Friday, 11 June 2010

Sailing through the fog

Having successfully negotiated a Land Rover and caravan through the streets of both Glasgow and Aberdeen (thank you, Mark!), we were first to roll on to the ferry (fortunately they didn't make us reverse on!) and we set sail for the Shetland archipelago, exactly 3 weeks ago. Rolling off the ferry into Lerwick, 12 hours later and just after 7 in the morning, we embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the south mainland, calling in for coffee and introductions to all the people, dogs and freezers which will all be key to the success of the project! Having picked up the last-minute essentials of bird rings, water and UHT milk, by 1pm we were aboard the boat and headed for our final destination - Mousa.

With the Solan IV laden with our gear, we were ready to set sail (Mark Bolton)

Only a 15-minute sailing from the mainland, Mousa is, in many ways, easily accessible; however, its lack of inhabitants, any proper dwelling (with an intact roof at least!) or facilities and the frequency with which bad weather prohibits sailings, makes it feel quite remote. As, first the island, then the broch, slowly appeared through the dense fog, I knew that Mousa would prove to be a truly magical place.

Approaching the western shore of Mousa (Hannah Watson)

The 450-acre island lies off the east coast of the south mainland. It is famous, both historically, for its 43-foot high Iron Age broch (the most preserved example in Scotland), and ecologically, for its spectacular wildlife. Of particular note is the species that is the focus of this project - the European Storm-petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus), which return to Mousa to breed during the summer months. Storm-petrels, more affectionately known as 'stormies', are small seabirds which spend most of their lives far out at sea. They are nearly all black with a white rump and subtle pale bar on the underside of the wings. If you saw one at sea, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a house-martin, given the uncanny resemblance. 

A stormie at sea off the west coast of Ireland (Dan Brown)

Mousa supports the largest colony of storm-petrels in the UK and is though to hold almost 12,000 breeding pairs! That equates to at least 40% of the UK population and more than 2% of the world population. While the colony on Mousa seems to be doing very well and has been increasing over the last 20 years, colonies elsewhere in the UK are displaying quite opposite trends, with significant declines in numbers. Studying the storm-petrels on Mousa will improve our knowledge of this poorly-studied species and contribute to our understanding of the drivers behind such variable population trends at different colonies.

The fog rolls back and Mousa emerges in the sunshine (Hannah Watson)

Only a 15-minute sailing from the mainland, Mousa can be reached on Tom Jamieson's boat ( or 01950 431367), which takes visitors over to the island every day between mid-April and early September (weather pending, of course!). On Wednesday and Saturday nights, Tom also operates trips to see and hear the stormies as they return to the colony at night, having spend the day feeding way off shore.