April 13, 2024

Isle of May wildlife manager David shares his unusual life

For the past decade, David Steel has spent nine months a year living and working on the windswept Isle of May in the Forth.

Your home on the Isle of May is a former lighthouse keeper’s house overlooking the North Sea and the island’s small pier.

Sharing their picturesque but rugged and often challenging habitat are tens of thousands of seabirds – including the iconic puffin – seals, mice, rabbits and rats.

The Isle of May is known for its huge population of puffins. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

The Isle of May is five miles off the coast of Anstruther. It is a national nature reserve owned by NatureScot and an important seabird and seal research center. David is the reservations manager for NatureScot.

He admitted: “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea to live on an island.”

But for the dedicated ornithologist fascinated by birds since childhood, it is paradise.

“I would do it for nothing,” he said.

David before the start of the season on the hillside that will now be full of puffins. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

Every year, at the end of March, David, 47 years old, says goodbye to his family and it is in November that he returns definitively.

He’s been doing this for 24 years. This includes 10 years on the Isle of May and before that 14 years on the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland.

David Steel’s life in the remarkable surroundings of the Isle of May

Your stay on the Isle of May begins when the seabirds begin arriving for breeding season and continues long after they have left and seal farming is underway.

He works long hours during the peak season, from May to July, when he is joined by up to 18 scientists, PhD students and volunteers.

But it pays off for him to live in such a remarkable environment, up close and personal with his beloved birds. (Don’t tell the puffins, but the razorbill is his favorite).

Thousands of guillemots jostle for space on the east face of the cliff during an earlier breeding season. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

David said: “It’s just an amazing place. I always start early in the morning to have an hour to myself and walk around the island.

“You are in harmony with nature and the island. It’s good for the soul.”

Whales and Northern Lights

From the courtyard of his house he witnesses some wonderful landscapes.

Last fall, pristine views of the Northern Lights were seen during a series of spectacular displays.

He sometimes sees humpback whales breaching.

Residents of the Isle of May were treated to spectacular views of the Northern Lights last autumn. Image: Finley Dennison.

And although Storm Babet and Storm Ciaran caused some damage to the pier and adjacent road, he was captivated by their sheer force, with waves over 12 meters high.

David said: “Just sit back and admire. It was epic to watch.”

David Steel says storms bring ‘siege’ mentality to Isle of May

He and other residents were cut off from the mainland for two weeks by storms, and boats were unable to reach them with supplies.

But being used to island life meant David was prepared.

“In September, you get into a siege mentality and we know we need to get x amount of stock just in case.

Storm Babet caused damage but was “epic” to watch. Image: David Steel/NatureScot.

“Although we have a good water supply, if the system suddenly fails, we have bottled water as a backup.”

David became a self-confessed handyman, fixing everything from electricity to blocked toilets. “I’m not calling a plumber to come straight here!” he said.

While he may be the only human on the island for the first and last few days of each season, that doesn’t last long.

What do scientists study on the Isle of May?

Assistant Thomas Skinner quickly joins him before people from various universities and research institutes come for weeks to study birds, seals and even mice.

“Everything on the island is studied,” said David. “The only thing that doesn’t exist is rabbits. We just leave them alone!

Fluke Street was once home to lighthouse keepers and their families, but is now accommodation for island staff and visiting researchers. Image: David Steel/NatureScot.

The accommodation – known as Fluke Street – is not as basic as it would be for the lighthouse keepers and their families who remained there until 1972.

Today they are equipped with luxuries like WiFi, high-pressure showers and, soon, Starlink satellite internet connection.

There is already a common area, but David is also building a bar.

And he’s excited to show off his new television. Before smart TVs, non-existent over-the-air reception made tuning in impossible.

David has a cozy house on the island, which used to be the assistant lighthouse keeper’s cottage. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

But he admitted: “I don’t miss it, not when you have this [indicating the surrounding land and seascape].”

