A huge thanks to the skill and knowledge of the Sea Harris crew, Daz, Iain Angus and Kieran on Enchanted Isle with Sea Harris for getting us to, on and off North Rona safely and confidently. Where a landing can be made is not an easy call to make at 2am in the dark and without whom this work would not have been completed.
Situated 70km north of the Isle of Lewis and 71km north west of Cape Wrath, North Rona and Sula Sgeir are two of the most remote islands Biosecurity for LIFE are working on. We always knew that luck and time would be required and on our side to land. To give ourselves the best odds we had arranged to base ourselves on Lewis for three weeks along with the MarPAMM Seabirds Count Team who were completing the cliff nesting the seabird census counts. The plan was to buddy up and help each other out so we could all get our work completed in the weather windows available.
It was a good job we did plan in all the contingency time as it took 10 days of sitting out poor weather as weather system after weather system seemed to bring a constant pattern of wind and rain before there was finally a break in the forecast that looked suitable. Whilst we waited for the oceanic swell to drop a little, we were able to help with the Seabirds Count team catch-up on some of the survey work on the inshore islands around the Sound of Harris. On Wednesday 16th June we had the call from Sea Harris saying we would head to North Rona on Friday evening. So on Friday morning we set out for 8 hours of boat-based seabird counts, arriving back in Leverburgh at 5:15pm which gave us 2 hours to get some food and join up with Roddy and Bob from NatureScot before boarding the boat Enchanted Isle.
At 8pm on 18th June we cast off from Leverburgh: our route would take us up the eastern side of Harris and Lewis through the Minch, past the Shiant Isles and beyond the northern tip of Lewis out into the Atlantic Ocean. It was expected to be a 5-hour journey which gave us an estimated time of arrival at North Rona of 1am Saturday morning.
We arrived without incident at North Rona just after 1am, by which time darkness had descended and all that could be seen were the lighthouses beaming from North Rona and Sula Sgeir to the west. Our initial hope had been to land at the south of the island in Poll Thothatom however after investigating with the tender and a torch it was clear the swell had not yet calmed down enough for this to be the spot. So, it was back to Enchanted Isle to look for a more suitable landing site. We poked the boat’s nose into Sgeildige but even in the dark it was clear from the whitewash and the noise that it was a no go so on we carried around to the eastern side and Geodh’ a’ Stoth. Here looked much more promising and again the tender was launched to investigate. As we approached there looked to be a calmer area that was more protected; there was still a swell but the waves were not breaking and – crucially – the water was deep enough up against the rocks to allow the tender to ride the swell without scraping rock in the trough of the waves.
Although we had found our landing spot there was one more hurdle before we could jump ashore and that was the small number of grey seals that had hauled out right where we wanted to be. After a bit of shouting and waving of lights all but one grumpily slipped into the water. The remaining seal seemed much too interested in us and entered the water directly towards our tender. There was a very brief moment when it looked like this seal may join us in the boat but quick action from Daz to move the tender away saw the seal disappear into the water rather than flop into the bow.
The coast was then clear and at 02:06am on the morning of Saturday the 19th June I hopped out of the tender and onto North Rona. We had arrived. It took a few trips to get all the team and the equipment for the next couple of days ashore but by 02:30am we were all safely on land and saying goodbye to the boat crew who were heading straight back to Leverburgh in time to return the Enchanted Isle for the morning’s day trip to St Kilda.
Needless to say the team were all exhausted. We walked about 50m inland and as soon as we reached grass and sea thrift, we laid out our sleeping bags and put our heads down under the open sky, which was already lightening in the east.
Great black-backed gulls make excellent and relentless alarm clocks. By 06:30am all of us sleeping by the landing were awake. By 08:00 all equipment (except water which we left by the landing to pick up as needed) had been moved to the base area next to the Sea Mammal Research Unit hut adjacent to the old abandoned village. With only one day on island it was straight to work after some breakfast. All the cliff nesting seabirds needed counting and I had 26 rodent surveillance stations to install.
As with so much biosecurity work on islands there is lots of carrying stuff around. Whilst it can be heavy work and hard going (more so when, as on North Rona, you are under regular aerial attack from great skua) it forces you not to rush and allows you to contemplate the island you are on.
