Trust wardens' rigorous offshore lifestyle strictly for the birds: Oliver Gillie reports on the spartan life of the men who live and work on the Farne Islands, which have just become a national nature reserve
But the nine National Trust wardens who live on the islands eight months of the year will not be interrupting their bird-watching to celebrate. So long as the wind blows from the north or north-east they see dozens of small birds blown over from Scandinavia and each arrival is carefully recorded.
Like the monks who used to inhabit the islands, the birdmen live in dormitories and pursue a rigorous and repetitive routine. Sanity would be difficult to preserve without the discipline of daily prayers or, for the birdmen, the counting of the bird population.
The island was first colonised in 676 by Saint Cuthbert who lived on Inner Farne. For many years the islands belonged to the Dean and Chapter of Durham, but passed into private hands and in 1925 were bought for the National Trust by public subscription.
The birdmen rise early, sometimes before 5am, to observe the birds and at the end of the day they fill in forms listing the numbers seen. In the evenings, like the monks who illuminated manuscipts long ago, some of them draw and paint wildlife pictures. Apart from the occasional game of cribbage or chess, it is a scholarly life with no telephone to distract them.
John Walton, the head warden, who lives at Seahouses on the mainland, said: 'We have to choose the people carefully. They must be accustomed to a secluded life. We look for people who have lived in remote places before.'
Earlier this week the wardens counted 16 bluethroats, a tiny bird about the size of a robin, which had been blown over from Scandinavia. They also observed a rustic bunting, several wrynecks, pied flycatchers and ring ouzels, all brought across the North Sea by the prevailing wind.
Visitors to the islands include owls and woodpeckers, eager to rest at the first chance of a landfall, even though there is not a mouse or a tree on the island.
The islands are a favoured nesting ground for seabirds - there are estimated to be 26,329 puffins, 12,912 guillemots and 6,178 kittiwakes nesting there this year. The numbers of several species have doubled since the 1970s when the birds first began to be protected by the National Trust - the numbers of shags and guillemots have increased tenfold.
Apart from the birds, the islands are the natural home for a colony of grey seals. It used to be thought that the Farne seals lived locally and did not stray far until the National Trust ringed some and within a few weeks found that one of the animals had visited Norway.
Now more sophisticated satellite tracking has established that the grey seals make long swimabouts, which take them as far as the west coast of Ireland, Shetland, the Faeroes and all over Scandinavia.
Now with its status as a national nature reserve, the 15 islands of the Farnes - 28 at low tide - will be even better protected, and will benefit from increased funding from English Nature and the European Community.
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