The calendar says 18th May but its hard to believe where the time has gone. Here is a quick summary of what has been happening on Ramsey so far this month
We finished lambing! The last lambs (a set of twins) were born on 12th - we got the remaining 11 empties in to check them the next day. No signs of udders so out they all went. It was a very successful season - 128 lambs born (40 sets of twins and 48 singles) with only 4 losses at birth. The chough seem to be appreciating it as we have 10 territorial pairs this year, 8 of which nest built and all are feeding small young at the moment. The other 2 pairs are young non breeding pairs that hold territory but don't breed (but will hopefully do so in future year) - although one of them thought they would have a go at nest building yesterday!
Myself, Lisa and Dewi moving the final set of twins out of the lambing fields
Before turning everything out we treated all the ewes with a fly repellent to hopefully ward off fly strike until we can get them sheared in June
Only a month old but some of the single lambs are looking good
Someone is looking forward to a rest!
We also finished the arable plot - having ploughed it, rolled it and harrowed it (twice each) we sowed it in early May, just in time for a good drop of rain to start it on its way. The arable plot will provide sheep feed for the winter, seed for autumn and winter finches and maybe some cover for a rarity or two!
The arable plot freshly sown and electric fenced to keep rabbits and deer out (hopefully!)
The breeding season is in full swing now. Wheatears look to be having a good year. The disappearance of most females indicates incubation while males stand guard. This pair have nested in one of the stone cairns we built to mark the footpaths!
The auks are mostly incubating their single eggs now. This razorbill kept me company while I was monitoring a west coast chough site this morning
while over a hundred of our nationally scarce Dew moths flitted around my feet on the thrift
which is now out in full bloom
The weather has had its 'up and downs' this month but we've still managed to get a steady trickle of visitors across to enjoy the island. Late May and June see the island at its best in my view (other favourite months are available!) so if you would like to see a riot of spring flowers, cliffs packed with seabirds or just want to come and see the lambs then contact Thousand Islands Expeditions to book (01437 721721)
In April of this year we had a visit from Dilek Sahin, a Yelkouan shearwater researcher from Turkey. Yelkouan shearwaters are only found in the eastern Mediterranean and are a close relative of the Manx shearwater (which breed here on Ramsey). It was a real pleasure to meet Dilek and share shearwater stories. Below is a gust blog by Dilek about her visit
My name is Dilek Sahin. I have been counting Yelkouan shearwaters in the Bosporus –an important migratory bottleneck- since 2010. The main purpose of my study is to understand the movements of this threatened species in Turkish Strait System through which thousands of them migrates each year. I am also working on remote islands in Turkey to search for Yelkouan shearwater breeding colonies which are not discovered yet. For more information on the Yelkouan shearwater project in Turkey please visit our website via this link
Two years ago when I started my PhD at Bosporus University (Istanbul, Turkey) I found a surprising book in the library: ‘Shearwaters’ by Ronald Lockley. The book is all about Lockley’s pioneering research on Manx shearwaters on Skokholm Island. In a country where interest in birds and bird research is very limited I was surprised to find such a specific book on seabirds. It is perhaps due to the noticeable and non-stop Yelkouan shearwater passage in the Bosporus: just in the “garden” of my University.
All the stories that Lockley tells about Manxies in the book and all the experiments he did to reveal information about these tiny birds were amazing. I remember that I was taking frequent breaks when I was reading the book to delay finishing and enjoy it longer. As a shearwater enthusiast, I was dreaming myself of living on an island and studying shearwaters as he did.
When I landed on Ramsey Island for a short stay to meet Greg and discuss shearwaters, I realized that this was the opportunity to experience a few dream days. Although it was early in the shearwater season, I was lucky to handle my first Manx shearwater on the first night! For someone who has been counting Yelkouan shearwaters in a migration hotspot but not studying them in the breeding colonies, handling one of them awakened strong feelings, which are difficult to describe even in my mother language.