North Rona supports populations of European importance of European storm-petrel, Leach’s petrel and common guillemot. The island also supports nationally important populations of Northern fulmar, great black-backed gull, black-legged kittiwake, razorbill and Atlantic puffin. Walking around the clifftops I would get wafts of seabird colony on the breeze, and dipping into the geos you are met with cacophonous walls of birds all jostling to hold their place. Whilst it looks and sounds like chaos, it is mostly choreographed, look closer and you can see how different bird species favour different parts of the cliff face or vegetated cliff edge: fulmar and puffin on the tops, guillemots and razorbills below, and kittiwakes often keeping themselves apart from the rest. Look even closer and individual stories show themselves, in the middle of a vast cliff a single guillemot is sitting on a narrow ledge on what looks a precariously balanced egg with no nest, the egg shape making it less likely to roll off the edge. As neighbouring birds come in from the sea it stretches its neck out using its bill to keep others away. One clumsy landing could knock this egg off its ledge and the whole breeding season would then be a failure for that pair, a whole winter at sea finding enough food to provide the energy required to hold a territory on the cliff and lay an egg going to waste.
The apparent precariousness of these nesting birds reminds me of why biosecurity is so important. The natural battles each of these birds face is awe inspiring and I fully believe we should be doing all we can to make sure that those battles are not added to by human made problems. North Rona as with many of our other offshore islands is naturally invasive predator free and actively keeping it that way is an important step this project is taking to help secure these populations’ future. So, with a feeling of renewed energy I carried on setting up the rodent surveillance stations.
By early evening work was complete and we could pitch tents, sort out evening food, and enjoy a spell of sunshine on the island. Evenings on islands always seem to bring a moments of calm and I was able to explore the old village ruins and the remains of St Ronan’s Chapel which is cited as being the best preserved early Christian church in Scotland, probably dating back to the 8th Century. A small number of families used to live here throughout the year, growing crops in impressive run rig systems and grazing sheep and cattle over the island. Houses were built of stone with straw roofs held down by rope thrown over the top and attached to heavy rocks. Barns were also constructed to keep animals out of the worst of the winter weather, although however much effort was used I couldn’t help thinking that it would be a difficult place to be on a dark stormy January night. There are a number of documented tragedies of the community on North Rona, one dating from 1685 describes how a shipwreck introduced rats (probably black rats) to the island, their numbers grew quickly by raiding the community barns eating all the food stocks and leaving the inhabitants to starve to death over the winter. Although plague may also have been a factor, when visitors arrived the following spring, they found an eerily quiet island and the remains of the villagers some of whom were still in their houses. It is a sobering reminder that invasive predators cannot just threaten wildlife but also the people who call the island home. Thankfully today there are no signs of rodents on North Rona and we intend to keep it that way.
That evening tiredness did not stop us enjoying the exciting nocturnal wildlife. As mentioned above, North Rona is important for Leach’s petrel; a Schedule 1 protected species that we were privileged to witness at one of their few UK breeding colonies under license as part of these important seabird surveys. I had never visited a Leach’s petrel colony before and could not pass up this opportunity to experience it in full swing. By 1am the light had dropped enough for both petrel species to start calling and coming into land. It wasn’t the darkest of nights and the occasional patrolling gull or skua drifted past us searching for the opportunity to snatch a petrel meal. We wandered back to the old village where the stone walls provide excellent nesting habitat for European storm-petrel and the grassy banks are filled with Leach’s petrel burrows. The strange noises these two species make surrounded us whilst those in flight flitted around the settlement much like bats around a town street. The experience was almost spiritual in its power and was certainly one of the best seabird encounters I have ever had!
By 2am the pull of a sleeping bag was too much and we all turned in knowing that in the morning we would need to break camp find a suitable place for the boat to collect us and then head over to Sula Sgeir on the return journey.
Enchanted Isle arrived at about 10am on Sunday morning. Given it was light, finding a landing spot to be collected from proved much easier and we were all quickly aboard. We circumnavigated the island to count any birds that were nesting in caves and geos that could not be seen from land before setting a course south west for Sula Sgeir. As we moved away from North Rona there was a sense of privilege at the opportunity to visit and a sense of satisfaction that the work we have started and the biosecurity surveillance now in place can really help maintain North Rona as the magnificent seabird island it is.
**in the next part we will pick up this journey and discover the island of Sula Sgeir**