Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been carrying out a variety of jobs that highlight the diversity of life out here which helps make Ramsey such a special place to work. One minute we’ve been lugging concrete blocks half way across the island, the next getting to grips with the workings of a plough and then up to our armpits in sheep! All in the name of species recovery and nature conservation from storm petrels through to chough.
Storm petrels are the UK’s smallest seabird and bred on Ramsey for the first time in 2008 following rat eradication. Prior to this their eggs and young would have been easy prey for this introduced predator and although they may have bred here in the past there are no official records. The population is small at present (c. 10 pairs) but just offshore the Bishops and Clerks archipelago (which are part of the reserve) are home to around 150 pairs. We would like to increase the numbers breeding on Ramsey and also have access to a population that we can study so we set about making nest boxes.
European storm petrel (photo: Dave Boyle)
Our neighbours on Skokholm (which has the largest population of this species in Wales at around 2,000 pairs) kindly shared their new concrete box design with us. This alternative to the plastic waste pipe that has been used in the past offers a solid, robust structure that blends in well with its rocky surroundings.
RSPB volunteer Steve Bool making the concrete nest boxes last summer (thanks Rich and Giselle on Skokholm for sharing your design!)
Last summer one of our volunteers, Steve Bool, set to work making 20 of these. Over the past couple of weeks Lisa and I installed them. Moving 20 solid lumps of concrete out to the west coast was no mean feat but it kept us fit and they won’t blow away!
Carefully packed into the trailer to allow the quad bike to take some of the strain in carting them out to the west coast
Storm petrels nest in a variety of habitat including boulder scree, walls, beneath large boulders, earth burrows and even thick matted grass. We chose a suitable looking site on the rugged west coast of Ramsey overlooking the natural sites both here and on the Bishops and Clerks. We arranged the boxes in groups of one to four depending on the space available; all within a 10m radius of each other. Once the boxes were in place we needed to shield the entrance slightly and make it look more natural. Luckily there was plenty of loose rock in the area so it was a case of combining dry stone walling and ‘Jenga’ skills to create the perfect entrance!
By putting them in now they have a chance to ‘bed in’ and acquire a more natural smell before the birds arrive back next spring. The next step will be to rig up a sound playback system in an attempt to attract passing birds to inspect the area and hopefully choose some of our boxes for breeding.
Lisa installing a cluster of boxes in a rock crevice location
A cluster of 'des-res' boxes complete with rock scree entrances
Wide angle of the site - 20 boxes are in there somwhere!
Up until today (it’s wet!) the latter half of November and the first week of December has been relatively dry with some decent weather for the time of year. At times like this we maximise the outdoor jobs and put off the indoor ones for days like this. So with a ‘new’ second hand plough in tow we resurrected one of the old arable plots that has not seen action for a few years. The area has not been ploughed since we have been here so once again it was down to Derek to give us a crash course in yet another new farming skill!
When Derek was finally happy he let me loose to try my hand at ploughing for the first time!
I'm not going to win any cups but I was pretty pleased with my first attempt! Derek taught me well!
Having such a stunning back drop helped
There are several reasons for this project. Sheep are an important component in our chough management programme. Their grazing keeps grass heights in check that allow access to soil invertebrates. This variety of sward height that comes with mixed grazing (we have ponies and deer here too) helps support a wider range of soil invertebrates than you would find with a blanket short or long sward. In addition their dung provides habitat for dung beetles (of which Ramsey supports important populations) which in turn are themselves a vital food source for chough.
Year round grazing has been shown to provide better conditions for chough going into the spring that just seasonal grazing but In order to keep sheep on the island over winter we usually have to provide some form of additional feed (only in exceptional winters will the grass on the island provide enough forage for them throughout) . Plus it’s a lot easier for us to not have to move them on and off every spring and autumn!
Bringing feed on is not particularly difficult but we have to think about biosecurity and the risk of reintroducing alien species such as rats and mice. So we have decided to try and grow our own winter forage for the sheep. As well as eliminating the biosecurity risk it will also prove cheaper overall.
Once ploughed and rolled we will prepare the soil for a forage crop (most likely sugar beet, turnips or kale) and in addition will plant some arable crop and/or seed mix that will provide winter stubbles for birds to make use of in winter. When conditions for soil feeding are tough Chough will readily turn to winter stubbles and feed on spilled grain, as will other bird species that overwinter here such as skylarks. This process will provide an additional form of habitat and we are only ploughing a small area in one field that has already been extensively ploughed in the past so it will not impact on our valuable unimproved acid grassland.
Dewi, our Border Collie, hasn’t been idle either – apart from helping us carry concrete blocks (well he thinks he is helping!) and following the plough, we brought all the sheep in a few days ago to check them over and worm them. Once again he proved how valuable he is to us and saved us a lot of time. They all looked well and with the continued low rabbit numbers are doing a fine job of keeping the sward height down and providing a more varied structure than the locust-like nibbling of the rabbits!
Dewi in work mode with his attention fixed firmly on the sheep
A few stormy days are on the cards so I suspect all that outstanding admin and report writing will be caught up on but secretly we will be longing for another settled spell so we can get back out there! Let’s hope we don’t get a repeat of last winter then...........
As the days grow ever shorter we bit the bullet and lit the rayburn yesterday! It's not particularly cold by day yet but the nights out here are getting a wee bit chilly now. Despite the arrival of winter thrushes, woodcock and snipe there is one bird that is a welcome reminder of summer. A late chiffchaff is still gracing out garden. They do winter in the UK but we've never had one this late out here. The previous latest record was 16/11 so this one has broken that record by some distance. Will it stay for the duration? It was certainly finding plenty of flies to eat in the late November sunshine today. It seems to be a year for 'new records' for this species on Ramsey - they bred for the first time out here this year too
The late staying chiffchaff in the farmhouse garden this afternoon
For the time of year the weather is reasonably settled from a wind perspective too so we have taken the opportunity to get gas across for the winter and get on with some outdoor maintenance jobs. Derek has been over helping us and today we got the JCB and tractor out to give them both a run as we have some ploughing to do soon but not before swapping the old plough for a new (well second hand) smaller one - hence the need for the JCB! Despite having a combined age of over 100 both machines started first time! People often ask how we got them over here in the first place. Back in the day the Ramsey farmers used to dismantle tractors and such like at Porth Clais, bring them round in boats and reassemble them in the harbour. Thankfully when these needed to come over (in the 1990's) the RAF stepped in and did it as a training exercise, flying them across the sound by chinook helicopter with cargo nets swinging underneath.
GM and Derek with the JCB and tractor (a Massey Ferguson 35)
The grey seal pupping season is drawing to an end but there are still a few pups being born. Its been a good year and Lisa will update you soon
If you missed the 'Plastic Gannets' film on Autumnwatch at the end of October or would like to see it again the BBC have put it on the 'clips' page of their Autumnwatch website. Here is the link