SOS Puffin is a volunteer project sponsored by the Scottish Seabird Centre which started in 2007. It aims to bring under control the invasive plant tree mallow which had taken over the islands of Craigleith and Fidra, threatening important populations of nesting puffins—small seabirds known as “Clowns of the Sea” and locally as “Tammy Norries”.
Since 2007, John Hunt has organised and led 165 trips to Craigleith and 88 to Fidra with up to 11 other volunteers at a time spending a day clearing the plant. Known locally as ‘Bass Mallow’ the plant is a giant relative of the geranium, growing over two metres tall with a woody stem thick as a cucumber.
Originally thought to have been brought from the Mediterranean by lighthousekeepers on Bass Rock, it was grown for its large soft leaves— an emergency reserve of toilet paper against the supply boat being held up by storms. In its second year of growth it flowers, showering prolific numbers of small black seeds.
Eaten by birds, these were carried to nearby islands. That was not a problem until native rabbits there were wiped out by mixamatosis, whereupon it got a hold, especially on soil-rich Craigleith and the flatter parts of Fidra—both former rabbit warrens more recently colonised by puffins.
Ten years ago, with puffin numbers falling, it was realised that by growing in dense stands and favouring loose soil at the mouth of each puffin burrow they were ‘prison bars’ preventing entry and even restricting where puffins could land.
John recruited a veritable army of volunteers (now 650), engaging Tom Brock (SSC) and Colin Astin (Seafari) to support and transport squads of volunteers outside the summer nesting season. Armed with loppers for the large plants and strimmers for the seedlings, John would lead each RIB-load of 12 to tackle a new stretch of vegetation, following his multi-year plan.
By 2010, the fully-grown stands were gone and they are now dealing with odd remote clumps and the army of seedlings that return each season from the millions of seeds still in the soil. Rabbits that have reestablished themselves on Craigleith are helping.
Though the puffins are never likely to thank John, the sight of ranks of them lining the cliff tops as they socialise again is reward to many. The mallow-bashing season is over for another year but if you catch him in the street, be sure to thank him on Tammie Norie’s behalf.