SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 15, August 2016 - Page 84


by Raphaëlle Flint

he Hebridian islands off the west coast of Scotland are a badly kept secret for wildlife enthusiasts, hill walkers, families and actually

anyone wanting quality time away from a hectic modern life. This is a part of the world that once you visit you long to return to. I was lucky enough not only to visit but also live on two of these islands doing incredibly rewarding conservation work with an intimate team of three others.

One of these islands, called Oronsay is managed by the RSPB (Royal Society for the protection of Birds) as a wildlife reserve. Much of the island is farmed in a non-intensive and traditional manner, which allows the wildlife, adapted to this type of management, to thrive here. There are hardy sheep and cattle that keep the grass short for birds, insects and flowers needing coastal pasture. Traditional crops of rare bere barley and black oats, both adapted to the harsh conditions, provide other species with summer breeding cover and spilt grain to feed on over winter.

It’s a little slice of heaven from which nature can take a breather away from the urban spread and people can slow down- reconnect with the elements and community. This is also an place for small moments of real living. Since weather and events are unpredictable here, every day can become a treasured story. Meetings with otters, eagles, a lambs life saved or farming problem solved that goes down in local annuals or a BBQ on the beach with seals singing and a fiddle playing. Again - little moments of living, and among them great conservation stories one of which I’ll tell you later on.

Just off shore are some small, uninhabited islands. One, Eilean Ghaoideamal (pronounced Gerchmau in the local Gallic language) has been used in the past to hold sheep over summer. Recently though, we would go there to find whale bones, bird nests and treasure. Now, this treasure comes in two forms, at least for us who lived on Oronsay. Firstly there is the natural treasure of which I will tell you a story soon enough. Then there is the historical treasure. It comes with the waves and gets stranded on the beaches to be picked up by the lucky few who get easily addicted to searching for it. The treasure is bits of painted china crockery from two cargo ships that sunk during the 1860’s nearby. One can find small pieces with miniature figures of people and animals or large pieces from teapots with geometric patterns beautifully painted over 150 years ago. Again this is not such a big deal in itself, but it is really living and enjoying a single moment to its fullest.

So here is the conservation story. Eilean Ghaoideamal is a haven for a special species of birds; arctic (Sterna paradisaea) and little terns (Sternula albifrons) to name but two.

Why does this matter? The islands are in a tiny corner of Europe that few have the privilege to visit and in themselves, matter to few. But these species matter and these islands matter to the species. Arctic terns fly from one end of the globe to the other each season, nesting once every few years. This means, though, that they fly around 50,000 miles each year (the longest migration of any animal) back and forth and work really hard to raise their chicks. The main colony of arctic terns, as well as other marine birds were traditionally found on Eilean Ghaoideamal. Sadly, since rats came over to these islands with the sheep, the terns have been having trouble raising their chicks successfully.

Every summer a few of RSPB’s staff resident on Oronsay would count the nests and chicks and each survey would result in disappointing numbers- a number of nest attempted but few to no surviving juveniles. However, in the winter of 2011, a project was launched to control the rat populations using in-house expertise.

Tunnel baiting stations were placed at regular intervals around the island with dried fruit that a businessman friend of the manager and his wife offered free of charge (they were out of date). After a few weeks the fruit was replaced by specially selected poison which only took about 20 days to be effective. That summer when we went to count the tern chicks we found 124 occupied nests and over 30 juveniles were seen. Even two years after the control had been done, Eilean Ghaoideamal was still rat free.

These islands, making up a small area of a small corner in a forgotten part of this beautiful world, show that through conservation projects we can contribute bit by bit to changing the fortunes of the creatures we share the earth with. There is so much amazing life sustained on coasts that with a small push in the right direction, life rebounds. All it needs is space to breathe, just like us. And with this breathing space I learned to really live, really enjoy the small special moments in life that end up actually becoming the big ones, the ones remembered forever.