Britain’s seabird colonies are, in the words of the veteran conservationist Roy Dennis, “our Serengeti”. Few other places on the planet make such an assault on the senses: the sight, sound and smell of tens of thousands of birds, gathered together each summer to breed.
Of all our seabird sites, none is more special than the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland. Here, you can wander within feet of nesting puffins, shags, razorbills and guillemots, listen to the haunting cries of kittiwakes, and be dive-bombed by the greatest global traveller of all, the Arctic tern.
At least you could. But the recent outbreak of avian flu has stopped all landings; so, on a hot summer’s day, we had to be content with a boat trip around the islands.
At first, little seemed to have changed since my previous visits. Puffins still flew past on rapidly whirring wings, gannets plunged headlong into the murky sea, and fulmars glided by on stiff wings, looking like miniature albatrosses.
But not everything was as it should be in this avian paradise. National Trust wardens, clad in white hazmat suits, collected bird corpses from the cliffs. The next day, a walk along the beach produced more lifeless bodies, victims of a human-caused plague. The spectacle of our seabird colonies still enthrals us; but they are now sounding a warning – one we would do well to heed.
This article by Stephen Moss was first published by The Guardian on 10 August 2022. Lead Image: National Trust rangers clear dead birds on Staple Island. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA.
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