Tag Archives: Leech’s Petrel

The other St Kilda

Balwyn meeting September 2015
Speaker: Katrina Lee

St Kilda is pretty close to the centre of Melbourne. Or is it? Well, it depends which one you are referring to. There is a very different St Kilda; an archipelago 100 miles off the north-west coast of Scotland, in the outer Hebrides. Katrina has spent time in both of them

St Kilda in Melbourne was named after the schooner, the Lady of St Kilda, which was moored on the front in Melbourne, in 1841. The woman called Lady St Kilda was in fact a Lady Grange, but was so named because her husband, a Jacobite, had her imprisoned on the islands for some years. The schooner was bought by Sir Thomas Dyke and named after a visit to the islands by his wife.

The island’s character is very difficult to describe, and the best account Katrina found was in a novel written by Hammond Innes called Atlantic Fury. It’s not an easy place to get to. It has less than 1500 people landing there a year, although many more people go there but the weather prevents them from landing. The main island is approximately two miles square, and it has the highest sea cliffs in Britain: over 1000 feet, and there are several stacks, two being over 600 feet tall. People have inhabited the island since the Bronze Age. The accommodation there reached 16 stone houses built in the late 1800s (which faced into the weather) and the common Scottish black houses (which did not), and there was a regular parliament meet by the men of the island.

The Main Street on the island of Hirta
The Main Street on the Island of Hirta

The British Navy established a wireless tracking station, which operated during WWI and the island was shelled by a German submarine during that war, causing significant damage. However, the wireless tracking station was back in operation within two hours! Until then the island had no guns, but following the incident, a ship’s gun was installed and is still there. St Kilda was bequeathed to the National Trust of Scotland in 1957 then leased to the Ministry of Defence for a radar tracking station, and supplies and access to the island are largely dependant on that. The economy of the islanders was always based upon fulmar catches for oil and feathers for trade, and meat. There are over a thousand cleits on the island, which were used to store fulmar catches. Cleits and cottages interestingly contain stones with crosses from the four churches that were formerly on the island but subsequently demolished for building materials. Contact with the outside world put more pressure on the residents. There were major food shortages in 1876 and acute shortages in the early 1900s. Many islanders emigrated so that by 1930 there were only 36 islanders left and they also asked to be evacuated.

Islanders at the start of the 20th century
Islanders at the start of the 20th century

The St Kilda archipelago is one of the most important seabird breeding areas in north-western Europe. Today the island is dual listed by the UNESCO World Heritage, both land and marine. Katrina went there first with the National Trust of Scotland, sailing on a converted trawler that took 36 hours to get there from Oban. There is a sandy beach but it’s only accessible in summer. In winter one has to land by helicopter. Since then she has been back a number of times via transport laid on by the Army.

The Large Animal Research Group studies population dynamics of wild populations of the Soay sheep that have now been wild there since 1938. There is a roughly five-year population cycle, caused by weather and parasite loads and reasons for the crash are being sought. Sheep were fitted with recorders that fall off after 48 hours to measure sheltering and feeding. Snow is very rare on the archipelago because of the Gulf Stream which crosses the Atlantic Ocean from Central America.

Sea stacks
Sea stacks: Stac Lee and Stac an Amin, and the island Boreary

There are half a million breeding seabirds on the archipelago and it has the largest population of the Northern Gannets in the world, with 60,000 pairs, mainly on the stacks. This is 19% of the world population. Only 1% of the world population is required to sustain a stable breeding population. There are 17 birds with high proportions of the world population, that nest regularly on St Kilda, including the puffin (2%; 230,000 occupied borrowers), Storm Petrel (89%), Common Guillemot (10,000 breeding pairs). There are Arctic Skua that attack from the ground and are very persistent. The Great Auk is extinct, but still three species of the family breed on St Kilda, of which the Razorbill is the closest living relative. Leech’s Petrel (89%) were only seen at night. They are attracted by light so everything has to be blacked out at night. Nevertheless, as many as 20 chicks a night could be easily caught and ringed. And the fulmars? It is interesting that, although 350 islanders caught 100 birds each per year, when the islanders left the fulmar population did not increase! There are also land and water birds there, including the St Kilda Wren, an endemic subspecies, much larger than the usual wren.

And Katrina’s greatest thrill? A quite unexpected white Peregrine Falcon – that was in fact a Gyr Falcon.

Thank you, Katrina, for showing us a St Kilda far more fascinating than our own.

Contributor: Ron Garrett