Island Sanctuaries: Combining a Wild Coastline, Evocative Ancient Castles and Some of Britain's Most Important Seabird Colonies, the Area around the Farne Islands in Northumberland Is a Photographer's Paradise

By Wilson, Keith | Geographical, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Island Sanctuaries: Combining a Wild Coastline, Evocative Ancient Castles and Some of Britain's Most Important Seabird Colonies, the Area around the Farne Islands in Northumberland Is a Photographer's Paradise


Wilson, Keith, Geographical


The Northumberland coast is rightly admired as one of the most picturesque locations in the British Isles. Here, in the far northeast of England, flanking the North Sea and close to the Scottish border, the photographer can find views of unspoilt beaches, coastal villages, ancient castles and a smattering of islands of historical importance.

The most prominent castle along this coast is Bamburgh. Built on an outcrop of dolerite close to the shore, it has connections to English royalty that date back to the 12th century. The castle's strategic position close to the sea and the border meant that it was the target of numerous cross-border raids by the Scots and a prized objective during England's historic wars. For example, in 1464, Bamburgh became the first English castle to be defeated by artillery, following a nine-month siege during the War of the Roses.

Today, Bamburgh Castle and the surrounding village are a popular stopover for those wishing to visit nearby Holy Island, or the seabird rookeries on the neighbouring Farne Islands.

SEABIRDS AND WRECKS

The Farne Islands are a designated national nature reserve and one of the most important seabird breeding sites in the British Isles, with 23 nesting species, including around 37,000 pairs of puffins. The islands are also home to a large colony of grey seals, with more than 1,000 pups born every autumn.

The number of islands and islets varies with the tides - from 15 at high water to 20 at low tide. Not surprisingly, these hidden outcrops and changing depths have made the islands a shipping hazard.

Lighthouses have existed on the islands since the 18th century, but that hasn't prevented hundreds of vessels being wrecked over the years. As a result, the Farnes are a popular scuba diving location. The presence of divers often arouses the curiosity of local grey seals, providing underwater photographers with another subject for the camera.

As with neighbouring Lindisfarne, the Farne Islands were a hermitage for Celtic Christians from the seventh century, including St Cuthbert, who resided here before becoming Bishop of Lindisfarne. However, Cuthbert must have preferred the greater solitude of the Farnes as he returned barely two years later.

One of Cuthbert's most enduring legacies is a law decreed in 676 protecting the population of eider ducks and other seabirds that nest on the Farnes. This is one of the earliest examples of nature conservation law anywhere in the world, and helped to enshrine the Farne Islands' status as one of the world's oldest protected seabird sanctuaries.

ATTACKING TERNS

Today, the Farne Islands are owned by the National Trust and have no permanent human population. The hermits, monks and lighthouse keepers may have gone, but every summer, hundreds of keen birdwatchers, photographers and naturalists visit the Farnes.

As well as puffins, other commonly seen birds include guillemots, kittiwakes, shags and razorbills. There are two landing stages: Inner Farne, which is open to the public from 1 April to 31 October, and Staple Island, which is open from 1 May to 31 July. Boats sail daily from the mainland fishing village of Seahouses.

The islands may be small--Inner Farne is the largest at just under eight hectares but the deafening noise of the nesting birds carries across the water long before your boat reaches the jetty. On both Inner Farne and Staple Island, the paths leading from the jetty are packed with birds, particularly Arctic terns, which lay their eggs right next to the boardwalks. Tripods are allowed, but great care must be taken with their use as, in many places, you're never more than a step away from a bird's nest.

Taking pictures in such close proximity to nesting terns has both advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that you can use a wide-angle lens and fill-in flash to photograph terns on the attack; the disadvantage is that you're likely to be the target of the attack and will inevitably be doused in the bird's guano. …

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