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24 Nov 2023

A summer on Mingulay

Written by Chris Cachia Zammit
Two men stand on a green hillside on a cloudy day, one older with binoculars round his neck, a waterproof jacket and leaning on a hiking pole, and the other wearing glasses and a a grey hoodie and stood with his hands in his pockets.
Chris Cachia Zammit (right) with Ranger Jonathan Grant on Mingulay
Chris is no stranger to Scotland’s remote islands, but nothing compares to his time as a seabird ranger on the island of Mingulay.

Working as a National Trust for Scotland seabird ranger on Mingulay was an unforgettable experience that allowed me to immerse myself in a unique way of life. Having lived and worked on several uninhabited islands around the UK, such as Handa and the Isle of May, I’m used to solitude and remoteness, but Mingulay was different.

I’d read a bit about Mingulay before arriving there in May, but even so I was not prepared for the awe-inspiring landscapes. The west coast has some of the highest cliffs in the UK that rise straight out of the Atlantic, and the beach on the east coast could be in the Caribbean – at least until you decide to go for a swim!

A beach on Mingulay, with golden sand, green craggy slopes rising away from it and a boat in the bay.
A beach on Mingulay

Nestled at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides, Mingulay is located around 20km south of Barra and at 661 hectares is the largest of the three islands (the other two being Pabbay and Berneray) that have been protected and cared for by the Trust since 2000. Working there comes with some incredible rewards but also some challenges.

So, first let me tell you about what I was doing there. The Trust acquired the islands because of their wild nature and important seabird colonies, and my primary role on Mingulay was to monitor the seabirds on the island, which include kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, shags, fulmars, puffins and great skuas. A typical day would include a hike up the hills to the cliffs, where most of Mingulay’s seabird life can be found, carrying heavy gear to do my work and a couple of chocolate biscuits in my pocket as rewards for a job well done. When arriving on the cliffs, I would find a safe perch and, using my scope and binoculars, spend most of my days meticulously observing any changes happening on the ledges of the high cliffs, noting down numbers of birds on the ledges and also the different stages of their breeding season.

Being on the fringes of the Atlantic Ocean, weather could be very unpredictable, so extra care had to be taken to make sure that I was safe whilst doing my job. Being on the west coast of Scotland, I was also at the mercy of the midges, tiny annoying creatures that seemed to find me in seconds once the breeze dropped. There were many evenings when I had to bail out from having dinner outside because of the midges.

The data gathered on numbers and breeding success through my time on Mingulay will support the Trust’s conservation objectives, giving a clearer understanding of how the seabirds are faring at a time of great pressure from factors such as climate change, pollution and damaging fishing practices as well as the recent outbreak of avian flu. This data is shared through the Seabird Monitoring Programme database, which collates information on breeding seabirds throughout the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands on an annual basis so that national and international trends can be observed. This information is critical to the conservation of their populations.

The Trust’s monitoring work shows that many of the seabird species are in decline, not just on the islands but across the UK. Fulmars on Mingulay hit a record low in 2023, signalling an overall decline. Razorbills had been steadily increasing, after a low was recorded in 2008, but this year numbers declined. Great skuas had also been increasing but were devastated by avian flu, suffering a 66% decline compared to 2021 numbers, but it is hoped that they will recover.

Guillemots may also have been affected by avian flu as their numbers were unexpectedly low. Shags show a stabilised population after declining in the early 21st century, and kittiwakes may be increasing slightly after a low recorded in 2008.

This work and responsibility gave me an intimate and personal understanding of these remarkable creatures. My work extended beyond data collection; it encompassed a commitment to safeguarding the island’s fragile ecosystems for future generations.

Another fascinating aspect of Mingulay’s heritage is that it has a long history of human occupation, with people living on the island for thousands of years until the early 20th century when permanent settlement stopped. I would often walk through the abandoned village trying to imagine what life was like for this community, and what they may think of the changes to the island.

Living on the island, I discovered the beauty of solitude. It provided ample time for self-reflection and appreciation of the natural surroundings. With no modern-day distractions, I found myself becoming more observant of the wildlife and natural changes and noted the life of my close neighbours – the corncrake, wrens and other bird species that had a territory just outside the house and the hundreds of seals that rested on the beach. I watched gannets diving in the clear waters of the bay, from time to time coming face to face with eagles soaring over the towering cliff of Builacraig. At night, I was serenaded by the howling calls of the seals on the beach, the occasional drumming of breeding snipes and the distinctive crex crex call of the corncrake.

As the seabird season came to an end and the weather started to feel more autumnal, the first migratory birds heading south could be noted on the island, resting and recovering their energy. During this time, the nights started to become longer and Mingulay was covered with a blanket of stars, a good opportunity to sit outside and observe the constellations and the meteorites passing over.

My role as a seabird ranger for the Trust on Mingulay Island was not just a job; it was a transformative experience that allowed me to observe the ever-changing beauty and challenges of nature up close. It also allowed me to escape the noise of the modern world and embrace nature’s wonders.

Chris is now volunteering for the Trust and also conducting seal pup counts in the Firth of Forth. We’re grateful to him for his summer on Mingulay and his contribution to our seabird conservation activity.

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