These birds are traveling vast distances during the non-breeding season, visiting South America’s Atlantic coast, spending several month of the year there, and then come back to the exactly same burrow to breed each season. For such a relatively small bird –weighting only 400g- it is remarkable they survive these adventures.
During my time on Ramsey (early April), Manx shearwaters started come to land to visit their nests. They usually visit their nests at night but in the early breeding season you can find couples resting inside their burrow by day, defending their territories. We encountered several such couples. . We know this because they were responding together to the recording of male and female Manxie duetting calls that we played to check the occupancy of the nest. Who knows what they are chatting about inside those burrows, maybe about their adventures during the non-breeding season; how they obtained food and how they prepare themselves for the next chick rearing ordeal! Despite miniaturized tracking devices, increasing number of scientific papers published on them and more scientists studying shearwaters there is still a lot to learn about their ecology!
Digging in Manx shearwater nest boxes with Ramsey Reserve Intern Sarah Parmor (photo G Morgan)
Together with RSPB volunteers, wardens Greg and Lisa put huge effort to better understand and protect not only Manxies but all wildlife on Ramsey Island. In just four days, I joined them on several conservation activities. We built and dug in nest boxes for Manx shearwaters. As they are using deep rabbit burrows on Ramsey, it is difficult to monitor the nests. To make monitoring work easier and to minimize the disturbance arising from processing birds they are investing in nest boxes. We also placed Puffin decoys in a location where some Puffins have been observed showing an interest previously. Puffins are not breeding on Ramsey Island as rats (now eradicated) were introduced by man in the 1800’s .Ramsey has lots of space for them in comparison to Skomer where thousands of Puffins breed in dense groups (Skomer has never had rats). Puffin colonization on Ramsey would take the burden from Skomer Island. We also checked the nest boxes (or rather concrete blocks!) and sound system installed for Storm petrels to make sure everything was working before their return (a few storm petrels have returned to breed on Ramsey post rat eradication). Chough was another species that we monitored the nests of. It was funny to compare our observations and discuss their behavior during our lunch or dinner and try to decide on the stage of breeding (i.e. if they are nest building, or already laid their eggs). Finally I was involved in many fruitful conversations about shearwaters and my own project during my time on Ramsey Island.
After Ramsey, I also visited Skomer Island to meet another great team and many more Manx shearwaters. Both of the islands are too good to be true, so peaceful yet so dynamic. Skomer feels like a movie set of a wildlife documentary whereas Ramsey feels like home (yes, despite the Welsh climate)!
Yelkouan shearwaters in Turkey (photo: Mehmet Hanay)
Farming is a big part of life on Ramsey and we manage a flock of Welsh Mountain sheep for conservation grazing purposes. Chough are one of the island's key management plan species. There are less than 400 pairs in the UK with over 50% of those in Wales; here on Ramsey we have 9 territorial pairs this year. They nest in sea caves and feed on soil invertebrates so short well grazed coastal grassland is their key habitats. Farming has sculpted Ramsey's landscape for generations giving rise to an open, short sward in the northern fields that chough (as well as wheatear) have thrived on. We keep a flock of Welsh Mountain ewes on the island year round limiting numbers in winter to around 100 animals. We then lamb from these to boost the number of grazing heads during the summer months when grass growth is at a peak. Before winter we sell the ram lambs and any older ewes, replacing them with young ewes from the current years crop. In addition to their grazing benefits the sheep dung also provides a valuable additional habitat for dung beetles - an important insect in its own right but also a key component of chough diet.
