Mind your heads now ...
Gannet dive-bombers threaten visitors to Bass Rock sanctuary
By Paul Kelbie, Scotland Correspondent
28 December 2002
For centuries, battle has raged over Bass Rock, a tiny volcanic island
guarding the entrance to the Firth of Forth on Scotland's east coast,
with rival armies fighting to hold the fortress. Now the 350ft-high
island, with sheer cliffs on three sides, is the site of yet another
struggle, this time between man and gannet.
Bass Rock, among the world's most famous seabird sanctuaries, has
become a danger to the ornithologists who have been visiting it since
the 19th century. The man whose family has owned the island for almost
300 years says visitors are increasingly in danger of attack from
About 80,000 gannets, 10 per cent of the world's population, have set
up home on the island, which lies just two miles east of north Berwick
and one mile from Tantallon Castle, on the mainland. The fiercely
territorial birds, whose scientific name, Sula bassana, incorporates
the name of the rock, are attacking human visitors who stray from the
The birds, which have a wingspan of more than six feet and a heavy
dagger-like beak, are designed for high-speed impact. Travelling at up
to 90 mph when they hit the water, they dive to depths of 30 metres in
search of the herring, mackerel and sand eels. The birds have a skull
like a crash helmet and a natural air-bag (its throat-pouches swell
with air just as it hits the sea) making the outcome of any collision
with a human a potential disaster.
Each January, the gannets, Britain's largest seabird, arrive back from
winter in Morocco, in North Africa, to re-establish their nesting
territories on the cliffs and grassy slopes of the island. Returning
each year to the same nest-site enables them to meet their mate of the
previous year. They stay until late autumn because their eggs take 40
days to incubate, and the young take a further 90 days to fledge. But
in the past 20 years the population has exploded and the flat top of
the island is packed with a three nests per square metre of land.
"They are taking over the Bass Rock," says Sir Hew Dalrymple whose
family bought the former garrison and prison island in 1706. "It is a
dangerous place. Visitors must stick to the paths and not leave them on
In a BBC radio interview to be broadcast on 3 January, he says: "The
problem is that gannets have started invading the path and nesting on
it. The Victorians used to shoot gannets on the Bass but that practice
ceased around 1900, and since the lighthouse keepers left 20 years ago
the population has increased enormously".
Freddie Marr, 78, who has taken tourist parties to the rock for the
past 57 years, said: "There are way over 80,000 gannets on the Bass
now. The top of the rock is covered with nesting gannets, and they have
just about reached saturation point."
Bass Rock has changed hands many times over the centuries. It was
fought over and laid siege to repeatedly until the late 1800s when it
became an important source of food for Victorian gourmets. The flesh of
young gannets was considered excellent, if skinned and cooked like a
beef-steak, and the eggs were a delicacy which often graced Queen
Victoria's breakfast table.
But after the practice of hunting the birds died, they have had no
predators and little contact with humans. Since the nearby Scottish
Seabird Centre opened in May 2000, the number of people visiting the
island has fallen because the centre has a high-tech video link
connected to the Bass for remote viewing.
"Most people use the camera technology to see the birds at close
quarters," Greg Corbett, manager of the SSC, says. "This was one of the
first microwave link cameras to be installed in Scotland. We show them
how to film the gannets and capture wildlife images."
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