You don’t easily forget your first close encounter with a puffin. Mine was on the Isle of Lunga, the largest of the Treshnish Isles, in the spring of 2004, and I’ve had a soft spot for them ever since. I was on a whale-watching trip around the Inner Hebrides with Sea Life Surveys of Oban, and after ooh-ing and aah-ing at minke whales surfacing in the Sound of Mull and eating lunch near a rowdy seal colony on the eastern side of the Cairns of Coll, our skipper James Fairbairns found a sheltered spot off Lunga to drop anchor so that our small party could go ashore and look for birds.
Perhaps because they seem so exotic compared to most British birdlife, I was expecting the puffins to be shy and tricky to find, so it was doubly surprising when, on reaching the top of the first steep climb up from the beach, we saw a couple of them padding around just a few feet away, apparently unbothered by the sudden arrival of several large mammals wrapped in brightly-coloured plastic. Not only were they not scared, the puffins seemed quite inquisitive, and before long more sad clown faces started popping up from burrows all along the cliff edge, curious to see who the new visitors were.
I came away from that first meeting with an impression of the puffin as a somewhat comical and perhaps slightly clumsy creature – the avian equivalent of Mr Magoo. However, having read Adam Nicolson’s take on puffins in his new book The Seabird’s Cry, published this Thursday by William Collins, I now realise that I’d got them all wrong. Puffins, it turns out, are badasses in disguise – less Mr Magoo, more Mr Miyagi.
The puffin, Nicolson writes, “is an animal whose life stands outside the cuteness in which we want to envelop it,” and that’s putting it mildly. Once their chicks have hatched, the parent puffins – both male and female – must dive between 600 and 1,150 times a day in order to catch enough sand eels, sprats and capelin to feed their pufflets and to keep themselves going. Because puffins can dive as deep as 220 feet and stay underwater for over two minutes, that can work out at over seven hours a day below the waves during breeding season, in addition to the 90 minutes or so spent flying between the fishing grounds and their nesting burrows. It has been calculated that all of this activity is the metabolic equivalent of a man or woman spending day after day knocking down brick walls with a sledgehammer. “What you see at the colony,” Nicolson writes – and I suppose what I saw on Lunga 13 years ago – “are the brief moments of respite from a life of service.”
I arrived at this new understanding of the puffin as an iron-willed force of nature just as it emerged that, after nine years of legal wrangling, four huge windfarms are to be built off the east coast of Scotland – a total of 335 turbines in the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Tay. According to Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland – which had initially made a successful legal challenge to the proposals in 2015, only to have that ruling overturned earlier this month – these projects will “kill thousands of Scotland’s internationally protected seabirds every year, including thousands of puffins, gannets and kittiwakes.”
Just as the John Muir Trust are always keen to emphasise that they are strongly in favour of renewable energy, but not the siting of wind turbines on wild land, so the RSPB’s official statement following the recent ruling contained the line “whilst we fully support the deployment of renewable energy, this must not be at any cost.” But in spite of their carefully nuanced positions, these charities increasingly seem to be struggling to make headway against the energy companies and the will of the Scottish Government. The overturning of the ruling on the Forth and Tay windfarms feels more than a little reminiscent of the overturning of the 2015 ruling in favour of the JMT on the gigantic Stronelairg windfarm in the Monadhliath mountains. In both cases, objections to the schemes had initially been upheld on the grounds that the government had ignored evidence from their own specialist advisors, Scottish National Heritage. Subtext: never mind the experts, the windfarm will usually get built in the end.
Given that legal challenges no longer appear to be effective, as a last resort perhaps the RSPB could ensure that all the key decision-makers involved in these new offshore schemes – both windfarm developers and government ministers – receive a copy of Nicolson’s book in time for Christmas. There are chapters on gannets and kittiwakes too.