Farne Islands, UK

This small group of islands, some 15 to 20 in number depending on the tide, are situated just a couple of miles off the Northumberland coast. Controlled by the National Trust, and only accessible by boat (from the local town of Seahouses), the islands provide a very important wildlife habitat and nesting ground for large numbers of seabirds including Puffin, Guillemot, Kittiwake and numerous species of tern, plus Fulmar, Cormorant, Shag, and several types of duck including the Common Eider. In addition to the large congregations of birds, the islands have a sizeable colony of Grey Seals with several hundred pups born each year.

The islands are scattered over a few miles and are divided into two groups; the Inner Group and the Outer Group. The main islands in the Inner Group are Inner Farne, Knoxes Reef and the East and West Wideopens, all of which are joined together on very low tides. The Outer Group consists of Staple Island, the Brownsman, North and South Wamses, Big Harcar and Longstone. The two groups are separated by Staple Sound.

Local boats are licensed to land passengers on Inner Farne and Staple Island only, dependent on the weather / tide, and only then at certain times of the year. If you take a standard trip your time will be limited, but if you go on an organised visit like we did with ‘Photographers on Safari’ (see my links page) you can enjoy a far more relaxing and longer visit. The most popular month is June when the Puffins are in residence and feeding their young. Unfortunately, when we visited in early June 2013 we were on the islands too early to see any young as the bad weather over the previous couple of months had delayed the Puffins' arrival. But, we did see Puffins for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed both watching and photographing them. It’s a long way for us to drive up from Dorset, but definitely a trip we will do again some day.

Well it might have taken three years, but we did make a return visit in June 2016. We did the same trip as before, although this time we arranged to go much later in the month to give ourselves a better chance of seeing the Puffins bringing in sandeels for their young. The only downside is that our visit was on a Saturday and the boats were packed and, in my view, there were far too many people on the islands. I know the visiting times and the numbers of people are strictly controlled but, apart from the fact it spoils some of the enjoyment, it can’t be good for the birds. Yes, they get use to it, but it’s one hell of an intrusion. That being said, we went because we wanted to get close to the birds, particularly the Puffins, and of course that’s why the place is so popular. I doubt whether it would have been much quieter at this time of year on a weekday, but we’d booked our visit in conjunction with a trip to Bass Rock where we’d been on the Thursday. The Farne Islands are not much more than an hour’s drive south down the A1 from Dunbar, so having made the long drive up to Scotland it made sense to link the two destinations. Both trips were again organised by ‘Photographers on Safari’. We also combined this trip to the North East with a visit to Bempton Cliffs in East Yorkshire on the way home - a bit more information about the trip can be found in my ‘journal’ section '2016 - Q2 (April - June) quarterly diary' entry.

The weather was mixed, part cloud and part sun for most of the day, and with the threat of some rain early on that fortunately didn’t materialise. It was not quite as good as our previous visit, but certainly nothing to complain about. The wind direction though must have been different as previously we managed to get incoming flight shots of the Puffins with the sun behind us, whereas this time it was very difficult to find a spot to photograph them where you weren’t shooting into the light. They were bringing in sandeels though, so we did get a few of those classic shots that we weren’t able to get in 2013.

Whilst the trip followed the same format as the previous one there were some notable differences between the two experiences. The first thing was that the initial boat trip around the rocky shoreline before landing on Staple Island was far longer and more interesting this time round. I think this could be partly due to the fact that we were the first boat out of the harbour that morning and the skipper was killing a bit of time, as we were ahead of schedule for the first landing. Anyway, it was good because we got great views of the Guillemots and Razorbills particularly. Photographing them from a packed rocking boat was another matter, but the experience was one to remember. Staple Island was as I remembered it, although this time there were less Fulmars are far more Guillemots. Inner Farne was noticeably more overgrown than it was three years previous, particularly in the area around the Arctic Tern colony. There was also a lot of Arctic Tern chicks this time that we didn’t see before presumably as this visit was a bit later in the month. Another thing I noted was that last time there were quite a few nesting Eiders, but this time there were none that I saw.

Notwithstanding anything I’ve said about crowded boats and the number of people, I’d thoroughly recommend making a visit at this time of year as it’s a special experience and a trip where, subject to the weather, you’re almost guaranteed in getting some good photos. However, I don’t expect that we’ll do it again, as next time we plan something similar I think we’ll try somewhere different like Skomer off the Pembrokeshire coast in South Wales, or the Isle of Lunga in the Treshnish Isles off the northwest coast of Mull.