There are lots of books to read too, but unless you’re a bird fan (and why else would you be here?), there isn’t a great choice!

However, long working hours during the summer months mean there is little time to relax.

The book collection in David’s house has a certain theme. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

And for David, the work will soon include a meticulous puffin census, when all of the island’s burrows – which are just under a mile long – will be checked for occupants.

Bird flu hits puffin populations

Although puffin numbers have suffered from bird flu and climate change, he expects to find between 35,000 and 40,000 breeding pairs.

He said: “It’s a bit like a police search. We walked back and forth all over the island counting and checking. We walked every inch of the island. It’s a big job.”

Reaching into burrows for puffin censuses can result in messy fingers or pecking! Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

Putting your hand in a puffin’s hole is like playing Russian roulette. You risk a nasty pinch if you choose the egg chamber or a handful of something nasty in the waste chamber.

Drones and AI have made it easier to count large gulls, allowing island cliffs to be photographed and human counts to be verified by computer.

The sea clown

Puffins are the island’s biggest attraction, and the number of visitors sailing to the island each season has risen from about 6,000 10 years ago to a record 16,000 last year.

With their distinctive characteristics, small seabirds are sometimes called the “clown of the sea”.

And they certainly create some fun times for their human neighbors in the month of May.

The island has a thriving seal population. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

When they emerge from their burrows, puffin chicks, known as pufflings, walk to the sea under the cover of darkness.

David said: “In July, if you sit here at midnight, you will see a procession of chicks descending into the sea.

“But of course they have never seen the outside world and we have to go around the buildings because the cubs get stuck.”

A sigh in the shower

Lost girls end up in all kinds of places.

“One of my volunteers was taking a shower and looked down and there was a baby puffin with her.

“I had one in my kitchen. I was cooking and there was a girl watching me happily.”

It’s not just puffin chicks that make their way into human quarters – David also kicked a seal pup out of his bathroom.

There’s always work to be done, whether it’s stocking up on supplies or counting puffins. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

Ensuring the island is well-supplied with food and other necessities is among David’s responsibilities. And being offshore doesn’t stop you from ordering online like the rest of us, be it Amazon or Tesco.

“We can make grocery deliveries to the port of Anstruther,” he said. “They can bring it and put it on the boat.

Island shopping to Christmas shopping

“It’s bizarre when people ask where you want it delivered and you say to a port!”

By November, the other humans and hikers are a distant memory, leaving only David and Thomas behind for the last few weeks.

Then, when the island’s buildings are closed for the winter, another type of shopping catapults the reservation manager back to his other life.

There is much to see on the ever-changing Isle of May. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

David said: “At the end of the season you’re used to being with just one or two people, then you go to the mainland and have to do some Christmas shopping!

“It’s a big culture shock to go back to normal life.”

Isle of May stints mean David Steel only sees his partner on holidays

But it’s also time to return home to Northumberland and reunite with his partner Pippa.

While on the island, he only sees Pippa during holidays and the occasional long weekend when he goes south or she visits the island.

“She is very understanding about my work,” he said.

“We make the most of it when it shows up [the island] or we go on vacation or weekends away.”

The May Princess is one of the vessels that takes day visitors to the island. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

But he admitted that he finds it harder to be away from her and her family as he gets older.

The day he drives north at the start of the season is a day of mixed emotions.

“I’m satisfied, I want to go back, but I know I’m going to miss Pippa.”

Your job is something that many people may do for a few years before moving into a role that allows for a more regular lifestyle.

After three seasons on the Farne Islands, a friend asked if it was time for him to leave that lifestyle for a “real job”.

But he said: “That was 21 years ago. I will stop doing this work when I stop loving it.”


How to visit the Isle of May

The Isle of May National Nature Reserve is open to visitors from Monday until September 30th.

Trips can be booked from Anstruther, Dunbar and North Berwick.

From Anstruther Harbor, visitors can sail on the May Princess ferry or Osprey RIB open speed boats.

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