Can you imagine being less than a foot away from a nesting shag and a few feet away from puffins? Well, that’s exactly what awaits you on the Farne Islands! This is bird watcher and wildlife enthusiast paradise.
The Farne Islands, located just off the Northumberland coast in the North East of England and managed by the National Trust, are a quite important sanctuary and nesting ground for birds such as puffins, guillemots, shags, artic terns, kittiwakes, razorbills and many more. Over 85,000(!) seabirds return to the Farne Islands each year to breed.
Can you imagine the noise?
And the smell?
In addition to the seabirds there is a sizable grey seal colony spread over the Islands.
I first heard of the Farnes when my friend Dorothy, an avid diver, went diving with seals there. Her photos were amazing! The Farne islands went on my bucket list immediately.
The boats going to the Farne Islands are run independently of the National Trust. We opted for Billy Shields, the longest established boat operator of the three companies.
When I was planning our visit, I found somewhere a recommendation about going in the morning. This really worked for us- for sea conditions, tide, etc.
At 10 am we boarded Glad Tidings VI- check out their twitter feed. (Just ’cause I think it’s cool the boat has it’s own twitter feed for Farne Islands enthusiasts.)
The early-ish start also meant we got parked with relative ease in Seahouses, which, from our experience of the day before, is not always that easy!
The state of the sea was not too bad. I think there was only one splash over the bow of the boat on the way out. The children especially loved the boat and squealed with excitement when we did get some droplets from the splash.
We were headed to Inner Farne.
The trip out, however, was almost an hour and a half. This is because on the way out the boat takes a tour, going all the way out the Outer Farnes, stopping off at seal colonies and a couple of major bird colonies.
We even gave the ranger, busy scrubbing the steps up from the sea, a wave as we sailed past him on an outer island.
It was a fantastic boat ride! The skipper was very good at turning the boat so both those on port and starboard side got a good view. The kids loved looking out over the side.
They gradually began recognising shags, puffins and guillemots. They giggled watching the seals play and curiously come close to the boat. We were seal watching and the seals people watching.
Landing on Inner Farne, the one I was recommended for the ease of access with children, we headed up to St Cuthbert’s chapel where a National Trust ranger gave us a quick talk about the island and the wildlife.
We quickly visited the little girls’ room and little boys’ room. The Island has no running water; toilets are flushed using seawater poured from buckets, everyone after themselves. Handwash is a quick squirt of the stuff you get in hospitals.
(On the same note: there is no café, nor warm refreshment. Bring your own and grab a picnic table by the lighthouse for a quick snack, while watching the nesting puffins duck in and out of their burrows.)
Next up, off we went around the Island. We had almost an hour to walk around. The island is small, Max could have toddled around it in 15 minutes had it not been for the “distractions” of those birds.
It truly is amazing how close you get to the seabirds here! Max was especially enthusiastic and squealing with delight at all the birds around. (“Vogel”, the Dutch word for bird, was one of his first ever words, which shows his fascination.)
The beautiful dark green feathers and gorgeous green eyes of the shag become ever so apparent when it is sitting on its nest not even a foot away;
The shags don’t seem bothered by humans poking cameras at it.
There was only one factor to put a dent in our enjoyment of the time we spent on the island: we just didn’t count with the wind chill factor and therefore we were missing one layer of clothing. It was very windy and the wind bitterly cold. Windproofs, hat, gloves and thermal long johns were needed- we had the windproofs, hats and gloves, but not the proper thermals, just some thin base layers. The cold especially affected Angelina. Poor child! (Thank goodness I managed to talk her out of putting on just denims. She had light polyester thermals and thin walking trousers on. Not enough, but better than denims.)
Even these cute little birds couldn’t distract from the bitter cold wind for long.
A little stop in the shelter of the information centre was welcome after the cold. Here we learnt more about the Farne Islands, the birds and thanks to a lovely, chatty ranger a little about the tough life of the ranger- who don’t have running water either, electricity is supplied from a generator or some solar panels and needs rationing. Washing is on their one day on the mainland, on their weekly day off. Despite these spartan conditions they seem to love their work- protecting and monitoring these beautiful birds.
They post a daily update for visitors of the birds.
As we boarded our return boat, we could tell the seas had changed: the tide was definitely rising and the wind had whipped up the waves a bit (1-1.5m waves, which looked at least 2m to me). The chop was made worse by confused sea- the wind was fighting against the opposing tide. Credit to the skipper of Glad Tidings- instead of it being a very rough and wet ride back to the harbour of Seahouses, we only had one spray and no one was seasick. The skipper took us towards Bamburgh beach first and then headed South along the more protected shore; a bit longer, but a much drier and calmer trip.
We were back in time for a fish and chips, which we decided to do as a take-away and enjoy on the beach we had just sailed by. As we ate our picnic we had views of the Farne Islands, the imposing Bamburgh castle and, in the distance, Lindisfarne (one of our next adventures.)
We loved our trip to the Farne Islands and want to go back one day!
Do you enjoy watching wildlife? Have you been to the Farne Islands? Is it on your bucket list?
The boat trip to the Farne Islands with Billy Shields costs £15 per adult and £10 per child (at the time of writing).
There is an additional charge on landing on the one of the Farne Islands, it is free for National Trust members.
The Farne Islands are managed by the National Trust, with rangers living on them upto 9 months a year. Two islands are accessible to the public- Inner Farne and Staple Island. Inner Farne has a boardwalk around it, a lighhouse and a small chapel built over 1300 years ago; whereas Staple Island is more rugged apparently. At this time of the year only the Inner Farne Island receives visitors. As the breeding season gets into full swing the visitors are split between the two islands to reduce the disruption to the nesting birds.
For regular updates and great pictures I highly recommend the Farne photo blog shared by the National Trust rangers.