A kayak on Lamb Island
One of the best things about being a photographer is the chance to do things and go places that otherwise I wouldn’t be able to experience. Photographing well-known authors at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, dress rehearsals of a show or opera, politicians or previews of events, are just some of these.
Cutting tree mallow
However, one of the best days I have had was a recent trip to Lamb Island in the Firth of Forth. Lamb Island is owned by Uri Geller, of spoon-bending fame. It is relatively inaccessible as there is nowhere safe to land a small boat. It is one of three islands just off the coast of North Berwick where puffins make their burrows (they also breed on the Isle of May off the coast of Fife in the North Sea). The Lamb, as it is often called, is also within the compass of the Scottish Seabird Centre’s SOS Puffin project, led by retired conservationist John Hunt. For 13 years, volunteers have been making trips to Fidra and Craigleith Islands to cut down tree mallow, a non-native plant that can grow to several metres high and makes it impossible for puffins to access or create their burrows.
A puffin burrow on Lamb Island with Craigleith Island and the Bass Rock in the distance I have been part of the project for several years, cutting tree mallow on Fidra and Craigleith. The plant was introduced to the Bass Rock in the 17th century by soldiers garrisoned there who used it for medicinal purposes as a compress for wounds, from where it spread to the other islands in the Firth of Forth. The SOS Puffin trips take place in early Spring and late Summer/Autumn before and after the puffins arrive for their breeding season.
Preparing the kayaks in North Berwick
For a number of years, Lothian Sea Kayak Club have also been making Winter trips to Lamb Island, taking shears and loppers (as well as copious amounts of cake to sustain them) to rid the island of tree mallow. Unfortunately, the seeds can stay in the soil for years and so the plants keep regrowing, although there is evidence that the project is gradually having an impact on the abundance of the plant. I contacted the leader of this year’s trip, David Simpson, and suggested I might take photos of them setting off from West beach in North Berwick. What followed was an invitation to accompany the group in a double kayak, which I simply could not refuse!
Setting off from West beach in North Berwick
The only other time I have been in a kayak was in a very calm lagoon in Halong Bay, wearing only a swimsuit and life jacket. I doubted that a trip on the water in Scotland in November was likely to be quite the same experience, and I wasn’t sure what I had committed myself to. However, David reassured me that no experience was required and that I would not get wet!
A gorgeous Winter day is promised
The forecast for the day was reasonable, but not brilliant. A swell of up to 1 metre, gradually subsiding. Temperature of around 5-7 degrees. Overcast with showers. When the day dawned, I was treated to a stunning misty sunrise as I drove to North Berwick. The sun came out as we set off and the day just got better and better. After a call to the Coastguard in Aberdeen advising them of our itinerary, the group set off. There were 19 kayaks with a total of 20 of us.
Arriving at Lamb Island Kitted up in long johns, watertight trousers and waterproof trousers tucked inside my wellies, several top layers, a waterproof jacket, a life jacket and a spray deck, I felt a bit like Michelin man. David advised me how to paddle, but I had a camera inside a waterproof bag so I could take photos as we paddled to the island. I had to put the camera away fairly quickly as there was spray from the swell. Surprisingly, I never felt any anxiety at all. The swells just passed quietly under the kayak, though if you were to look around at one coming, you might be forgiven for panicking. In no time at all we had reached the island.
The plan to tie the kayaks up together in a line between the island and a rocky outcrop wasn’t possible: the swell travelling from both sides, meeting in the middle and sending up a large spray would have knocked the kayaks against each other. Instead, once occupants had jumped out of the kayaks, each boat was hauled up onto a rocky outcrop on the edge of the island, making a colourful arrangement.
Kayaks safely stowed on a rocky outcrop
Layers discarded, the group went straight to work. The tree mallow was concentrated in clumps with the top of the island being relatively clear. The plant needs to be cut as close to the ground as possible. The larger plants have woody stems which are very tough. Puffin burrows are everywhere in the soft grassy ground and it requires care to avoid stepping in the wrong place and destroying one. Puffins return to the same burrow each year, so the destruction of a burrow has a big impact.
Cutting tree mallow
I had the luxury of focussing on taking photos; I know how hard the work is from my trips to Fidra and Craigleith. In just over an hour, a huge amount of tree mallow had been cleared. After a short stop for lunch and cake (I was offered flapjacks, two types of brownies, a sponge cake, homemade biscuits….) almost the whole of the rest of the island was cleared.
Hard work cutting tree mallow Hard work cutting tree mallow
Meanwhile I was watching the tide coming in and gradually cutting off the rocky outcrop on which the kayaks were perched. The swell occasionally swept through in a pretty dramatic spray. Each member had to make the choice either to jump/swim across the channel with all their gear to retrieve their kayak, or wait for another member in a kayak to bring their kayak round to the rocky shore, stow the gear and jump in. This took time with 20 people to get organised, with the tide rising all the time. However, the operation was accomplished with evident skill and teamwork.
Tricky conditions to get into the kayaks Tricky conditions to get into the kayaks
Once we were all aboard, the light from the setting sun was glorious, and provided a great opportunity for a group photo. The paddle back to North Berwick was calmer than before and I was able to take photos of some of the group paddling against the fantastic seascape. And I didn’t get wet at all, as David had promised, despite the tricky conditions. If the opportunity arises again, I will jump at the chance for another outing. Very many thanks to Lothian Sea Kayak Club for a wonderful and friendly experience.
Returning to North Berwick Returning to North Berwick Returning to North Berwick