The 2016 lambing season started on 12th April and its been full on since then. Due to poor weather over winter we were unable to get them scanned this year. We need flat calm conditions to get the scanning machine across and we saw precious little of that last winter! So we have no way of knowing how many are expecting singles, twins or are empty. Not ideal but it makes it more interesting! Today saw our 100th lamb born, 33 sets of twins and the rest singles. There are about 20-30 left to lamb depending on how many are empty. The number of twins has taken us by surprise. Our ewes are Welsh Mountain (Glamorgan / Lleyn cross) while the rams are Cheviots. The breed is not prone to twins (with the exception of the Lleyn element in them) so they must have been in good condition following the mild and wet winter
We lamb them outside in three lambing fields. Once they are day or two old we turn the twins into two further 'maternity fields' where we can give them additional feed and turn the singles out onto the main island pasture. Its a busy time for staff. We have been up every day at 5am for the past 2 weeks with the last checks at 10pm. There have been the usual problematic deliveries to deal with. Incorrectly presented lambs cannot be delivered safely (or at all) so need our intervention. The correct position is front feet forward so you see the front hooves plus nose appear first.We've had hung lambs (both legs back), one leg back, tangled twins, upside down, backwards births and breeches. Some can be rectified quite quickly but others mean the lamb needs pushing back into the ewe so the necessary rearrangements can be made out of the constricted space of the birth canal. Once out of sight it is all done by feel alone. Lisa has the smallest hands so this job falls to her! Most interventions are successful but inevitably a few lambs have died (not many so far, only three). However we are pleased to say that no ewe has ended up without a lamb. Raising twins is obviously more challenging so when the opportunity arises we 'kidnap' one (usually from a smaller ewe who looks like she might struggle) and try and adopt it to the ewe who has lost a lamb. It sounds gruesome but the most effective way to do this (in our experience) is to skin the dead lamb and put the coat on the adopted lamb like a coat. If all goes to plan the ewe thinks it is her own lamb and hopefully accepts it. The coat only needs to stay on for 24-36 hours and good thing too as by then it is starting to stink! So despite the loss of a lamb, 2 ewes have now ended up with a lamb each. I hate seeing a ewe with no lamb. She wanders around shouting, tries to steal other lambs and more importantly is at risk of mastitis as her bulging teats are full of milk with nothing to relieve the pressure
Here I am with a couple we needed to deliver ourselves yesterday. The lamb on the right was very big and was stuck with one leg hooked back in the birth canal. By contrast its twin (on the left) was tiny and fired out while I was still getting the first to breath properly! The small twin is very feisty and seems to know it has competition!
Lamb wearing a skinned 'jacket' from a dead lamb - the ewe successfully adopted this one as its own
Lisa with two freshly pulled lambs where her small hands definitely came in useful!
New Ramsey intern Sarah has been a huge help and taken to lambing like a natural!
Its not only myself, Lisa and Sarah who are busy. We get a lot of help from our parents including taking over the kitchen and cooking all our meals for us! No good setting a 'dinner time' as we could roll in any hour depending on what is going on. But the hardest worker of all is Dewi our Border Collie. We trained him from a pup and he is now 7 years old and at his peak. Because we lamb outside we need to move sheep around different fields. Lambs just a few days old can run very fast but Dewi is very good at gently moving them and his quick, sharp moves means we can move them slowly and carefully. If any break away we would be left for dead but Dewi covers the ground in no time at all and heads off any escapees. If ewes are in difficulty giving birth we need to catch them. Dewi is very good at cornering them for us and standing them up until we can get to them. He is up and bouncing about at 5am when I come down the stairs eager to go again and even if he is flaked out in front of the fire in the evening he still jumps up when he hears us putting on our boots for the last light look round. We simply could not do it without him. Below is a short video of him moving a ewe plus twins
Farming and conservation can, and should, go hand in hand and it is one of the most rewarding aspects of our jobs. 10 years ago we didn't have a clue but thanks to careful and patient training by local farmer Derek Rees we can now do it all on our own (well nearly all!) Derek is always on the other end of the phone to offer advice or to shoot over in his boat at a moment's notice. We've only had to call him out once this year (so far!) for a ewe that had prolapsed. A massive thank you is due to Derek for the way he has taught us. We would aso like to say thank you to the local farming community for helping us out over the years, in particular the lovely folk at Treginnis Cottages and Treginnis Farm School, our nearest neighbours.
Watch this space for more updates!