St Kilda

Life and death on an isolated archipelago

Early spring, 2012 – I spent four weeks working as a volunteer assistant field researcher with the St Kilda Mouse Project.

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1. St Kilda

Rising from the North Atlantic like a phalanx of shields, the St Kilda archipelago is a collection of turf-covered igneous islands – Hirta, Soay, Boreray and Dún – composed of sweeping curves and plunging verticals; dominated by sea mists and ravaging winds. Glacial silt in the valleys makes for rich pastureland and the cliffs support thousands upon thousands of nesting seabirds.

 

The islands have been settled sporadically throughout human history, but the last inhabitants emigrated in 1930, as the lure of modern comforts became too great.

They left a legacy in stone: prehistoric storage chambers, historic walls, cleits, blackhouses and stone corrals.

Cleits – oval storage huts with turf roofs – are dotted all over the archipelago. They were used to store the bodies of fulmars and puffins and other seabirds, and as shelter for people during bad weather. Some have fallen into ruin, but most are as tough as the Kildans who made them, and continue to stand strong.

 

The treeless mossy turf is cropped by the wild sheep. The Soay sheep is a relic of the Bronze Age: a bony, ragged, flighty, goatlike creature of Mouflon ancestry, small of stature and tough as boots.

It was abandoned (or survived its domesticators) at least five thousand years ago. Since then, because there are no predators on the archipelago, the population has periodically risen or crashed due to availability of food.

 

The Soay Sheep Project has been studying the population in Village Bay on Hirta (the main island) for over thirty years, and non-interference with the Soays is impressed upon every fieldworker and researcher who comes to St Kilda.

I was there for a month during a population crash in the spring of 2012, working with the St Kilda Mouse Project. The previous sheep die-off, seven years before, had been minor. In consequence, the population had burgeoned and now the landscape was littered with the dead and the dying. Weak, staggering ewes were aborting lambs and the bare turf was cropped to nothing.

Usually wary of people, the Soays living near the Village Street that accommodated the fieldworkers barely acknowledged our presence as they nibbled ceaselessly at the overgrazed turf. Taking in energy was their only priority from dawn to dark, but for many it wasn’t enough and they became too weak to move.

We encountered them everywhere – prostrate and fading, dead and mouldering. The ones with tears of blood running from empty sockets were the ones whose eyes had been taken by crows or ravens before they were dead. They stank, and they showed the grim reality of an ecosystem without predators. The big St Kilda mice (twice the size of their mainland cousins) could feed in a small way on the abundance of sheep carcasses by nibbling through the backs of the hooves to reach the rich foot fat, but their jaws were not strong enough to do more. It will take at least another million years of evolution before they can assume the role of predators.

 

On my last day I climbed Conachair, the highest peak on Hirta. Avoiding the tallest sea cliff in Britain at the rear of the peak, I rounded a hump on the summit and startled three Soays. Two of them dashed off down the hillside but the third stumbled and pitched over onto her back.

I had seen something similar two weeks before. Changing locations for mouse trapping, we had carried rucksacks full of Longworth traps up from Glen Bay to the top of the hanging valley near the Lovers’ Stone. Stuffing the rucksacks into a cleit for overnight storage we frightened some Soays, which tottered off weakly. One ewe fell and had trouble rising again. She lurched and swayed as though drunk. Distressing to watch though it was, Tom reiterated the policy of non-interference, so we ignored her and continued to stow the traps. I looked up when we had finished, to find her gone. She had found her feet and followed her companions down into the valley.

Hoping the same would happen in my present situation, I retreated around the mound to give the ewe space to right herself.

I sat down on the turf to eat my sandwiches. It was a rare sunny day with blue skies and good visibility. I could see all the way to the Outer Hebrides, if I ignored the upended legs waving awkwardly in the foreground. Ten minutes became twenty and it was clear that she could not regain her feet.

“Don’t interfere, don’t interfere,” I repeated to myself. Logic said the ewe’s death would remove her pressure on the ecosystem. It was happening all over Hirta: as the weakest died, the strongest enjoyed increased chances of survival. But…

But sentiment said the ewe could take days to die, and the ravens would certainly pluck her eyes before the end.

My sandwiches finished, now rationalisation began: if the ewe had simply dropped from weakness, her ending would be just as protracted and awful but she had not. My sudden appearance had caused her to lose her footing; by walking up Conachair I had intruded on her environment, which meant I had already meddled.  I reasoned that if I could get her back on her feet, that second meddling would cancel out the first.

But what if I was seen and reported to the Soay Sheep Project?

Worried that I was being too sentimental in agonising over this one sheep, I finally concluded there was really no choice at all.

I stood up and slowly approached the ewe. She was heavily pregnant and rocking slightly on a tussock. Weak, off balance and about to lamb, she would never right herself without help. I placed the side of my boot gently against her ribcage and slowly turned her over.

The moment her legs were beneath her, she sprang up and off. She ran a few paces down the hillside then stopped and looked back. 

“Never speak of this,” I cautioned her, dizzy with relief, “Not a word!”

 

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