Birds and boat trips, seals and stories...
The Farne Islands lie between two and five miles off the Northumberland coast, and are visible from many points along the coastline. There are about fourteen islands at high tide, and generally another fourteen or so poke their heads out of the water when the tide recedes. They are formed by the most seaward outcrops of the Great Whin Sill, a volcanic layer which can be traced from High Force waterfall in Teesdale, to the Farnes and the rocky outcrops on which Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh castles perch.
Early in 2013, Sir David Attenborough was being interviewed live on the BBC website, when he was asked about his favourite UK wildlife-watching experience. His reply: "The Farne Islands, during Spring". That's quite a recommendation, from a man who knows what he's looking at!
A visit to the Farne Islands is a very popular thing to do, and rightly so. Along with Sir David, many very keen birders say to us that it has been their best ever birdwatching experience, even when comparing it to trips to exotic far-flung birding hotspots like the Galapagos!
It's the sheer mind-bending numbers of beautiful - and often uncommon - birds which creates such an unforgettable experience. At some stages of the season you have to be careful not to stand on the chicks, so close are they. Most of the photographs on this page were taken by Andrew Douglas. He runs trips to the Farnes aboard Serenity, and his passion for the birds and wildlife around the Farnes makes him our trip of choice. Billy Shiel's Farne Islands Boat Trips is a third-generation business which also runs very fulfilling trips.
The Farne Islands are also home to the UK's largest colony of grey seals, who are curious and photogenic too. And with common seals and dolphin, minke whale and basking shark out there too, it's a dreamland for wildlife-watchers. And - is there anything more cute than a baby seal?
But the Farne Islands also have other significance; St Cuthbert, who became a reluctant leader of the monastery on Lindisfane in the 6th Century came here to live as a hermit, and eventually died on Inner Farne in 687AD. The chapel constructed in his memory in 1370 is still standing. And of course Grace Darling was living with her family in the Longstone lighthouse when she rowed out with her father to rescue survivors from the shipwrecked Forfarshire in September 1838 - and became something of a reluctant and accidental herione and superstar.
If you are visiting the Farnes during the breeding season, which is about mid-May to end of July, you should bring a stout hat (or put some bubblewrap inside a flimsy one!) or put up your hood. When the tern chicks are on the nest, their parents get very defensive, and since you cannot avoid walking close by their nests, they will dive-bomb you and perhaps pelt you with droppings, and peck your head. It's amusing at best - but they can draw blood! Do wear a hat, and don't wear your best jacket... Take some food too - there are no cafes. There are no public toilets out on the islands.
The way to visit the Farnes is to take a boat trip from Seahouses harbour, which is just a few minutes stroll from St Cuthbert's House. There are a number of different boat companies, (links are below) each of which has commentary and will explain what you're seeing.
In essence you need to choose between the different sorts of trips available; there is the 90-minute-or-so 'Sailaround', which gets you close to the cliff faces and gives you a good look at the nesting birds and those in flight around the islands - but without getting off the boat. Or you can choose a landing trip, which is basically the sailaround plus one hour ashore, either on the rocky outcrop which is Staple Island (generally in the morning, tide permitting) or Inner Farne, where it is easier to disembark the boat, and which has a boardwalk to guide you (and which we think is the better island to land on.) Landing is always at the discretion of the Skipper - and if he thinks there is any risk involved, then who are we to doubt him?
Be aware that these islands are National Trust bird sanctuaries, and so you will need to pay an admission fee to land, or flash your NT membership card.
Some companies offer an all-day trip which lands you on both of the National Trust islands, and another can land you on Longstone Island (made famous by the Grace Darling story - no landing fee on Longstone, but then again there are no birds there either.) You can get a lot of information about the various trips from their websites below.
Here are the various companies who can get you to the Farne Islands:
- Serenity - We've already said that Andrew Douglas is passionate and knowledgeable about the birds and wildlife of Farne Islands, as his blog and his twitter feed show. You can be sure of a great trip with him, and he is our go-to boat-trip. He also sails a catamaran, which is a bit more stable in the water.
- Billy Shiel's Farne Island boat trips - William's family have been taking visitors to the Farnes since 1918, and have had several members of the Royal Family aboard.
- Golden Gate for a trip with George Shiel to Longstone Island and the lighthouse made famous by the Grace Darling story.
There is a team of wardens looking after the islands - often volunteers and students who come to live in the medieval pele tower adjacent to the lighthouse on Inner Farne for nine months of the year to monitor, count and generally keep an eye on the wildlife. We like to follow them on Twitter because we find out what's happening out there, as it happens! The National Trust's Farne Islands website is here.
If you have any questions about a Farne Islands trip, then just ask!
There's an interesting site to waste a few minutes with here. It shows live shipping movements and information, and we like to see what ships are sailing by the Farne Islands. Maybe you will too. The red 'exclamation marks' are lighthouses, and the coloured arrows are ships. Click on them to see details.