Around Lochaber with Angus MacDonald

The Shiant Isles (Scottish Gaelic: Na h-Eileanan M˜ra), also known in Gaelic as "The Enchanted Isles" (Na h-Eileanan Seunta) are a privately owned island group in the Minch, east of Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. They are five miles south east of Lewis. The Shiant Isles have a large population of seabirds, including tens of thousands Atlantic Puffins breeding in burrows on the slopes of Garbh Eilean, as well as significant numbers of Common Guillemots, Razorbills, Northern Fulmars, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Common Shags, gulls and Great Skuas. Although St Kilda has more puffins, the sheer density on the Shiants is greater Dun Carloway was probably built some time in the 1st century BC, and radiocarbon dating evidence from remains found in the broch show that it was last occupied around 1300 AD.

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Where have the seabirds gone?

Twelve years ago when we bought our house by the sea in Moidart, it seemed the beach was teeming in activity, but now its barren.

I read that the seabird population is declining by three per cent a year, so if that is reverse compounded, the number of birds has fallen by 30 per cent since we moved in.

I daily scan the shore for the kittiwake, the eider duck and dunlins that used to be seen even five years ago. Frequently, I see nothing, then an oyster catcher or gull makes an appearance. Last week there were two black- throated divers offshore. Lovely.

I read in one of Gavin Maxwell’s wonderful books, written in 1953, of a cloud of gannets rising from the sea ahead of his boat, so dense that it blocked out the sun. Today you are lucky to see even one of these magnificent large yellow-throated birds soaring on the thermals before diving like an arrow into the waves.

Occasionally a story hits the press of the decline of puffins in the outer isles or penguins in the Arctic, but the decline of seabird numbers on our own shores doesn’t seem to be noticed. The thing is, the seabird is the equivalent of the canaries that miners took down coal mines as an early warning of dangerous gases. What is this precipitous decline warning us of, and if the three per cent annual decline continues, will we really have lost virtually all our seabirds in my lifetime?

What is the cause of this dramatic drop? Well, it can be summed up: a lack of food and predators, with global warming and plastic in the sea contributing, too.

We can spot the disappearance of the seabirds but we cannot see the disappearance of the fish that they survive on. It’s difficult to imagine that 100 years ago that there were so many herring boats in Mallaig that you could walk across the harbour, and fishing was the main source of employment in many communities.

Over the past 30 years, the oceans have been stripped bare, vast factory ships with seine nets 10 miles long catching and killing everything they can scoop up as their sonar fish finders lead them from shoal to shoal.

The Sunday Times recently ran a piece about Danish trawlers catching sand eels in British waters which are then used to power their power stations. Sand eels, about the size of sardines, are the core food for most seabirds. And scallop dredgers pulling rakes along the sand and using vast vacuum pumps to suck up our next meal are destroying our west coast seabed.

One of my many sons was off for a run last spring and returned reporting that he’d seen a pine marten carrying a little duckling. My heart sank. The pair of eider duck that I’d been watching rearing their hatch of six duckling was now down to two. Within a week, there was none.

The protected pine marten numbers are flourishing, and so, too, are the vermin mink which escaped from fur farms 50 years ago and are now prevalent across the UK. These two species scour the shores for nesting birds and, once a hatch has been discovered, it is curtains for that family. Foxes and rats, too, play a part in ensuring few young survive.

What can we do to reverse this decline? Well, the first thing we can do is to complain to our politicians, ask what they are doing to protect our inshore waters. How can it be legal to fish the way these vast industrial ships do? We should eat only line-caught or sustainably-caught fish – and eat more farmed fish, too. Despite the well publicised issues of fish farming, it’s the only chance of our wild fish stocks recovering.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Scottish Natural Heritage need to concentrate more of the excellent work they have done destroying vermin on remote islands even further. They seem to direct their focus and considerable funds too much on growing the red kite and sea eagle population and not enough on saving less high profile birds.

If I was a board member of the RSPB would I like to have my epitaph read: ‘During his directorship of the RSPB, he oversaw the disappearance of 80 per cent of the seabird population’? Quite a likely scenario, I would have thought.

We have a crisis in our seas unfolding in front of our eyes, but few are looking or caring.