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7 Jul 2021

From the edge of the world 2021 – part 2

Written by Sue Loughran, Ranger
Four people sit in a RIB, heading across the sea away from an island beach. They wear life jackets and are smiling.
Our trip from St Kilda to the neighbouring island of Dun
We’ve had time to get back into the swing of island life, so we can now start some important monitoring work.

Clare has been monitoring the built structures around the island for signs of damage. She is adding to the ever-growing list of conservation work that needs to be done to maintain the important cultural heritage on the islands (for which St Kilda was awarded one of its UNESCO World Heritage designations). All of the man-made structures are monitored – cottages, walls and cleits – and comparisons are made to earlier reports, to note any rocks that have moved. A certain percentage of cleits (the stone store houses constructed by the St Kildans that are unique to this island) are part of an ongoing restoration programme, which involves the help of volunteer work parties and skilled craftspeople under the supervision of the island archaeologist. Due to the pandemic, restoration work did not occur in 2020; this year, there will be a reduced team of workers due to continued restrictions.

A person hikes up a bare, fairly steep slope towards a small stone-built structure on the hillside. The sky is bright blue behind.
Inspecting a cleit on the hillside

Craig has repaired some damaged Leach’s storm petrel boxes and is now monitoring them for nesting activity. St Kilda is an incredibly important site for this rare seabird, with 94% of the UK population nesting here. The adults are starting to show interest in the boxes, which can only be checked by someone who is specially licensed to do so. They will be monitored right through until October, when hopefully the last chicks will have fledged.

A man kneels and places his hand into a gap between some large boulders. Hidden in this gap are small nesting boxes. He adds some dry grass to cover them.
Craig inspecting our Leach’s storm petrel boxes

We recently visited the neighbouring island of Dun to search for puffin eggs in the burrows on the hillside. The nests were carefully marked and we’ll return twice over the next couple of months to gauge hatching and fledging numbers. This will give us important information about the breeding success of these charismatic birds.

It was truly an honour to be able to visit Dun, which is home to thousands of breeding seabirds. We can admire its craggy slopes from our house but it is hard to access and fragile to walk on, due to the number of birds and nest sites. We were absolutely delighted to find nesting sites of kittiwakes, a seabird that has been steadily in decline on the island for several years. Our fantastic day boat operators have been incredibly helpful in noting other kittiwake colonies on the neighbouring island of Boreray, and they are actively involved in sending us information when they discover sites on their passenger trips.

I have also been busy welcoming visitors. The regular day boats are now coming whenever the weather permits, and we have had our first charter boat and yacht staying overnight. Due to Covid restrictions, the St Kilda Club shop cannot be opened (it is situated in the heart of our house), but I have set up an honesty shop in the school for postcards and small items. The church, school and museum have all been prepared for visitors with extra hand sanitising procedures and messages about maintaining social distancing; all three are now open. Our campsite is open as well, although on a limited basis.

An old-fashioned school room has long wooden desks set around the edge of the room. At the far side, the desk is laid out with small souvenirs. Panels on the wall give information about how this room used to be used.
The schoolroom has been put to use as our temporary shop.

I think a quick look at the computer sums up our work to date: Clare has a file of pictures of rocks; Craig has a file of pictures of birds; and I have a file of pictures of ... fire extinguishers! Something for everyone!