Farne Islands Winter Work

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Farne Islands

 Grey Seal Pup

Wardens spend the last 3 months of the year immersed within the seal colonies. Since the last visitors land on the islands at the end of September, some might consider that this gives wardens a degree of freedom. However the departure of the last visitor boats coincides with the more extreme seas and as a result the small speedboats belonging to us are limited to small sheltered trips between islands, leaving wardens cut off from the mainland. Wardens rely on larger boats to drop off supplies of, drinking water and gas and utilise every day of flat sea to pick up supplies and grab a quick shower. It is not uncommon that these flat sea days are separated by weeks. Unfortunately these showerless spells overlap with the most intense and physically demanding workload and as a result the seals must cope with smelly wardens.

The grey seal population on the Farne Islands is the longest studied in the world. Wardens enter the colonies, which are mainly spread around the outer group of islands, in order to study population trends and pup survival rate. Every time we enter the colony, we spray the back fins of the newly born seals with a coloured dye, taking note of how many we have sprayed. We then return with a different colour, a few days later, and note how many newborns there are, whilst also counting how many of the first coloured pups are remaining. Since the pups moult their fur prior to entering the sea for the first time, the dye does not affect these animals.

Sounds simple! Seals breed across the outer groups at very high densities with over 1500 pups been born annually. It is necessary to get very close to animals when spraying them in order to ensure only the hind fins are sprayed. Along with the fact that female seals can be very protective of their pups this makes life very tricky for wardens. It is especially important that great care is taken during this work for many reasons. Firstly if you fall or a seal bites you and the weather is bad you’re going to need the help of the RNLI to get you back to mainland. As well as the obvious risks of being bitten by seals (it really hurts), seals carry a form of bacteria in their mouths which can be very harmful to human flesh, causing it to rot. Historically the treatment for seal finger was amputation. It is now much easier to treat but still much better to avoid.

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Close Up Picture Of A Bull Seal

Another part of our work which wardens would rather not have to carry out is the removal of marine debris from these incredible animals. With all the animals coming up onto the tops of the islands you start to notice various items caught around the necks of the seals. Such examples are, fishing line which people have cut loose, lobster pots that fishermen have cut lose and marine debris such as the millions of balloons that are released annually ending up in the seas. It is especially important with growing animals (young seals and pregnant cows) that this is removed as soon as possible in order to prevent suffocation and reduce the damage to skin. See below for one unfortunate young seal whom had managed to get caught with a balloon and its associated ribbon around its neck. Fortunately, with the help of the SMRU, we were able to catch this individual remove the balloon and release it successfully but not all these stories have happy endings.

Injured seal which had a balloon caught around its neck
Injured seal which had a balloon caught around its neck
The Balloon and thread which we successfully removed from the seals neck
The Balloon and thread which we successfully removed from the seals neck

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Frequently Asked Questions On The Farne Islands

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Farne Islands

Frequently Asked Questions As A Farne Island Warden

As with every line of public engagement work, staff are questioned about their roles by the public. One of the perks of the job is that you are paid to enthuse about this incredible life and the amazing wildlife that the islands offer. However, when you work day in day out, some of these questions can be a little bit repetitive. My idea here is to answer these questions in case you never get the chance to ask a warden yourself. Secondly, I want to make you aware of all of the questions, now that I no longer work on the islands so that the next time you visit, you can take the list with you, make sure you don’t miss any out and take bets on which warden breaks down in tears first.

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Where are the puffins?

If visiting the islands April-August the answer is very simple, everywhere! The Farnes are home to c40,000 puffins, When you consider the small amount of land mass that makes up the islands, the density in which they live there is ridiculous.

Your best opportunity to see puffins well, are on either the cliff tops, where birds often line up before flying out to fish. Alternatively, if you find a relatively flat open area, where the vegetation is made up of lower standing species such as orache and sea campion, you will often see puffins making their way into and out of their burrows.

Puffins arrive back around the islands in March/April. However, until they have eggs in burrows, birds will often disappear out to sea for a few days, especially if bad weather is forecast.

If you are visiting in August or later, although you may see small numbers on the sea, I am sad to say that most of the puffins are bobbing around the north North Sea and Atlantic far away from British land masses.

Do you really live here? How long are you here for?

A team of 10 wardens live on Inner Farne and Brownsman island from March through to late September. In October this number falls to 5 people who live exclusively on Brownsman and work within the seal colonies.

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Seal Pup in front of Brownsman Cottage

Where do you live?

Wardens living on Inner Farne occupy the 13th century Pele tower and the lighthouse. Those living on Brownsman island inhabit the old beacon house. Buildings rely on solar and generator electricity, both are erratic at best but do allow enough energy to charge phones and watch some TV.

Are you students?

Wardens on the Farnes are either employed on a paid or voluntary basis by the National Trust. although a small number of students do live on the islands for periods of the year. They deal with the seabirds and seals, and are not tasked with any visitor work or other warden responsibilities other than making tea.

Do you have showers here?

No, hence why wardens don’t always smell so great! However, both inner and outer group teams have access to small speed boats which, on a calm day, allow them to travel to the mainland to stock up on food and have showers. Whether wardens utilise these calm days is completely up to them. During the winter season when no visitor boats land on the islands and the sea is seldom calm, wardens have been known to go three weeks or more without a shower. Even the notoriously smelly seals give them a wide berth.

What are the penguin like birds covering the cliffs?

Guillemots and also maybe Razorbills. There are 50,000 of these black and white auks nesting around the cliffs of the Farne Islands.

Why do some of the Guillemots have white markings on their faces?

This is an example of dimorphism within a species. These individuals are referred to as bridled guillemots but are not considered a separate sub-species. They seem to occur more frequently within colonies the further north you go.

Why are the puffins smaller than I imagined?

Your imagination is too big.

Pufflin - Farne Islands

Why are the shags panting?

Shags pant as a means of thermoregulation as they are unable to sweat

What are the painted stones and garden canes everywhere?

The painted, numbered, stones are for monitoring. Wardens mark nests using the stones and then check on the development of the eggs/chicks. This allows the breeding success of species to be calculated.

The garden canes have two uses. Some are used similarly to the coloured stones – to mark nests within the longer grass of more elusive species such as eiders. They also can be used to disrupt flight lines of less agile predators such as gulls, which will often attempt to enter colonies to take eggs and chicks.

Farne Island Gallery

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Farne Islands

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Farne Islands

Britain has some fantastic wildlife opportunities but having spent time travelling the British Isles I would go as far as to say that this is the best job within British conservation, bold statement I know.

What are the Farne Islands? The Farnes are a small group of islands off the Northumberland coast which are home to thousands of breeding seabirds in the summer and seals in the autumn and winter. Probably the most famous breeding visitors are the Puffins (c36000 pairs) however from April – August the islands are covered in breeding shags, arctic, common and sandwich terns, guillemots, razorbills and many more amazing species.

Why was I there? As well as drinking copious amounts of tea the wardens have many responsibilities. The job involved the recording of all fauna and flora on the islands, monitoring populations trends and breeding success of seabirds and seals and maintenance and upkeep of all of the islands facilities for the visiting public.

Farne Islands
Arctic Tern, Farne Islands

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