Farne Islands nature reserve

Farne Islands Nature Reserve Location Map
Frank Cappa probably didn’t have the Farne Islands in mind when he said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. But one thing is for sure, problems with getting your subject large in the frame are not a Farne Islands characteristic. In fact, if you aren’t careful, the birds may be trying to peck chunks out of your 20mm lens.

The Great Whin Sill is Britain’s most significant geological feature. It is an intrusion of volcanic rock that runs in a north easterly direction from northern England across Upper Teesdale, where it gives rise to England’s highest unbroken fall of water - High Force, supports the most impressive aspect of Emperor Hadrian’s Roman wall and finally peters out a few miles off the dramatic Northumbrian coast at the equally remarkable Farne Islands. This wall of hardwearing dolerite rock has proved to be more able to resisit weathering by the aggressive North Sea when all around has been torn away, leaving us with a group of small islands.

Isolated from the mainland by two to five miles of open water they have always had an air of mysterious seclusion. The Northumbrian monk St. Cuthbert would travel there to meditate in isolation, and died on Inner Farne in 678AD. In the intervening years the islands have remained unoccupied except for lighthouse keepers and latterly, nature reserve wardens.

There are 28 islands in the close-knit group, although only 15 can be seen at high tide. The two largest Farne Islands are Staple Island and Inner Farne. And these are the only two that can be visited. During the breeding season the islands are swarming with nesting seabirds, providing rich pickings for photographers.

Bird photography at Farne Islands Nature Reserve
Visitors are welcomed by the impressive Staple Island stacks.
The only way to visit the Farne Islands is by boat. A number of operators run trips out to the islands from the east coast fishing village of Seahouses, midway between Edingburgh and Newcastle upon Tyne, 3 miles south of the ancient Northumbrian capital of Bamburgh. Both half and full-day trips are available. Photographers will be most interested in full-day outings. During the breeding season landing is only permitted on Staple Island between 10:30 and 13:30hrs, and on Inner Farne between 13:30 and 17:00hrs. This ensures that disturbances are kept to a minimum so that birds can go about rearing their young without undue hindrance.

A typical visit will depart from Seahouses at 10:00am. Landing first at Staple Island the boat trip will include some of the notable Farne Island features. Passing near to Longhorn lighthouse (where Grace Darling carried out her amazing rescue in 1838), there is a sizeable grey seal colony to look at and photograph. Although relatively common along the eastern coast of England these seals are globally rare. Grey seals are now the UK’s largest surviving carnivores and the current population comprises 80% of the worlds’ population. On the final approach to Staple Island impressive rock stacks give you an indication of what is to come. These three pinnacles (there were four but one collapsed in a storm about 200 years ago) are white-topped with guano and alive with birds.

There is no shortage of subject matter awaiting your arrival. In fact, there is nowhere else in Britain where such a variety of sea birds can be found in such a small area. The Farne Islands species list has over 20 seabirds including, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes, shags, cormorants, eider, everybody’s favourite – the puffin and four species of the painful to experience tern (more on that shortly).

Stepping off the boat and onto the landing needs to be done with care (a backpack type of camera bag is a real help here), and will not be permitted if the sea is too rough. A National Trust warden welcomes you with a landing fee charge. Once past this obstacle you are free to roam around within a cordoned off area. You will find birds nesting all around and even with this restriction close-up shots are readily available. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be careful. Welfare of the birds is paramount and if you are obviously distressing them you can expect to be counselled by the warden. The proximity of the birds means that long lenses are not essential, but can still be used if you wish.

Bird photography at Farne Islands Nature Reserve
This innocent-looking arctic tern will draw blood if it's chick is threatened by hatless photographers.
After visiting Staple Island your next port of call is Inner Farne. Landing here is much easier. You will now experience one of the most notable events of a Farne Island visit - killer terns. Your access is restricted to boardwalks that make you an easy target as you run the gauntlet of angry mother terns defending their chicks. My recommendation is to wear a padded hat, get off the boat early and take some photographs of the other visitors as they suffer aerial bombardments. The padded hat is essential, as terns have been known to draw blood from hapless (hatless) victims.

You will find that there is more in the way of vegetation on Inner Farne. Grasses, mosses and lichens scratch out a living on these windy, rocky and treeless islands. Glacier deposited clay supports a thin peat layer on only three of the islands, and Inner Farne has the best covering. Despite these hardships 116 plants survive here. The most unusual being Amsinckia intermedia, a yellow flowered native of California, thought to have been accidentally introduced in poultry feed used by lighthouse keepers. However, the clay-based topsoil provides ideal tunnelling conditions for puffins, making this island best for photographs of puffins near the burrow.

Inner Farne is the only one of the Farne Islands with anything approaching visitor facilities, including toilets. So it is worth going well prepared. Even here you won’t be able to buy a meal so make sure you save some space in your camera bag for food and drink.

A successful photographic trip to the Farne Islands is dependant on two main things – timing and weather. Visitors are allowed to land between the months of April and September, but the peak-breeding season is from May to July. June is often said to be the best month to visit but weather conditions can be unpredictable, (in June 1997 horrendous storms ripped up the east coast of England washing out many breeding birds and drowned thousands of young puffins in their burrows). Look for a period of light winds to ensure landings will take place. Fog can be surprisingly common at this time of the year and will also cause visits to be cancelled. I’d recommend avoiding weekends and other popular holiday dates if you can to minimise the number of people. Be prepared to pre-book your boat trip if you can’t.

Bird photography at Farne Islands Nature Reserve
Puffins on parade.
The standard package consists of a half-hour journey out, two hours on Staple Island, transfer to Inner Farne, leave after another two hours and return to shore. At the booking booth in Seahouses harbour you can explain that you are a photographer and wish to maximise your time on the islands. This may allow you to be picked up from Staple Island an hour later than usual.

The Farne Islands is the kind of place where you can enjoy experimenting with different lenses and camera systems. So I suggest you take whatever you prefer to use. The only condition being that you must be able to carry it safely when boarding and disembarking from a boat. Tripods are useful and so is a beanbag for low down angles of view. Don’t forget food and drink, and some waterproof clothing in case it rains while you are on the islands, or if the crossing is rough and you are constantly splashed by breaking waves. Birds leave their “calling cards” everywhere; so old clothes are best if you are the type who like to get down low for eye-level shots.

Boat Operators
Hanvey’s tel: 01665 720388
Shiel’s tel: 01665 720825
Billy Shiel’s tel: 01665 720308

Bright days are ideal for shots against blue skies. Unfortunately at this time of the year they will also bring harsh light. Ideally, calm days with thin occasional cloud are what you want. Cloudy days help to capture feather details but hinder succeeding with flight shots. Keep your camera ready on the sailing out for photographs of the grey seals. There may also be the chance of in-flight shots of birds as they fly low over the water alongside your boat.

At the end of the day you will be in no doubt that you have just visited one of Britain’s most important seabird sanctuaries. And much of what you take away will linger with you - the birds, the sights, the sounds and the smell - particularly the smell.