Since becoming a volunteer in the past twelve months I have had some memorable experiences. I have stood in front of a room of strangers at the RHS Show in Cardiff and told them my life story; I have helped a group of teenagers become the next budding young wildlife photographer and I have stood in the middle of Queen Street, Cardiff with an eight foot Heron! Last week I had the chance to add another incredible set of memories to the portfolio of the mind.
I was invited along for a ministerial visit to Grassholm and Ramsey Island to photograph the handing over a pledge to protect the waters around these and other vitally important marine ecosystems. The party included Gareth Cunningham (Marine Policy Officer), Sharon Thompson (Sustainable Development Officer), Laura Wilkinson (Policy Advocate) and the warders of Ramsey Island; Greg and Lisa Morgan. Other than the physical handing over of the pledge, it was a chance for the Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development, John Griffiths to see for himself the area concerned. (For more on the marine pledge read Gareth's Blog here.)
I have never been to a sea bird colony before, so I really had no idea what to expect. I can confirm it exceeded anything my imagination could conjure up by several thousand Gannets!!
Grassholm, it turns out, is quite a long way out into the Irish Sea. Despite the rest of Wales basking in glorious sunshine we were soon enshrouded in a mist, this only added to the sense of drama as the small twenty two acre island loomed out of the sea fog. Every scrap of rocky outcrop seemed to have a Gannet perched on it. It immediately went from a bird I had never seen before to the second most bird species I have probably seen after Starlings. You simply can’t put into words the sight, sound and smell of thirty nine thousand birds! You have to try and get your head around the fact that you are actually witnessing around a tenth of the world population of Gannets. The island plays host to the third largest Gannet colony in the world, with only two sites in Scotland having larger breeding colonies. With them having such specialised and localised colonies they are an amber listed bird.
Most people will have seen the Gannet on wildlife television shows, their fishing technique of plunging into the sea at high speed is the dream of slow motion camera men everywhere! We did witness a bit of this back in Saint Justinians harbour on the return trip, but during our time around the island they seemed more intent on circling the skies above us in vast numbers. They have air sacs under the skin in their faces and chest to help cushion hitting the water at speeds of up to 100km/h and their fantastic binocular vision to allow them to spot fish from heights of up to thirty metres.
I knew they were large sea birds, but to see that two metre wing span close up is truly incredible (pull a tape measure out to two metres to see what I mean!). The plumage of these largely white birds is quite beautiful. Their heads just a subtle colour of amber with the blue ringed eyes and a black mascara and eye-liner surround reminding me of a seventies glam rocker. They are truly magnificent birds, and should you have a chance to take a sea cruise around a colony I heartily recommend you do it!
The Gannets were not the only birds and wildlife I saw during my visit to the islands of Ramsey and Grassholm and the surrounding sea. I shall tell you more of the incredible wildlife I saw in the second part of this blog later this week.
As a final aside, as far as I saw, the late Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame was wrong. I didn’t see one Gannet wet their beds ….
© All Images Anthony Walton
ITV Wales sent a reporter along, you can see that report here. Marine Conservation Zones
Last Wednesday (25th July) I and other RSPB Cymru staff accompanied the Environment Minister John Griffiths to RSPB Ramsey Island, and on a boat trip around RSPB Grassholm Island. The trip was organised to help raise awareness of marine issues in Wales, and to highlight the need for seabird colonies to have protected areas at sea, where they feed or rest on the sea’s surface.
We presented the Minister with an image of a Manx shearwater made up of the 3000 signatures of those who signed our pledge for better protection of seabirds at sea. Have a look at the image below. Wales is a critical location for breeding seabirds like the Manx shearwater, with almost 45% of the global population of this species nesting on just five Welsh islands. While RSPB Cymru’s Grassholm Island, supports almost 10% of the world’s population of gannets.
While we are seeing large declines in seabirds across the rest of the UK, we are lucky that in Wales as yet we are not seeing the same level of declines and most seabird species are currently either stable or increasing. As a result healthy Welsh seabird colonies are becoming increasingly important at a UK and EU level.
However, one Welsh seabird which isn’t fairing so well is the kittiwake; last year they had their worst year on record. As a seabird that only feeds close to the surface of the sea, kittiwakes have a much more limited food supply than seabirds that can dive deeper to access alternative sources of prey, and as a result, kittiwakes are often the first to indicate bigger problems below the waters.
Yet despite the importance of Welsh seabirds and the protection of the breeding sites on land, we still lack full protection for seabirds at sea – where the birds actively feed and spend most of their lives.We are calling on the Welsh Government to not only designate additional areas at sea for seabirds and other marine wildlife, but to ensure effective management of the existing sites around Welsh coasts. Better management, resourcing and where necessary, enforcement of activities in the marine environment is needed for the entire network of Marine Protected Areas whether existing or new.
For more information about the RSPB Cymru marine campaign visit www.rspb.org.uk/supporting/campaigns/sealife/ and to see images from the boat trip, courtesy of our volunteer Anthony Walton visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/ponty_cyclops/7660725804/in/set-72157630756912406
Image credit: L-R John Griffiths, Environment Minister and Gareth Cunningham RSPB Cymru Marine Policy Officer handing over the Manx shearwater image made from 3000 signatures July 2012 - credit Anthony Walton, RSPB Cymru volunteer
With the Welsh Government gaining primary legislative making powers last year, 2012 has seen a flurry of consultations on all aspects of Welsh Government policy including on the environment. The result is that we have a once in a generation opportunity to influence the future of how Wales’ environment is used, managed, protected and valued by current and future generations.
A number of areas of interest to RSPB Cymru include:
The question is – is the Welsh Government grasping this opportunity or squandering it?
While there are some good intentions, we are concerned that what is currently proposed will not go far enough in helping us deliver the 2020 biodiversity target and this opportunity could slip by. We want the Welsh Government to build on and improve what is (or could be with a bit of tweaking or proper implementation and enforcement) working, such as protected sites, and to effectively implement new proposals for an ecosystem approach if we are to halt the loss of biodiversity and sustainably manage the Welsh countryside and seas. Following the Rio+20 summit in June we want to see the Welsh Government really taking the lead in delivering a sustainable future for the people and wildlife of Wales.
We’re interested in hearing your views on this topic, please join the debate by commenting below.
By Sharon Thompson, Sustainable Development Manager, RSPB Cymru