Gannets Are Dying
Gannets are dying and hardly anyone is talking about it. It’s small beer, I suppose, when there’s trench-warfare in Europe, and when the Iberian Peninsula is on fire. Small beer when the UK has its own red heat alert, when our political system is corrupted, when, for many, ‘getting by’ is no longer an option. It’s a loss nonetheless, and one that’s happening around us.
Close up, gannets aren’t cute like puffins, or angular and lithe like terns. Gannets glare at you like resentful princes with kohl-lined eyes; but watch them dive into the sea and you’ll witness something rare: form and purpose fused into fierce beauty.
Maybe we take them for granted in Scotland. After all, 40% of the entire northern gannet population is to be found in our waters, and just twenty-five miles from our capital city, you can look out from the East Lothian coast at the Bass Rock, the world’s largest gannet colony.
Gannets have nested on the Bass Rock for hundreds of years, maybe thousands, and its surface is caked white with their shit, so that the island looks like a great wedge of chalk protruding from the Firth of Forth. Writing in the 16th century, Hector Boece refers to gannets as ‘Bass Geese’, while the Latin name, Morus bassanus, acknowledges the significance of the island in the bird’s history. During the breeding season, 150,000 gannets make their nests there and the airspace around the island teems with them, like a snow globe that’s been shaken. David Attenborough describes the colony as one of the wonders of the natural world.
Over on the Ross of Mull, a couple of weeks ago, I found three dead gannets at Ardalanish. They were washed up on the beach like little packages, burst open, their feathers bedraggled and sand-crusted, their eyes glazed. I say little, but they’re hefty birds, with a wingspan that stretches over six feet. On the beach, the dead gannets’ wings were crooked and dull, not poised, not gleaming, like the wings of a living gannet as it dives for mackerel or herring – ‘a white anchor falling’, as Norman MacCaig has it in his poem ‘Movements’.
They’re also known as Solan Geese, which seems to derive from Sule or Sula, the Old Norse for gannet. Back in Hector Boece’s day, they were an established part of the national diet, and in 1525, ‘auce solanes’ was served to King James V at Holyrood; and when he’d take his court hunting in Fife, the royal kitchen ensured that quantities of gannet were carted out to the palace there at Falkland. Not everyone enjoyed eating them. James’s great-great grandson, King Charles II, scourge of 17th century Presbyterianism, claimed that there were only two things he disliked about Scotland: Solan Goose and the National League and Covenant!
Adult gannets are mostly white, but their heads and necks tinge yellow in spring, and they have black-tipped pinion feathers – an elegant contrast that accentuates the length and angle of their wings. When they hunt, they climb into the air, sometimes a hundred feet high, and then plummet, harnessing gravity, reaching speeds of sixty miles an hour.
By the 19th century, the popularity of gannet meat had waned, but even as late as the 1850s, 2000 gannets were harvested annually from the Bass Rock and sold at Edinburgh’s poultry markets; while gannet fat, boiled down at Canty Bay on the coast, continued to be used as a medicinal unguent and, latterly, as a lubricant for greasing the axles of carts and threshing machines. Meanwhile, out on St Kilda, Scotland’s most westerly archipelago, men still scaled the cliffs of Stac Lee and Stac an Armin to gather fledgling gannets – ‘guga’ in Gaelic – their meat dried and stored in stone ‘cleits’ for winter food.
Guga hunting ended on St Kilda when Hirta, its only inhabited island, was evacuated in 1930. But the practice continues at Ness on the north tip of the Isle of Lewis, where a handful of men from the villages still sail each year to Sula Sgeir, ‘Gannet Skerry’, which lies forty miles out in the Atlantic, closer to Iceland than to London. The men of Ness spend a fortnight there harvesting guga, and the meat is considered a delicacy on Lewis and part of its culinary and cultural heritage. I’ve never tried it, but friends tell me that, as you’d expect, it tastes more like fish than fowl. This year, for only the second time since WWII, the men of Ness are not going out in boats to Sula Sgeir. The previous time the hunt was cancelled, in 2020, was because of the Covid pandemic.
If you give yourself time to watch gannets, maybe as they hunt mackerel out in an East Lothian bay, or in the sound between two Hebridean islands, you’ll see that there is nothing humdrum about their lives, that each day is a constant plummet and plunge, a perpetual rollercoaster ride. You’ll also notice, if you keep an eye on them as they drop, that there seems to be an acceleration in the instant before they hit the water; but really it’s just their necks stretching forwards and their wings pulling back, as they elongate themselves to lessen the drag, to become spears for skewering fish.
It wasn’t Covid that cancelled this year’s guga hunt on Sula Sgeir. There are other pathogens on the loose. Back in 1996, in the packed poultry farms of southern China, a virulent strain of Avian Flu emerged. The strain, H5N1, has gone on to cause carnage amongst the domestic bird population, with intensive farming particularly conducive to the rapid transmission and high mortality of the disease. Spreading through Asia and into Europe, H5N1, inevitably, made the leap from farmed to wild birds. Here in Scotland, earlier this year, around 20,000 Barnacle Geese were killed by the disease as they over-wintered on the Solway Coast. Now it’s hitting the seabird population, and especially those species that nest together in large colonies, like gannets.
Imagine the strength required to keep a gannet’s neck from buckling on impact, to keep the spear of its body straight; imagine the sharp point of its beak. In the past, fishermen were said to have hunted gannets by pinning herring to wooden boards that they cantilevered out from the stern of their boats. A gannet aiming for the silver glint of the herring would hit the board with such force, its beak would pierce the wood like a hammered nail.
Seabird populations fluctuate, and sometimes their numbers drop dramatically – this is known in scientific parlance as a ‘wreck’. The cause is often a lack of food created by unexpected or adverse weather conditions. In 2014, more than 50,000 seabirds, mostly puffins and guillemots, were ‘wrecked’ off the coasts of the UK and France. Unseasonably high winds and rough seas had dispersed fish shoals, and the result was starvation for the birds. Climate change increases the frequency of wrecks, making it harder for seabird populations to recover, and now Avian Flu is adding to the toll.
Images from colonies around Scotland reveal a significant reduction in nesting gannets, as well as the corpses of dead birds sprawled amongst the living. I’ve watched footage of a gannet with advanced symptoms of H5N1; it was on the ground and trying to walk, but disorientated, staggering like a drunk, its head flailing, its sleek neck contorted. I don’t think it’s an easy dying.
Small beer, the suffering of gannets, and with H5N1 endemic, there’s not much to be done. “Them’s the breaks,” as our discredited PM would say. “Let the bodies pile high,” as he’d also say, for there will be no vaccine roll-out for gannets. I daresay the species will survive, the population falling, perhaps plummeting, and then slowly climbing back; just another wreck to reckon with in a world out of kilter.
It’s not easy dealing with loss, really looking at it, tasting it and not letting your tongue become numb. Maybe it helps to hold in your mind’s eye the gleam of gannets as they drop from a great height; tremendous living gannets that are like ‘the heads of tridents, / bombarding the green silk water’. That’s MacCaig again, really looking, helping us to honour and celebrate, and mourn; encouraging us to take time to watch gannets, and to find that worth our while.
Image credit: E830/0166 – Science Photo Library