Territorial seabirds pose threat to Bass Rock visits

ONE of the world’s most famous seabird sanctuaries has become a danger to people who visit it, according to its owner.

More than 80,000 gannets, among the world’s most territorial birds, have colonised Bass Rock, three miles off North Berwick in the Firth of Forth.

The rock’s gannets make up ten per cent of the whole world’s gannet population, and are posing an increasing risk to anyone who steps onto the island.

An expert said the Bass Rock population had reached "saturation point".

The gannet’s scientific name, Sula bassana, incorporates the name of the rock, which rises 313ft out of the Firth of Forth and has been owned by the Hamilton Dalrymple family since 1706.

In an interview to be broadcast on 3 January by BBC Radio Scotland, the rock’s owner, Sir Hew Dalrymple, said that the fiercely territorial birds, which have a wingspan of almost two metres and dive at 90 miles per hour, have become a hazard.

He said: "The Victorians used to shoot gannets on the Bass, but that practice ceased in around 1900.

"The phenomenon now is that since the lighthouse keepers left 20 years ago the population of gannets on the Bass has increased quite enormously.

"Now they are literally taking over the Bass Rock. It is a dangerous place. Visitors must stick to the paths, and not leave them on any account.

"The problem is that gannets, which return to the same nesting sites every year, have started invading the path and nesting on it."

The Scottish Seabird Centre, which opened in May 2000, allows visitors to study the birds on Fidra and Bass Rock using hi-tech cameras.

The cameras can be manipulated to zoom in on the gannet and puffin colonies without disturbing them.

The birds can also be viewed at a distance through telescopes on the viewing deck of the Seabird Centre to bridge the six kilometre gap between the island and the coast.

Greg Corbett, manager for the discovery centre at the Scottish Seabird Centre said: "Most people come here to use the camera technology to see the birds at close quarters from the coast.

"We show them how to film the gannets and capture wildlife images themselves."

He added: "This was one of the first microwave link cameras to be installed in Scotland, although hardwire camera technology has been used for observing ospreys for some time in the north of Scotland."

Staff at the centre interpret the birds’ behaviour for the public from the images relayed back from the camera positioned on the rock amongst the gannet.

Staff can monitor the colonies at close quarters and can report on every stage of their behaviour from building nests, pairing and laying eggs.

Sir Hew added: "Queen Victoria was partial to eggs from birds on the rock, and the Victorians considered the oily seabird a delicacy. I go out to the Bass half a dozen times each summer, but you can only land about one day in three and it is often to be found in a thick haar."

Freddie Marr, 78, who has taken tourist parties to the Bass Rock for 57 years, said: "There are way over 80,000 gannets on the Bass now.

"The top of the rock is getting covered with nesting gannets, and they have just about reached saturation point."

The 200-million-year-old volcanic rock has been noted throughout history and was recorded as first being inhabited by Saint Baldred, who used the island as a retreat for prayer and meditation.

It was also used as a penal colony in the 15th century and was the last part of Scotland held by the Jacobites against the forces of William of Orange in the 1690s.

It also provided the setting for one of the great supernatural tales of Scottish literature in the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Catriona.

Scotland’s Alcatraz will be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland on 3 January, at 10:30pm.

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