My first week on the Isle of Eigg was spent working on a croft where they grown willow and make beautiful baskets. I installed myself in a caravan under the cliff face and worked hard cutting the weeds around a giant willow plot with a small sickle. It was hard and hot work. Above me, on the cliffs, the ravens played and a golden eagle floated across the moorland.
All day I bent to the task, listening to Radio 4 and drinking gallons of water. On days when the mists descended and the rain rolled in from Rhum I worked in the barn sorting stacks of willow called Flanders Red into different lengths. I poured each bundle of willow into a dustbin sunk in the floor and shook it vigorously, measuring the twigs against a large makeshift ruler. More silence, more radio 4. The world poured into the barn on the hill while I helped create baskets as islanders have done for centuries.
My host was taciturn. A man of few words who freely admitted he didn’t like company in the house. I worked alone, cooked and ate my meals alone and, at night, sat alone in my caravan reading as long eared owl chicks called outside and mars rose on the horizon. I was not lonely but it was isolating, having no one to speak to.
The scenery made up for it. In the evenings I would sit with a beer and watch the sun set behind the mountains of Rhum or I would walk through fields of heath orchids and cotton grass to the Singing Sands, a white beach which squealed as you walked upon it. I swam in the icy zircon blue water. I surprised hen harriers who ghosted through the grass looking for voles.
On Friday two volunteers came up from the Eigg heritage trust to help. My host left me in charge while he went to the mainland for two days. I relished the chance for human company, to swap stories and laugh as we worked. We cut the fields with scythes all day until the sweat ran from us. In the evening I fetched the man’s washing in and looked after his house. When my host returned he wasn’t happy. “Do you mean to tell me that is 15 hours work?” he said. “Why didn’t you all split up and work on different projects” I explained that I felt it would be more sociable for the two volunteers to work together. “Being sociable is not something I care about,” He said. “It’s the work that is the point.”
I retreated to my caravan and cried. It seemed so unfair to be told off when I had worked so hard and wasn’t even being paid. The rain poured down all day and the caravan was damp. The heating wouldn’t work and I didn’t dare ask my host for help. By the evening I had decided I was leaving. I packed my bags and hauled my rucksacks and wheelie suitcase a mile over a rocky, puddled mountain track past bemused sheep and cows. The volunteers who had worked with me on Friday took me in and offered to let me sleep on their couch. It wasn’t the end to the week I had planned.
spending two weeks helping out at a croft on the Island of Eigg and enjoying the amazing scenery and wildlife including hen harriers, golden eagles and long eared owls.
Head over to the RSPB website to read my guest blog on my work with farmers in North Kent. The site describes me as a RSPB volunteer farm advisor which isn’t quite true as I work independently of the RSPB as a paid consultant but the support and advise I receive from the RSPB is fundamental in making the project a success.
Read the blog here
Some days it seems there is not much good news in the world but today I learnt for definite that two black winged stilt chicks, one of the rarest birds in Britain, have successfully fledged from farmland on Sheppey.
The adults have patrolled tirelessly throughout the year to drive off marsh harriers, buzzards and even the RSPB expert who came to see them.
They and the farmers deserve every bit of this success. These are the first birds ever to fledge outside of a reserve in Britain and, for today, that is enough to make me happy.
I first met Mr Brooks on the second day of my new job with the Kentish Stour Partnership way back in 2009. He instructed me as I teetered on top of a ladder in his cattle barn trying to put a number disk on the side of his barn owl box which would allow us to monitor it’s progress.
“Do you know one end of a drill from another?” he called in his upper class voice. “Next time bring a man.” I felt suitably slighted.
A few weeks later he wanted a second box put up. I agreed this was a good idea but there would be a charge for installing the box. Mr Brooks was aghast. “I don’t deal in money,” he said “We barter.” Ah, now he was talking my language. A box, I told him, would cost him either a bottle of whisky, a goose for Christmas or a brace of trout from his trout pond. Once I got off the phone I was told off by my boss who suggested that, as we sat next to Trading Standards, this was not the way we should be doing business.
I returned to his land with a box and three men but went up the ladder myself to install it. Mr Brooks, true to his word, appeared in full fly fishing gear and tried for those trout but with no luck.
Years passed, the barn owls refused to take up residence. Instead stock doves moved in,
filling the box with their twiggy nests. Me and the professional ringers would extract the birds. “Don’t ring their bally legs, ring their bally necks.” Mr Brooks called in the background. We refused.
Then, yesterday, I returned. We climbed the ladder expecting to find the twiggy nests once again but, no. Instead we found a barn owl and three fair sized chicks. Mr Brooks, now in his eighties, has his barn owls at last and I, for one, couldn’t be happier for him. I am still waiting for the trout.
Think Sheppey is nothing but ranks of caravans and slot machines? Think Again. The Isle of Sheppey is one of the undiscovered beauties of Kent, stuffed with rare wildlife and beautiful skyscapes. Move over Whitstable, Sheppey is coming.
Discover the island for yourself with this festival of talks, walks, rock pooling and beach cleans run by the marvellous Medway and Swale Estuary Partnership. Find out more at