Trip Report: The Faroe Islands
The Faroe Islands are a remote seabird paradise, hidden in mists and full of ancient mysteries, as Fiona Halliday discovered
The descent was precipitous and wet. From the entrances of hundreds of rabbit burrows that dotted the shallow, amphitheatre-shaped hillside came a groaning and a growling, as if what lay inside was suffering from a terrible stomach ache.
Were these the sounds made by the famous Huldafolk (hidden folk) of the Faroes? Harold, our stalwart guide in wellingtons, did not seem unduly moved by the noises, or the possibility of mythical creatures spying on us.
Then a bright stripe of beak appeared at a burrow entrance near me and I realised what I was witnessing.
We were standing on the edge of Lambi - a verdant Puffin colony, a feathery Watership Down - on Mykines, the most westerly of the Faroe islands. Out on the grey Atlantic we spied hundreds of Puffins feeding and the air above us was full of fast-beating wings. These comical little birds have the Latin name of Fratercula arctica, 'little brother of the Arctic', and in this most northerly place that seems apt.
The grass was as green as an avocado, fertilised by hundreds of years of Puffin droppings. Harold warned us to take care not to put a foot in a Puffin burrow as we might break an ankle and it is a precipitous journey back to the island's jetty.
Suddenly something broke up the great wheel of puffins flying overhead. At first I thought it was our human presence that was disturbing the pattern of their flight. Then I saw the the great brown bird, the Arctic Skua, speeding silently past, many times bigger than the little Puffins and an impressive predator with its large hooked beak.
This was my atmospheric introduction to the beautiful Faroes and their amazing colonies of seabirds.
The Faroe Islands are 18 steep-sided volcanic rocks, the final stepping stones of northern Europe. Their beauty is luminous yet austere, the weather a constant changeable presence to which the adage: 'there's no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing' can be applied.
However, despite claims that this country is five times windier than Britain's windiest corner, I feel it is not so fierce as it is in Shetland. Though the islands are in the most tempest-tossed corner of the North Atlantic, there is a lingering balminess in the air, sweetened by the Gulf Stream.
Not that the scenery is that benign. To catch a good look at most of the birdlife, Puffins aside, you need binoculars, as they cling to the vertiginous side of a 300m cliff, or are far out at sea. All the great marine wanderers of the northern hemisphere gather here to breed: Kittiwakes, Arctic Terns, Manx Shearwaters, Storm Petrels, Puffins, Gannets, Guillemots, Skuas, Whimbrels, Curlew, Snipe and Knot.
Mykines (pronounced Mitchness) has the Faroe's largest population of Puffins, and neighbouring Mykinesholmur its only population of Gannets. Mykines has just been awarded Ramsar status which will guarantee its Puffins protection because it is still legal to hunt the birds after the breeding season on many of the Faroe Islands. Before 1 April 1980 it was legal to hunt Guillemots and Razorbills all year round but now the hunting season is from 1 October to 20 January. This seabird hunt is not so well-known or disliked as the Grindadráp, the annual whale hunt, but given the massive seabird decline since the 1950s the awarding of three Ramsar sites on the islands is timely.
Down at the tiny Atlantarhavsbrugvin bridge, which takes longer to say than to cross, we find the Holmgjogv colony of Kittiwakes shrieking dementedly. 'We are crossing the Atlantic,' Harold points out as we make our way to Mykinesholmur with its lighthouse and colonies of Gannets at Flatidrangur and Pikarsdrangur. He tells us about the albino Puffin that lived here for 60 years and had a special dispensation from being hunted. During the long white nights in SØrvágur I dream of white Puffins.
On another day I drove to the island of Streymoy and past Kvivik, down to the fishing village of Vestmanna. There I caught a boat through the Vestmannasund to the famous unpronounceable cliffs of VestmannabjØrgini. The mist was thick enough to spread on toast. On board was a German in a tweed hat and driving gloves, who remarked of the thick gloom: 'It's a fine mist. Finest mist I've ever seen.' Fulmars and a single Gannet ghosted out of the gloom and followed our boat as we motored into dark collapsed grottos, around needle-thin stacks, escarpments, butts, tors and gorges gouged out by the sea. Everything dripped and echoed. The lower strata of black rock was smeared with green. It was one of the most haunting places I've ever been.
