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Hatching a 60th birthday celebration for the Isle of May National Nature Reserve

Puffin on Isle of May
Puffin on Isle of May

Michael Alexander speaks to Isle of May reserve manager David Steel ahead of a talk he is giving on Monday June 20 about the 60th anniversary of the island’s status as a National Nature Reserve.

It’s been ‘all go’ on the Isle of May in recent weeks with thousands of Puffin, Guillemot and Razorbill chicks hatching.

In the last few days the island has also seen its first Kittiwake and Arctic Tern chicks emerge and that means only one thing – busy parents.

An Arctic Tern chick hatched in recent days
An Arctic Tern chick hatched in recent days

From first light (about 4am) to dusk (about 10.30pm) adult birds have been busy bringing food to hungry chicks from as far afield as the Wee Bankie 50 miles away, and this will continue until they are ready to fledge in August.

But what makes this year’s cycle all the more significant is that it coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Isle of May as a National Nature Reserve (NNR).

Isle of May reserve manager David Steel
Isle of May reserve manager David Steel

And on Monday June 20 reserve manager David Steel will mark this milestone by giving a talk on the history of the reserve at the Dreel Halls in Anstruther.

The Isle of May
The Isle of May

Speaking from the island where he lives and works from March to late November, he told The Courier: “My free talk will be about the Isle of May, celebrating 60 years as an NNR. Last year we had more than 10,000 visitors – a record – and it’s looking good for this year as well. The May has been something of a hidden gem, and this year there’s extra significance with it being the 200th anniversary of Robert Stevenson’s lighthouse. The lighthouse will be open every weekend through the summer and every day in August/September.”

Born and raised in Newcastle, York University ornithology graduate David, 39, spent 14 years living and working on the Farne Islands off the north Northumberland coast.

But he was among familiar seabird company when he took up his new job on the ‘Jewel of the Forth’ last year.

Stunning views on the Isle of May
Stunning views on the Isle of May

David said there weren’t many jobs he would have left the Farne Islands for. But he was drawn to the Isle of May by its unique setting in the mouth of the Forth and some of the most amazing wildlife the UK has to offer.

The island boasts 46,200 pairs of puffins as well as four pairs of Shelduck, 1100 pairs of Eider, 300 pairs of Fulmar, 401 pairs of Shag, 3433 pairs of Kittiwakes,  21,598 Guillemots 4590 pairs of Razorbills and 500 pairs of Arctic Terns.

It also has the biggest east coast grey seal population in the UK Grey Seal population with 2,500 pups born between September-December each year.

The main role of David, who lives in an old lighthouse keeper’s cottage alongside up to 14 other experts on the island, is to manage the island and conduct seabird research on what is home to the oldest continuously running bird observatory in the UK.

However it’s not all about wildlife.

Robert Stevensons lighthouse, built in 1816, will be an additional attraction open this summer
Robert Stevenson’s lighthouse, built in 1816, will be an additional attraction open this summer

David enjoys sharing this amazing experience with visitors as boats sail daily, if the weather cooperates, to the island from April to September.

Earlier this year the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) visitor centre, which opened in July 2014, won the Nature Tourism Award at the prestigious RSPB Nature of Scotland awards, as well as three awards at the Dundee Institute of Architects Awards.

The Nature Tourism award recognised the “high quality visitor experience” and “unique vantage point to unobtrusively observe the island’s spectacular seabirds and seals,” as well as the information presented about the island’s “rich natural heritage.”

The Dundee Institute of Architecture awards included the Best Project (Less than £500,000) Award, the Best Use of Timber Award, and a commendation for the Best Commercial/Non Domestic Award.

Arctic tern nesting on visitor centre roof
Arctic tern nesting on visitor centre roof

The building has panoramic views of the island’s rugged scenery and spectacular wildlife, including close-up views of the island’s thriving tern colony, with special panels also allowing views of puffins burrowing within a metre of the building. The centre also helps visitors explore the island, and gives information about the important wildlife and research on the island.

The centre was built sustainably and was designed to fit into the landscape. It has a turf roof planted with native maritime species, reflecting the island’s coastal grasslands. The centre is also low maintenance with no energy costs, as it uses only natural light and collects rainwater for flushing toilets. Where possible, materials were reused and recycled. Crushed stone from a demolition was used for foundations and granite sets from the demolished building were used for the floor.

The Anstruther-based May Princess ferries visitors from the mainland to the Isle of May
The Anstruther-based May Princess ferries visitors from the mainland to the Isle of May

“It’s a great place to work, “adds David, who works at SNH’s Cupar office between December and March.

“Sometimes we can get cut off for a short period if the weather gets too bad. You need to be well stocked up with food. You sacrifice quite a lot. I can’t just pop to the pub or cinema. But I don’t have to sit in long traffic jams to get to work every day, so there’s a bit of a trade-off.”

* David Steel’s talk takes place at 7.30pm on Monday June 20 in the Dreel Halls, Anstruther.

*Access to the Isle of May from Anstruther is via the privately-run May Princess www.isleofmayferry.com

malexander@thecourier.co.uk

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