Maggie Sheddan for the last five years. Initially focussing on the worst areas with the tallest plants, followed by seasonal strimming of the seedlings springing back up from the millions of seeds dropped, Craigleith is almost back to normal and most of Fidra has been cleared too, Because the puffins nest between April and July, work has to be done in the other eight months to avoid disturbing them.
That means we have now come to the end of another successful season—this winter being particularly light on storms and so a lot of work could be done. Even if you can never manage to visit and/or volunteer, watch the video trailer to get a sense of what a magic and unusual place these islands are and how worthwhile the efforts of hundreds of volunteers have been in restoring such a precious wildlife resource that is so close and accessible it provides a splendid learning opportunity for our visitors and locals alike.
This blog reported on the project last year and also published an update last month. But now a French-Canadian team has filmed the raw material for a documentary that gives a sense of what the volunteers have been doing all these years. Have a look at the trailer here which gives a glimpse of what it is like to visit the other-wordliness of being among the wildlife on islands that are within swimming distance from the shore but seem so rare, exotic and far from civilisation once you’re there.
Although there will be no more trips this season, volunteers will be needed, starting in August and there may be some places on a puffin count of the islands to be done before then. The bottom line is that numbers are recovering and the rafts of puffins bobbing off Craigleith on Easter Sunday morning bode well for that continuing. Gordan Buchanan did a brilliant short film for BBC2 Wild about puffins on Lunga which you can watch here.
If you need more information about SoS Puffin:
- Scottish Seabird Centre: 01620 890202 http://www.seabird.org/sospuffin.asp
- John Hunt (SoS Puffin co-ordinator) firstname.lastname@example.org
- Maggie Sheddan (Seafari Guide at SSC) email@example.com
- Maude Rivard-Haustrate (Documentary maker) firstname.lastname@example.org