Our Skipper, Gunnar, was an ex-bird hunter who had climbed these cliffs and stacks in his youth. He told us they took sometimes 1,000 Puffins and 6,000 Guillemots a day in the 50s, but latterly only about 100. They hauled sheep up the cliffs here, too, to graze on the high crags.
A Worrying Decline
The island of Nolsoy, reachable by ferry from Torshavn, has one of the largest colonies of European Storm Petrels in the world, at Suður ì Dølum. They are hard to see because they arrive on land in the dark, but the best time is August. I took a boat trip with the old Norðlýsið schooner around Nolsoy's great towering black cliffs of Nevið and Urðin.
Neighbouring Skuvoy has 10,000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters. Skuvoy and Nolsoy are the other two islands that have been granted Ramsar status. Jens-Kjeld Jensen, the Faroes' resident ornithologist who lives in a house on Nolsoy, has observed the worrying decline in seabirds here since the 1970s. He is campaigning to have RIB boats banned from going within 500m of nesting sites and the enforcement of a 4 knot maximum speed around Nolsoy's Puffin colonies. Jens tells me that 91% of Fulmars today have plastics in their stomachs. 'This is no paradise,' he says sadly.
It is not just the faroes where seabirds are in decline. The winter storms of 2014 saw an estimated 28,000 seabirds all over Europe perish. And there has been, Jens-Kjeld Jensen tells me, one catastrophic breeding season after another. Seabirds have been described as 'the canary in the mine'. Their decline is not only a great loss, but is indicative of a deeper, more pervasive sea change. The North Atlantic is entering a New Age dictated by rising sea temperatures and this is being felt by all its inhabitants.
Over the Oyggjarvegur
I contemplated this as I drove over Streymoy's high winding Oyggjarvegur road to Tórshavn and descended into mist as thick and unravelling as a Faroe island jumper. The mist was so thick I even missed a massive sign for my hotel. Mist notwithstanding, the driving on the Faroes is easy. The islands are connected by tunnels and there's only five sets of traffic lights on the whole 18 islands. It is also cheap to fly to the northern islands by helicopter.
The Nordic cool Hotel Føroyar perches over Torshavn, the smallest capital in the world. It has a first class restaurant, Koks, which gives panaromic views over Torshavn to Nolsoy. It has, like many houses in the Faroes, a turf roof.
Outside the window of my room, on a narrow strip of stones separating the windows from the grass roof was a nesting Oystercatcher - the 'tjaldur' and the national bird of the Faroes. It arrives on the islands, they say, very punctually on 12 March and then departs again on 12 September.
Top 5 seabirds of the Faroes
Puffins (Lundi) (and Great Skuas): Mykines
Gannets (Sula): Mykinesholmur
Manx Shearwaters (Skrapur): Skuvoy
Storm Petrels (Drunnhviti): Nolsoy
Guillemots (Lomvigi): Vestmanna, Skuvoy (also for Great Skuas) or Sudoroy
The tjaldur was so close and so still I could see in detail the exquisite long beak for prying open its mollusc food, and the red rimmed watchful eye. I'd seen Oystercatchers everywhere on the Faroes, but never one so still, so close. We watched the mist lift from our respective perches. A sudden luminous blue and greeness stole over Tórshavn bay, and the high cliffs of Nolsoy were suddenly revealed. The pearls of rain on the top of the bird's inky dark head gleamed suddenly, like a crown.
That's the Faroes: crowned by wind and storm, but beautiful and serene.
Regent Holidays (www.regent-holidays.co.uk 020 7666 1244) can offer an eight day Birdwatching in the Faroe Islands itinerary from £1210 per person. The price is based on two sharing and includes accommodation on bed and breakfast basis, return flights with Atlantic Airways direct from Edinburgh, eight days car hire and birdwatching tours with local guides.
For more information on the islands visit www.visitfaroeislands.com