The darling birds of May

8th August 2008 at 01:00

Arriving on the isle of May in June and July, the tallest people in any party are given umbrellas. There is only one path from where the boat lands, past the dainty Arctic terns' nests in the clumps of wildflowers surrounding the jetty. They swoop, viciously, to defend their eggs and chicks - hence the umbrellas.

Most pupils are safe, being shorter than their teachers, but it is still a baptism of fire as hundreds of birds take to the air. By the time the P6 pupils from Anstruther Primary have made it to the visitor centre, they are bubbling with excitement. On the way, they have seen the terns' eggs lying in the grasses.

"They are only protecting their young," says JJ Stewart, 10, gravely.

These birds have flown 24,000 miles to get to the island and are determined to ward off any danger. The May has been their breeding ground for years and, as the small island, five kilometres off the coast of Fife at the mouth of the Firth of Forth, is looked after by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the birds come first. So all visitors must walk warily through the roped-off paths.

Over the past five years, SNH has been developing the May as a destination for school visits. But it has not been easy. Despite being beautiful and rich in wildlife, and heavily subsidised, the island still only hosts five or six schools each year.

The only way to get there is on the "May Princess", a boat which leaves from Anstruther on the furthest tip of Fife, and takes an hour. Sometimes it is cancelled because of bad weather, and the length of any visit is dictated by the tides.

The island, with its cliffs and diving terns, necessitates an onerous risk assessment. But Therese Alampo, one of two reserve managers who live there between April and October, is optimistic that more schools will visit. It helps that SNH subsidises school trips - amp;#163;5 a head - and runs open days so teachers can sample the island themselves. "There is so much to see here. I wish the children had longer because I can only show them a fraction of what makes the May so wonderful," says Ms Alampo.

She fell in love with May 12 years ago and has been warden for five.

Every school visit is met by Ms Alampo and one or more of her volunteers and taken on a whirlwind tour. They are shown puffins, seals, guillemots and other breeding birds. If the time it right, they will also see eggs and chicks. Some pupils caught sight of a puffin nest being raided and a puffling disappearing down the throat of a large gull.

Pupils may also be shown where pirates hoarded their loot, where the first lighthouse in Scotland was built and where one of the lighthouse keepers ran off the edge of a cliff. Ms Alampo will point out puffin burrows, talk about the monks' settlements and tell a few ghost stories.

Recently, she hosted a visit of 60 biology and geography pupils from Waid Academy in Fife. With its volcanic origins, 250,000 breeding seabirds and thriving seal colony, the May offers a wealth of experiences for high school pupils, but most often it is primaries which come to see the birds and other wildlife as part of the 5-14 curriculum.

Joan Brown, along with Karl Barrs, takes the P6s at Anstruther. For her, May is the perfect resource. She has been bringing her classes to the island for the past three years.

"The pupils did an extended project about some aspect of the island recently and we have been studying it every week over the past term," she says. "Once A Curriculum for Excellence comes in, I will use it for many aspects of teaching."

Besides the birds, there are lots of stories to capture their imagination. Hannah Young, 10, and Andrew Gay, 11, tell the story of the Anderson family who, except for a baby, were all asphyxiated by carbon monoxide from the coal ash used to keep the light burning on the lighthouse. The pupils are amazed to hear that Ms Alampo recently met the great, great grand-daughter of the baby who survived.

As they head to the boat, a greater black-backed gull dives down to grab an egg and all the children shout. But the terns are ready and soon see off the gull with its beak empty. The children cheer and turn for home.

Colourful history

The May has been inhabited for more than 4,000 years.

A ruin of a 12th century chapel stands on the site of a 6th century one.

One of the major centres of the Christian crusade to convert Scotland.

Ethernan (St Adrian), was based on the isle around the 6th or 7th century and is believed to be buried here.

The first lighthouse in Scotland was built on the May in 1636.

The island hosted a thriving community well into the 1700s.

At the start of the First World War, a signal station was established marking its importance to Scotland's defence.

In 1329, monks brought rabbits to the island, which burrow and keep the vegetation short.

Puffins live in the rabbit burrows. The May has the largest breeding colony of puffins in the UK with more than 50,000 active burrows. The population has been growing by 10 per cent each year since 1950, but has fallen dramatically in the past year.

The May is one of the four strategic monitoring sites for seabirds in the UK and is a special protection area for breeding seabirds.

The isle can be viewed on live cam via the Scottish Seabird Centre website:

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