Fair Isle diary
On Springwatch tonight, renowned ornithologist and presenter Roy Dennis brings us a beautiful film about Fair Isle, Britain's most isolated inhabited island and home to an internationally important population of seabirds. Here's Nicola Merrett, a researcher on her first Springwatch, to paint us a picture of their filming trip and we'll post their film here shortly.
Four members of the Springwatch team were hand-picked to travel to the island; by coincidence these four people probably averaged 5ft 4in meaning that the tiny plane, which flies from mainland Shetland to Fair Isle itself, was able to accommodate the hobbit-sized humans as well as heavy camera kit!
Robin Cox filming seabird colonies at Sumburgh Head, Shetland.
On a grey and rainy Sunday we headed to Bristol Airport. Our first flight took us to Inverness, where we were welcomed with glorious sunshine and a scenic landing, descending parallel to the waters of Beauly Firth. We left the British mainland the following morning, on a significantly smaller plane, and arrived at Sumburgh airport on Shetland where four became five as we were joined by our presenter, renowned ornithologist Roy Dennis.
With four hours until our flight to Fair Isle we headed to the RSPB's Sumburgh Head reserve and filmed puffins at very close proximity. Despite the odd great skua circling overhead, several confident puffins sat exposed on the grassy cliff-tops warming themselves in the sunshine.
After a couple of hours with the puffins, and a quick interview with a BBC Radio Shetland journalist who spontaneously appeared from the wilderness, we grabbed some lunch ready to drive north to Tingwall airport. I started setting up my sat nav, much to Roy's amusement - he kindly whispered that it wouldn't be necessary. Inevitably I quickly realised the road options were minimal and that good old common sense would get us to our third and final flight of the 48 hours.
The aeroplane that greeted us at Tingwall was compact to say the least, and will only fly when conditions are good. With seating for eight passengers (nine if the pilot doesn't mind a neighbour) and a very minimal luggage 'area', there was no way our mountain of equipment was going to fit in the standard hold. Four seats had to be removed for us to fit it all in, meaning that there was only space for the five of us and a pilot.
Fair Isle is only 3.5 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, and virtually halfway between Orkney and Mainland Shetland (and on clear days visible from both) so from Tingwall we were to fly south to reach the island. Luckily the weather was fine and our propellers roared to life bang on time. Inside the narrow cabin it was incredibly noisy, and I envied the pilot's headphones. However, as we rose into the sky and the North Sea appeared to both the east and west of Shetland, the scenery took all of my attention. Our sound recordist had spotted a basking shark and a sunfish on the flight to Shetland, so I was keeping my eyes peeled.
Roy Dennis sat next to the pilot at the very front of the plane and took this picture just as we were coming in to land on Fair Isle.
Arriving at Fair Isle
The flight to Fair Isle from Shetland took just 20 minutes, and at times we were as low as 400 metres above sea level. The basking sharks didn't show but as the land appeared beneath us I studied the small buildings and imagined such a remote life. Seventy or so islanders live on the south of the island (the north being more rugged moorland), where the crofts and houses are situated sparsely off the single road, winding from the harbour in the north down to the southern tip.
Immediately after landing safely on Fair Isle, Roy's long and genuine relationship with the island and its inhabitants became evident. There was a line of people stood behind the pickett fence separating the airstrip from the carpark (I use that word loosely - somewhere a car could be parked anyway) and once the plane doors opened they came forward smiling and waving at Roy, who greeted every person by name.
Roy worked as warden on the island for 7 years during the 60s and has maintained a close relationship with both the fauna and people of Fair Isle by returning frequently ever since. A sheep farming couple, who we had arranged to hire a car from, gave Roy a familiar embrace before handing over the keys.
During our few days on the island we came to accept that the hire car could only take us so far, partly because of the physical limitations of the one road on the island, and partly because our L-reg Volvo had evidently suffered from the constant battering of salt water.
Thankfully Roy not only knows the residents by heart but also the landscape. We spent day after day rambling across moorland and cliff edges (usually weighed down by a 10 stone tripod or a huge and mysterious black case, which when finally opened only contained one lonely lens) but our expeditions were never fruitless and Roy led us to spectacle after spectacle.
As well as the vast seabird colonies we had primarily come to investigate (over 250,000 seabirds of 18 different species nest on the island), we would also spot birds rare to most of the UK on a daily basis, and one afternoon we even watched a pod of pilot whales herding fish into a bay. As a backdrop for this wildlife, the weather was unpredictable and exciting; we experienced it all: sunshine, wind, rain, and on our final day, snow (when we were suddenly called to the airstrip with, "Now. Or you're not getting off the island today."). The soundscape was also incredible, the densely populated cliffs omitting thousands of voices at once, particularly fulmars chattering which would ring in my ears at the end of every day. Getting to Fair Isle was logistically difficult, but I can understand why people do go, and the impression it left on Roy when he first visited in his late teens.