Gazing out from the mainland, the horizon is broken dramatically by a spire of white. Farne Lighthouse sits like a castle upon jutting cliffs, erupting from the waters of the North Sea. The small archipelago is constantly in flux, with around 15 to 20 islands, depending on the height of the tide, but from the shore the lighthouse dominates the view. On approach the cliffs loom, obelisks of black igneous rock rising from the waves beneath. Beaten smooth by the lashing storms that often claim these seas, their peaks are topped with white, like dripping wax candles standing tall in the turbulent grey waters of the North Sea.
In an odd way, these white stains point to the reason these islands have become such a popular attraction. They can be attributed to the main residents of these islands, marking the presence of hundreds and thousands of seabirds. The peaks of the Dolerite cliffs teem with their colonies. From puffins to guillemots, shags to kittiwakes, razorbills to cormorants – the Farne Islands are one of the best places to see British seabirds in their natural habitats.
"It’s such a raw place, that is just literally all wildlife. It’s quite intense as you approach the cliffs; it’s noisy and smelly, and the cliffs themselves… although they’re not huge, when you come up close to them they are quite imposing."
Chris McClean, Photographer & Film-maker
The puffins are a particular draw. This charismatic little bird was nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th and early 20th century but, on the Farne Islands at least, they have found a safe haven. They are expert burrowers and have been credited with creating around 80km of tunnels throughout the islands, keeping their young pufflings (yes, baby puffins are really called pufflings) safe from predators such as great skuas. Censuses over the last few years have shown that their numbers have increased by 9% since 2013, providing hope for the future of one of the UK’s most recognisable coastal characters.
Some interactions with the locals are less ideal. Hats are recommended to protect against overly aggressive arctic terns. These birds can be incredibly belligerent during the nesting season, protecting their eggs and nests viciously and attacking any unwary soul who strays too close. On Inner Farne the walk up to the lighthouse is often referred to as ‘running the gauntlet’, as the birds bombard each wave of new interlopers.
The birds are not the only animals to call these islands home. Grey rocks on the shoreline appear to ripple and move, as if alive. A closer look reveals Atlantic grey seals, basking in the morning sun. Perfectly camouflaged against the lichenous rocks, some raise their heads to slowly gaze at passing boats. Others simply ignore the daily distraction, preferring instead to rest up before a day of foraging and fishing.
The grey seal colony on the islands is the third biggest in the UK and was estimated at just over 8,000 in 2017. These inquisitive guardians have been known to play with divers, especially the younger ones, though they can be aggressively territorial during the breeding season. With an adult male growing up to two meters and weighing in at around 230kg, a healthy respect for these ocean residents is strongly advised.
"What struck me as we approached the islands was the concentration of life and clamour of noise, mostly seabirds, on the tiny outcrop.
We circled around the far island and were greeted by dozens of the local grey seal population. It was incredible to see the contrast between their (lack of) agility on the rocks compared to underwater. Coming face to face with a large pup in an underwater crevasse while diving made the illness and cold I felt on the journey home completely worthwhile."
Finisterre Ambassador, Noah Lane
Life on the Farne Islands is played out to the tune of the seasons. The islands are closed to the public for most of the winter, but there are still boat tours where seals and shags can be seen almost year round. As spring returns, so do the residents. Puffins arrive back on the islands in April, closely followed by kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, and many others. As summer passes the seals have their time, and pups are born from late September through to October.
The National Trust maintains the islands and has a host of information available for anyone looking to experience this stunning example of our natural coastal world. During the open season, there are regular ferries to take visitors to and from the islands, as well as boat tours to experience the indigenous wildlife from the water.
For those who cry out for what our coastal habitats once were, the Farne Islands offer a beautiful and inspiring look at what could be.
Images by David Gray, Words by Zak Rayment