Visiting the May

Monday 6th February: We are now starting to prepare for a new season and we thought we’d bring you some of the best things to see and do on the Isle of May this spring. It’s just a flavour of what to expect and will get you in the mood for the new season which is less than two months away…  Here is the first three:

Enjoy a boat trip! The Isle of May National Nature Reserve is owened and managed by NatureScot and opens its doors from 1st April-30th September. The island will be open almost daily (weather dependant) and the boat trip has full commentary and will offer you fabulous views of the island including the stunning west cliffs. The trip will take approximately one hour with up to three hours on the island to explore every nook and cranny.  Check out the various private boat companies which operate trips to the island:

Licenced Boat Operators 2023

May Princess (depart from Anstruther):

Osprey rib (depart from Anstruther)

Seabird Centre rib (departs from North Berwick):

Bluewild rib (departs from Dunbar):

Experience the feeling of being inside a puffin snow globe. In spring, we welcome the return of over 40,000 pairs of Puffins from the open sea where they have been since the previous August. Birds bond for life and will use the same underground nest burrow so watch out for adults ‘spring cleaning’ and pair bonding.

Walk in the footsteps of the famous Robert Stevenson, the engineer who designed and built the impressive main lighthouse on the island in 1816. Climb to the highest point of the island to gain free entry to the lighthouse (weekends only) and enjoy the story of this magnificent building.

So there you have a few reasons and plenty more to follow…

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New Season Prep Underway!

Monday 30th January Comments: BACK IN ACTON!!

The Isle of May needs you! Are you looking to develop your career in conservation, between years at university or looking for a change of career, well the Isle of May National Nature Reserve may be able to help. We are looking for long-term volunteers who will help with all aspects of this fabulous reserve during the summer months.

We are looking for people who will help with visitor management; meeting and providing information to our daily visitors as well as to help run events and look after the islands infrastructure. As well as this you’ll get involved with species monitoring (especially Arctic Terns, Eiders and Large Gulls) including ringing, monitoring, feeding watches and population counts. On top of all this you’ll get involved with practical maintenance of the reserve including habitat management and basic maintenance tasks and anything else which crops up on the island. Oh and did we mention you’ll be living on the island with the wider team.

The volunteer posts are for the summer (starting date can be discussed but ideally from mid-April) and you’ll need to be at least 18 years old, personable, approachable, enthusiastic, a good communicator, and have excellent spoken English. You’ll need to be able to fit into a small island community and to work in a team or on your own. You’ll have a strong interest in conservation, a good knowledge of Scotland’s natural heritage and lots of enthusiasm for the Isle of May. You’ll be physically fit and have a responsible attitude to health and safety, complying with procedures designed to keep you and others safe.  You’ll be willing to work outdoors in all weathers, keen to learn and adaptable.

If you are interested, the deadline for applications is on Friday 24th February. For more information please e-mail reserve manager for a Volunteer Expression of Interest form and further details.

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Merry Christmas


We hope everyone is enjoying their festive week and looking forward to a relaxing weekend (with exception to cooking the Christmas dinner!). Thank you for all the support, messages, visits and general Isle of May chat throughout the year; we could not achieve what we do without you, so thank you. From everyone linked to the island, Merry Christmas and best wishes to all

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Sandeel ban?

Monday 19th December comments: Some promising news for seabirds in the North Sea has been highlighted at the weekend by the Guardian newspaper. The news concerns the potential of banning sandeel fishing in U.K. waters which would be a huge boost to struggling seabird populations.

Sandeels are a small silvery fish with a high nutrient content and the vast majority of seabirds which breed on seabird reserves like the Isle of May which feed exclusively on these fish. The classic photograph of Puffins with fish in their mouths is often of sandeels and these fish are the heartbeat of seabird colonies. Last year the government asked for evidence from both industry and environmental organisations regarding industrial sandeel fishing and the next step is due to start. Sandeels are harvested for a variety of reasons but are used for livestock such as farmed salmon but now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are putting in the motion early next year, starting with consultation of stakeholders in January.

This is certainly a positive step for declining seabird populations and a real boost for the future, and we’ll keep you updated of this story as it breaks.

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Season End

Friday 16th December comments: Well that’s it, the Isle of May season is officially finished. The last of the Grey Seals are preparing to leave, the researchers and reserve staff are complete and today we locked up the buildings and waved goodbye.

The seal colonies look empty and quiet and with the added rain of recent days these areas have become a muddy quagmire, something reassembling the battle of the Somme. However the final few pups have just been born so it will be into the new year before they finally depart. A small number of island passerine residents were noted including Robin, Wren and Blackbird but otherwise it’s quiet and we’ll now let the island sleep. Over the last week, we’ve certainly had a cold spell of weather and that showed with the snow on the boat and last week the islands loch was partially frozen, just showing you that even islands don’t escape the worst of it.  

So that’s it, the season is over and everyone involved with the island can rest up, take stock and prepare for next year as a new season is not far away and we’ll be welcoming back everyone and everything before you even know it. On the home front we’ll keep the blog going with news and stories so stay tuned and don’t go away. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey so far.

