Life on the Calf

If you thought living on the Isle of Man was remote…

I recently spent two weeks on the Calf of Man as a volunteer, taking part in the Manx Wildlife Trust’s annual seal population survey.This involved living in the old farmhouse there (which also serves as a hostel for visitors throughout the summer season), being limited to one shower per week and no central heating. With the recent chilly weather and northerly winds we’ve had, you can imagine my reluctance each evening to retreat upstairs to my cold, cold bedroom away from the one room in the house that contained a log fire.I resorted to sleeping in my scarf and with three – yes, three – hot water bottles every night… and I’m not that much of a wuss, I swear!Calf of Man bird observatory: Accommodation for wardens, staff and volunteers as well as a visitor hostel. Each morning the ‘seal team’ would embark on a trek around the island’s cliffs, searching for seals along the coastline below. – Would “able to hold my nerve while peering over cliff edges during strong winds” look good on my CV, do you reckon?!

The aim was to carry out a population count of seals and their newborn pups. We built a photographic ID database (using a long-lens SLR camera at each site) of each adult seal and pup, and then monitored the pups as they grew and entered new developmental stages. The brand new pups are the stereotypically fluffy (and very cute!) white ones, and they gradually become significantly more chunky and moult their fur – it takes approximately 3 weeks for them to become a ‘stage 5’ pup!‘ This year, we’ve had nearly 70 pups born around the Calf of Man’s shores. Each year, the seal volunteers have the job of assigning names to each of them, and this year’s pups had to have a name beginning with “S”. We had a great time coming up with weird and wonderful names for them all: a few personal favourites were Sealia, Samphire, Spaghetti and Soccer, who was resting his head on a football the first morning we saw him – sad, because of the human litter on the beach… but it provided us with a very apt name for him!Pup “Spice” and mum. Every evening after the day’s work was done, we would retreat into the fire-lit lounge for some much needed respite from the cold. Believe it or not, there is actually wifi and a TV there – so we’re not as cut off from civilisation as you might think. After tea (and an essential fix of chocolate) it was time to do the ‘daily log’, which involved reporting to the warden the counts of all the species we’d seen that day so he could add it to a database.

I got excited every time he’d get to the end of the list and I’d hear “Grey seals?” which meant it was my time to shine: I was never any good at detecting the – what seemed like – thousands of bird species seen throughout the day, so the seal count was my best shot at making a proper contribution!Admiring the view from the north of the Calf, with the Sound Café in background. (Photo: Libby Fox)What else happens there?In addition to the seal team there are usually 2 or 3 wardens, who live on the Calf permanently from April to November each year. The wardens are responsible for the general running and upkeep of the site, as well as the visitor hostel and the bird observatory. The ornithological warden is the head of the ‘bird team’, who spend their time (weather permitting) catching and ringing birds. Once caught, measurements such as the bird’s weight and wing length are recorded, then a small metal ring displaying a unique number is attached to one of its legs (see below photo) before being released back into the wild. Ringing has been practiced in Britain for nearly 100 years and has hugely improved our understanding of bird ecology and migratory patterns, which can ultimately aid vital conservation efforts to protect endangered species.

Another way that the Calf’s wardens and volunteers have greatly contributed to bird conservation is the ‘long-tail’ eradication scheme, which was brought about in an effort to bring species like puffins and Manx shearwaters back from the brink of local extinction. Long-tails were accidentally introduced to the Calf a number of years ago due to a shipwreck on its shores, and their main food source became the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting seabirds. Several years after the scheme was implemented, these species are beginning to recover – all thanks to the efforts of those who dedicate their time to living on an isolated islet in the middle of the Irish Sea!A natural beautyAlthough I may have made it sound cold and desolate, the Calf of Man is an utterly beautiful and unique place. If you love the heather-dominated, dramatic coastal landscapes of the Isle of Man and the rest of the British Isles, then I strongly recommend a visit to the Calf’s hostel (day trips are possible, too). You can enjoy stunning walking routes and views, including the incredible sunsets that can be seen from the hill above the lighthouses each evening.Calf of Man at sunset, featuring one of the 200-year-old lighthouses. With its absence of cars, and very few human beings, the Calf is a perfect place for spotting wildlife – from cetaceans like dolphins and whales to rare birds like choughs. You can even become acquainted with some of the island’s four-legged residents: the Manx Loaghtan sheep that roam its heather-laden hills. I will definitely be returning next year – though perhaps not in October next time.

For more information on the Calf and how to book a trip, click here.

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