In his book ‘Island Years’[i] Frank Fraser Darling the ecologist and ornithologist recalls his life on The Summer Isles where in 1936 he counted and studied the birds he found there. He describes what he calls ‘the noise and abandon with it all, for the sea birds express their emotions with great intensity, and the discordant cries blend into a harmony accompanied by the deep voice of the sea’. Talking about his time on Eilean a’Chlèirich, or Priest Island, he remembers the ‘ecstatic quality to be felt among the colonies of gulls, cormorantries and on the shaded ledges where the shags build’’
Nowadays the RSPB data from the Priest Island reserve tells a troubling story; over the past forty years the numbers of fulmars, shags and gulls have all dropped significantly. The 300 occupied sites for fulmar have dropped to less than 50. Pairs of gulls, a mix of common, herring, lesser and great-black backs were in the hundreds but have now dropped to no more than 30 pairs. In the 1980s there used to be 150-200 shags, now there are only around 25 occupied nests.[ii] All of these birds are on the Amber list of conservation concern. Unfortunately, there can be little doubt that many of seabird species in The Summer Isles are in decline since Frank Fraser Darling stayed there.
Brian Wilson a local sea kayaker has himself seen fewer and fewer seabirds around both The Summer Isles and at other breeding sites. Back in the day he too recalls the almost overwhelming experience of the noise, smells and the enormous visual impact of the birds in breeding season and whilst he acknowledges it is still well worth a visit to local bird colonies he is aware that it is not the spectacle that it once was.
Witnessing bird populations crashing over recent years he wonders how long it could be before the younger generation won’t ever have the opportunity to see a puffin aside from in books, could this happen in the next twenty years? His fear is that as we lose sight of what the marine environment used to be like, we will accept something much less rich. Once an abundance of bird and marine life is lost from people’s memory then we could all become used to living with less.
Wester Ross is comparatively richer and wilder than the rest of Britain, indeed the wildlife is one the reasons why so many tourists are drawn to the area, however Brian questions visitors’ perceptions of how plentiful the marine environment currently is, believing that it should be better and knowing from his own experience that in recent history it was.
Bernard Planterose was the warden on the neighbouring Isle Martin between 1981 – 1995, still a local resident, he too has witnessed the consistently lower levels of wildlife in the area. He thinks that unless people go out onto the sea regularly they will not be aware of the declining numbers of seabirds so they will accept the current situation as normal, he also questions how in the future children will know about the birdlife that used to exist here.
What both Brian and Bernard have seen first-hand is the concept of ‘Shifting Baseline Syndrome’; as abundant wildlife diminishes each successive generation is not aware of what came before and the extent to which numbers are declining and species are being lost.
Marine birds are at that top level of the oceanic food chain and being mostly migratory identifying influencing factors to their decline can be complex. Whist it is clear that numbers are falling it is hard to find one direct cause, it could be a combination of climate change and over fishing as well as chemical and plastic pollution; ultimately all of these factors impact upon the marine environment. Bernard and Brian have both witnessed this decline but even so they agree that to challenge these shrinking baselines it is necessary to have scientific data and accurate independent evidence. The damage happening under the sea is often not immediately visible so it is crucial to have research and data which can be used to challenge exploitative industrial practices and to influence policy. Data from damaged or polluted marine environments can also help to answer questions about the capacity of marine systems to repair themselves, so people can consider how to regain what has already been lost.
In his article Shifting Baselines [iii] local scientist John McIntyre asks us to imagine the sea as it was a thousand years ago. He believes the richness of it would have been staggering. ‘I want that back’ he says. ‘I want it back for the delight of its beauty but also for food security and job creation because the maths shows a recovered ecosystem will give us twice the catch we have now and that, (if well managed), it would go on forever.’
Bernard gives Reforesting Scotland as an example of a successful campaign that shows people can have an impact on land restoration, to his mind there is no reason why people cannot also protect and renew the sea. He believes that the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area which encompasses the Summer Isles could become an example of marine restoration, providing important data and acting as a site for research. By using local knowledge and expertise he thinks local groups such as Sea Change can be the way forward especially when they join with other groups across Scotland to lobby people in positions of power.
Environmental issues can feel overwhelmingly negative or appear too big and remote for people to have an influence on, they may seem like something that should be tackled by governments but there are things that people can do locally.
As a fellow supporter of Sea Change Brian also believes that it is crucial to hang on to what we have left and sees Wester Ross Marine Protected Area as an opportunity to recover what we can from what is still here, “it is a starting point” he says “something to work with and improve on”.
Despite the disheartening trends, it is not all bad news. RSPB figures show that in 1999 there were still 4,947 storm petrels recorded on Priest Island and despite a decline between 1999 and 2004 the population recovered to approx. 4,259 in 2014. In fact the island has one of the largest colonies of Storm Petrels in the UK.
During his time on the Summer Isles, Fraser Darling relished the sights and sounds of the Storm Petrels ‘Often I have lain out of a summer night by the outlaw’s shieling to hear and see the stormies. It will be a grey day for me when I know that never again will I go to sleep with the churning song of the stormies. It, like many other bird sounds, dwells deep in the mind.’
John McIntyre emphatically states; ‘Even as a child I could see how much we had lost and I was sad. If I could show people the sea as it was full of life they would cry and all argument would stop.’
It might be some time, if ever, that people are really able to see what the seas were like one thousand years ago, however not all is lost. Wester Ross Marine Protected area will be one year old in March 2017, it exists and will continue to exist because of the people who care deeply about the recovery of the marine environment and the creatures that depend on it for their survival.
[ii] RSPB Scotland February 2017 To find out more about the work of the RSPB please follow this link. http://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/our-positions-and-campaigns/positions/marine/
[iii] John McIntyre Shifting Baselines http://seachangewesterross.co.uk/shifting-baselines/
Photographs by Bernard Planterose – Country Life 1986 1) Priest Island 2) Young Black backed Gulls