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Winter life

Tuesday 13th December comments: The winter months are a quiet time for the island as it drops into a slumber and rests before the start of a new season. However it never completely closes down as even in the deepest darkest winter days, there is life on the rock…

The winter is a special time for the Isle of May as it’s a time of rest, tranquility and calm. The majority of Grey Seals will have gone, whilst the vast majority of seabirds are far and wide. However small number of Shags over-winter, using the island for a roosting site returning each day to favour sheltered locations whilst Guillemots return to cliff ledges for a very short period every morning. These seabirds are not thinking of breeding just yet but are gearing up as March will come around very quickly (it’ll fly around!). Other birdlife on the island include a small number of Short-eared Owls which take advantage of an island without humans but more importantly the vast numbers of mice which can be found at this time of year.

Other life includes our small rabbit population which maintains a presence a small number of passerines such as Rock Pipit, Robin and Wren all eek out an existence during the frozen months. As for us humans, we’ll be doing our winter checks as usual but we’ll leave the island to settle as it won’t be long before the lighter nights are returning, the seabirds are heading back and we’ll be opening our doors once again. The new season on the Isle of May is not that far away and we can’t wait.

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Thursday 8th December comments: We are seeing the last of the Grey Seals depart the island for another autumn as the island slowly and surely empties. However it’s not completely dormant during the winter months as life still exists but you just need to look a little closer to find it.

One aspect of island life we don’t often highlight is the fact we have rabbits (yes we do have rabbits and they vary in colour from grey to black). There are records of rabbits on the Isle of May from 1329, almost 700 years ago when apparently the King’s Chamberlain paid out eight shillings to four men to go and catch some. The rabbits were originally introduced to the island when the Priory was built and would have been an important source of food and revenue. There would have been specially employed ‘warreners’ to look after and harvest them but by 1549 when the island ownership passed from the Priory of Pittenweem, the island was said to have been ‘spoiled of rabbits’ after apparently the English destroyed the warrens. By 1884 the island was grazed by six milk cows, a horse, three donkeys and up to 60 sheep which suggests that the rabbit population was still pretty low.

However the rabbits remained and to this present day can be seen around the island including the small islet of Rona (which they have been seen crossing to at low tide). These grazers split opinion on if they are a good thing or not as they help keep a short sword of vegetation for certain nesting seabird species but also contribute to soil erosion with their constant grazing. Regardless our furry neighbours are here to stay and in spring we’ll be seeing them once again, as life on the Isle of May continues.  

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Meet The Clean Up team

Tuesday 6th December comments: Meet the clean-up team. Large active Grey Seal colonies like that on the Isle of May has it all; fighting bulls, attentive mothers and thousands of new born pups. However there is a grizzly side to these colonies as someone or something has to clean it all up!

Over the course of the autumn, over 2,500 Grey Seal pups are born on the Isle of May. As expected in such big colonies, some young sadly don’t make it and will die (but it is just a very small percentage) and this is nature.

However it’s not all bad news as we say hello to the Clean up team, say hello to our Great Black-backed Gulls. These monster-sized birds have a varied diet throughout the year as they prey on a variety of things during the summer from seabirds to rabbits. However at this time of year, a dead seal pup or afterbirth is highly prized and they’ll take chances to grab it before another gull does. Interestingly with the onset of the seal season, our local Great Black-backed Gull population numbers increase as birds from the north arrive to take advantage of this autumn feast. Although it’s a bit grim, it’s also nature and these birds help tidy up the Isle of May ready for next season. So hats off to them, enjoy your dinner.

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Sunday 4th December comments:  Now we are into December the seal numbers on the Isle of May have started reducing as the season heads towards a close.

Many young pups will now be heading for independence as their mums have left them. After just 18-21 days, young pups start to moult their white fur and their once attentive mothers will abandon them for the open sea. At this young age the pups are on their own and they are officially independent (its a hard upbringing!) These pups are known as weaners and they’ll maraud around the island as they become familiar with their surroundings (just like young teenagers). As you would expect they do get short shift from adults but soon learn to keep out the way before eventually shuffling to the North Sea and freedom beckons.  

Although this may seem a tough start to life, it is also a successful one as the population of Grey Seals down the east coast has increased significantly over the last decade, so hopefully these young animals will return in future years to breed on colonies like the May. Nature is an amazing thing and to have this on your doorstep is just another reason why places like the isle of May are so special and so important.    

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Bull season

Thursday 1st December comments: The Grey Seal season is still alive and well out on the island but things have changed. The number of pups has now peaked, with good numbers of young reaching independence. However it’s not all sweetness and light as the bulls have arrived.

Slowly and surely the Bull seals have been arriving on the island and that means a big shift in the behaviour and nature of all the seals on the colonies. Bull seals can reach up to 2.3m in length (maximum of 7ft 7in) and can weigh 170–310 kg (370–680 lb) which means some of the biggest can be as much as 48 stone (that’s a huge amount of blubber!) And they only have one thing on their mind as it’s soon the mating season. Bulls will defend a harem of cows against others males from mating with them and this often results in violent fights and serious injuries are common place as fighting intensifies.

Towards the end of the lactation (about 20-21 days) the cow seal will become fertile and will mate although implantation is delayed for up to three months. It is at this time that the bull seals serve their purpose and its often the bigger the better as they fight off rivals. The gestation period for a cow seal is nine months and the end result is of pups being born at the same time of year each season. You really can’t take your eyes off the colony on the Isle of May but gradually things will be start to slow down but we are still some weeks away from that moment. So stay tuned and we’ll keep you up to date with the latest news.

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