Celebrating 90 years of caring for the Farne Islands

Birds on the Farne Islands.'Ref: JCNG 240613birds14
Birds on the Farne Islands.'Ref: JCNG 240613birds14

The National Trust is set to celebrate 90 years of caring for the Farne Islands, off the north Northumberland coast, next month.

Monday, August 10, will mark nine decades since Europe’s largest conservation charity acquired the islands.

In that time, they have become what the Trust describes as a ‘jewel in its wildlife crown’, with more than 23 types of breeding seabirds living there, including 40,000 pairs of puffins.

It’s also one of the largest colonies of Atlantic grey seals in the UK.

There have been various landmarks for the Farne Islands in terms of site designations, becoming one of the first designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest in 1951 and being declared a National Nature Reserve in 1993.

General manager Simon Lee said: “To give an idea of the truly unique nature of the islands, wildlife spectacles have included wardens swimming with two basking sharks in October 2007 and on November 11, 2007, 28,800 little auks streamed past the islands. This remains a British record.

“For staff and visitors to the islands, every day can bring surprises. A humpback whale breached just off Longstone in 2009, and more than 300 species of birds have been recorded on the islands to date.”

The monitoring work carried out by the Trust over the years has provided a valuable and significant data set for conservationists. 24,000 pairs of birds were nesting on the Islands in 1970, when serious counts began.

This had risen to over 100,000 pairs at its peak in 2005. The Islands’ seabird population is now at around 86,000 pairs due in the main to the puffins.

Head ranger for the Farnes, Becky Hetherington, said: “As well as the seabird monitoring work, every autumn our ranger team counts all the new seal pups that are born on the islands.

“These results contribute important data to the longest running continual study of Atlantic grey seals in the world.”

The hugely important nature conservation work on the Farnes is carried out by teams of dedicated rangers who live and work on the islands for up to nine months of the year.

Life has changed from when the first wardens were first living on the islands. Until the installation of solar power on Inner Farne in 2007, electricity was supplied by small, portable generators. Water is still transported over by boat and a weekly return to the mainland for a shower is a reality of life.

Retired warden and property manager for the Farne Islands, John Walton, said: “The Island team can get cut off. The classic tale was in the late 80s one December morning when the boat was due to take the seal team off the islands. They indulged in a massive breakfast and a game of cricket with the remaining potatoes. Cue a sudden storm and the team were scouring the island, two days later, for the potatoes they’d used as cricket balls.”

Visitor numbers have increased dramatically from when boats first began running trips in 1918, and in 1970, the National Trust appointed the first warden in order to better manage the increasing number of visitors.

Claire Ashby, visitor experience manager, said: “The Farnes are such a special place, with a wildlife experience that is arguably second to none in the UK so it’s only natural more and more people want to visit them. In 2014, we had nearly 50,000 visitors to the islands.

“Everyone who visits is directly supporting the conservation work that we do there, be it through joining the National Trust, paying admission or buying a gift in our shop in Seahouses. David Attenborough is also a fan, having said that in the UK, the Farnes are his favourite place to see nature at its best.”

Simon Lee added: “The future is looking bright for the Farne Islands. We’re continuing to conserve this very special place and its wildlife and share the experience with visitors. We hope that we can look back on the next 90 years with as much pride as we have now.”

To find out more information about the work that the National Trust does on the Farne Islands, or to plan a visit, visit the website at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/farneislands