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Life on the edge

Noise, violence, crowding - but only among the cliff-top birds. Michael Fielding escapes to the fascinating Farne Islands.

Seabirds screech and bawl, or launch themselves from steep cliffs into scurrying mobs. Tourists' cameras click and whirr at the aerobatic displays and only the sleepy-eyed seals basking on ledges above the tide ignore the fuss.

This is the Farne Islands in high summer. Lying conveniently close to the Northumberland coast off Bamburgh, the islands are a rich site for nature study, ecology and geography. But there is far more to them than just birdwatching.

Most of the 50,000 plus visitors a year are attracted to the islands by their spectacular beauty and the teeming wild life, of which birds - about 60,000 breeding pairs - are the most obvious example. Most popular with visitors are the puffins, their red, yellow and blue beaks often crammed with fish, and their wings whirring so fast they look about to break off at any moment.

They make up nearly half of the islands' bird population but, having produced their young, disappear out to sea in August and are not seen again until spring, along with the other winter emigres - the guillemots, razor bills, kittiwakes and terns.

During winter, the islands can become eerily quiet when left to the remaining inhabitants: seals, shags, cormorants, gulls and a few passing waders. Occasionally, unexpected species appear during the migration period, blown off course - to the obvious delight of serious bird-watchers.

Seal pups are born during the autumn, their mothers sometimes travelling from as far away as Sweden to reach the breeding sites. Although relatively small when born, the pups rapidly gain weight - about 2kg a day - on the 60 per cent fat content of their mother's milk.

Their fathers - huge creatures with Harold Macmillan expressions and the ability to dive 60 metres without apparent effort -come ashore for mating as soon as the pups are weaned. At that point the youngsters are obliged to take to the water and fend for themselves.

These islands, although remote, have a human history too. Take Grace Darling, for instance, the local heroine. She lived on Longstone, one of the two lighthouse islands, and made her name after an intrepid, and some might say ill-advised, rescue mission. On September 6, 1838, she and her father rowed their 21ft boat to Harcar Island to pick up nine survivors from the wreck of the Forfarshire.

The excellent little museum in Bamburgh commemorates both her short life - she died of tuberculosis at the age of 26 - and the exploits of other rescuers on this notoriously inhospitable coast.

The Farne's other famous past resident was St Cuthbert. He became the first hermit on Inner Farne Island in 676AD and, after a period as Bishop of Lindisfarne, chose to return to his former sanctuary in 687AD until he died.

Nothing remains of the cell he built nor the strong surrounding wall stuffed with mud to keep the wind out, but his affinity with animals - Bede said that two otters once dried his feet and warmed his legs up after he'd spent a night in the sea - is recalled by the affectionate name given to the eider ducks which inhibit these waters - Cuddy.

The small church on the island, built in Cuthbert's honour in the 13th century and restored in 1845, is lined with ornate panels which were transported from Durham Cathedral.

This island houses the National Trust visitors' centre (and the only toilets in the whole group) and is home to the wardens who look after both visitors and wildlife from March to December. Mostly young and interested in conservation management or other wildlife studies, they keep the islands tidy and maintain wildlife habitats, monitor the different species and keep an eye out for any newcomers. Some carry out research and are always happy to talk to students and others about their work.

All the islands are managed by the National Trust, which ac-quired them in 1925. Its aim is to ensure access for interested and sympathetic visitors, while conserving and protecting the islands' wildlife.

School parties are welcomed but need to book with the warden well in advance and to make arrangements with one of the boat companies. The trust produces a resource book for teachers that covers many aspects of the islands and the other 24km of Northumberland coast for which it is responsible.

Anyone planning a trip to this northern-most corner of England could consider combining work on the islands with visits to some of the numerous castles dotted round the county, such as the battle field at Flodden or the ancient towns of Berwick and Alnwick. It may be sufficiently unknown for the marketing people to call it the "Secret Kingdom", but north Northumberland is an area full of learning opportunities.

The Farne Islands warden can be contacted at 8 St Aidans, Seahouses NE68 7RS. Tel: 01665 720651. For general information contact the National Trust on 01665 721 099.It costs pound;3 to visit each island, or pound;1.70 for individuals in a booked party. Visitors during the May to July breeding season are advised to wear hats in case of dive bombing by protective mother birds.Various companies run boat trips from Seahouses harbour to the islands. Frequency and prices vary according to season and size of party. Cruises or landing trips are available for parties of up to 100. For details of companies running boats to the islands contact the Northumbria Tourist Board on 0191 375 3027. The Board can also supply information on other educational opportunities in Northumberland

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