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28 Apr 2022

From the edge of the world 2022 – part 3

Written by Sue Loughran, St Kilda ranger
A view standing on the lower hillside above Village Bay on St Kilda, looking down over drystone walls and grassy fields towards the bay. The water is calm and blue.
Village Bay, St Kilda
It’s been six months since I was last on Hirta, and I’m delighted to have been re-appointed as the ranger for St Kilda. Like the birds that we monitor, Clare, Craig and myself (the team from 2021) have returned for the season, and we are settling back into life in the Manse.

To begin, I’d like to offer my huge thanks to Craig for shutting down the Manse at the end of last season, and to Clare and her cousin Amelia for working so hard on painting and tidying prior to our start – getting the Manse into great shape for 2022.

I noticed so many changes to the island when I first arrived; overwhelmingly, the quiet and the lack of visual intrusion. Ever since I have worked on St Kilda, the demolition and re-building works being carried out by our neighbours Qinetiq have dominated life in Village Bay. Now that they are complete, there is a drastic reduction in personnel. All remnants of machinery and building works have been removed and there is a feeling that the island is taking a step towards looking and sounding more as it may have done before the 1950s.

The new buildings have been designed to blend more sensitively into the landscape, and the large area between the Manse and the Qinetiq building (which used to house MoD accommodation) has been cleared. This area has been re-profiled in keeping with the lie of the land and has been fenced off from the Soay sheep until it has re-seeded. The whole operation has been painstaking due to the complexities of working within a mixed status World Heritage Site (this is the only such site in the UK and one of only 39 worldwide, putting it on a similar level of importance as sites such as Machu Pichu in Peru and Uluru in Australia). If any of you who have visited in the last three years return, you will notice a massive improvement!

As in 2020, I was once again lucky to be employed as an occupational therapist in the NHS over the winter. I joined a highly dedicated and hard-working team in north Wales, assessing and supporting adults to return safely to their own homes from hospital. The annual ‘winter pressures’ were hugely exacerbated by COVID and I was glad that I could offer some support to the team who were working under huge demands. I think it was a measure of their generosity that they were nearly as excited as I was about my return to St Kilda, with everyone fascinated to hear all about the islands and my life working here.

A rainbow arches over a gap between two hills on St Kilda. Grassy slopes and drystone walls can be seen in the foreground.
I was very excited to return to these beautiful islands.

With all things on St Kilda, the weather is the dominant force. We have had very few calm days since I arrived. So far, one day boat has managed to visit, but the first cruise to arrive was unable to land passengers due to the huge sea swell. The swell, the wind direction and the wind force are the three factors that determine landings, and we keep a close eye on the weather forecast and global shipping trackers to try to predict what may be happening over the next few days. Nature, of course, always has the upper hand, so the predictions can often be wrong!

A view across Village Bay, with clouds hugging the tops of the hills on the far side of the bay.
The clouds rolling in from the sea

The priority for me when I arrived on St Kilda was to get the jetty scrubbed and made safe for visitors. Over the winter, algae grows thickly on all the steps and platforms, creating a treacherous slipping hazard. There is no quick solution … just perseverance and continued attention throughout the season. However, I’ve asked for a new brush this year! My grateful thanks go to Jonathan Grant (ranger for Mingulay, Pabbay & Berneray) for coming out to assist with opening up for the season.

Our Soay sheep are just at the start of lambing as I write. We have five members of the Soay Sheep Research Project staying in the cottages, and they are monitoring throughout lambing. Our sheep are one of the oldest breeds in the world and, very unusually, they are completely wild; they do not receive human intervention at any stage in their lives. For this reason, we ask all visitors to not walk too close to lambs in case they become separated from the ewes. There is a very real danger that, if separated, the ewe could reject the lamb, which would inevitably mean that the lamb would die. By all means take pictures, but please don’t get too close.

A large, brown, fleecy sheep walks away from the camera across a grassy hillside, followed by a small black lamb.
A Soay ewe with her lamb

Our birds are also starting to re-appear. Great skuas (or bonxies) are soaring overhead; puffins have been forming ‘rafts’ out at sea and we have just started to see them back on land; fulmars are pairing up; and oystercatchers are calling around the bay. Two white tailed eagles have been spotted, and ‘Snedge’ our snowy owl has made regular appearances. We had seven whooper swans a-swimming, and many redwings and turnstones. Sightings will start to rack up now, keeping all of us on the alert!

I’m just off to check and update the first aid boxes, clean some of the accommodation and stock up the honesty shop, so I’ll be back with another update soon. Here’s to another season with a great team of colleagues!

From the edge of the world

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