Visiting the Farne Islands: Sea Birds & Seals

Puffin in the Farne IslandsWe recently decided to give the van a change of scenery and take  a trip up to Northumberland for the weekend, to visit the Farne Islands.

I’ll say at once that this is primarily a bird (and seal) spotting post, so if this doesn’t interest you, don’t bother visiting the Farne Islands (or reading the rest of this post).

If you aren’t familiar with the islands — and most people aren’t — they are a group of small, mostly uninhabited islands just off the Northumberland coast, roughly level with Seahouses and Bamburgh (click here for a map).

Bamburgh is an attractive place and home to the rather imposing Bamburgh castle, so it is well worth a visit if you are in the area.

At the risk of offending its residents, Seahouses is nothing special but it does have a useful selection of shops, fish and chip restaurants and car parks, and it is the base of all of the boat services to the Farne Islands.

Birders’ paradise

The two main islands, Inner Farne and Staple Island, are home to thousands of sea birds during the breeding season. Puffins, Shags, Guillemots, Eiders, Cormorants, Kittiwakes, Terns, Razorbills and more. The islands are also home to a large colony of Grey Seals, which can be seen as part of most of the boat trips.

Shag, Farne Islands
A Shag on an emergency nest building mission!

Most of the islands are National Trust properties and have rangers who live on the islands for nine months of the year. This is more impressive than it sounds, as living conditions are relatively basic and the islands are often cut off by bad weather, as was almost the case when we visited.

Staple Island from the Sea
Staple Island from the Sea - it may not be clear in the photo, but these rocks are teeming with nesting sea birds.

The islands are small and the rangers perform a variety of tasks, including the annual bird census, extensive monitoring of breeding events, maintenance on the paths and board walks, and of course taking your money when you land from the boat. A separate landing fee is payable on top of the boat trip fee.

A boat too Farne?

There are four main Farne Island boat trip options:

  • Visit Inner Farne or Staple Island and land on the island for an hour or so. This trip also includes a seaborne tour of the main islands, giving you a chance to sea the seal colony and many of the birds that nest on the cliff faces.
  • Take an extended all-day excursion landing on both Inner Farne and Staple Island – one for the serious bird enthusiast or photographer.
  • Take a tour around the islands, viewing the seal colony and birds from the sea without landing on either island.
  • Take a boat trip to Longstone Island, former home of lighthouse hero Grace Darling. This isn’t National Trust and there isn’t a fee to land here.

The landing stages on both Inner Farne and Staple Island are only suitable for small boats and the swell can sometimes be too big for the boats to land people. All of the boat companies make it clear that landing is at the boatman’s discretion and in our case it was certainly touch and go. The swell got up while we were on the island and getting us all back on the boat safely was an entertaining experience that required several pairs of hands.

Shag, Inner Farne
A Shag on Inner Farne...

The next boats to arrive as we were leaving cancelled their plans to land on the island. This leads me to a warning – the islands are surprisingly popular and very small. This means that there are usually several boat loads (perhaps 60+) visitors milling around at any one time. You can’t get away from them, especially in Inner Farne, where you have to stick to the board walks as the central area of ground is home to thousands of nesting birds and puffin burrows.

To provide an idea of scale, you can walk around Inner Farne in about 10 minutes. Staple Island is meant to be better – you can wonder freely all over the island.

Watch the swell

We opted for the Billy Shiel boat service to Inner Farne. As it was a landing trip, the boat used was fairly small and the journey over was a bit wet and wild. However, the boatmen knew their business and the islands very well and before landing we got a thorough and knowledgeable tour of the other islands, proving lots of close-up photo opportunities of birds and seals.

Grey Seal, Farne Islands
A Grey Seal - The boatmen were able to take the boats very close into the rocks, providing excellent photo opportunities

The trip lasted nearly three hours in total (including an hour on Inner Farne) and we thought that it was excellent value at £13 per head.

The other companies all seem to offer similar services at similar prices – Billy Shiel seemed to be the biggest, but I don’t think there is much to choose between them.

Useful Links:

Puffins on Inner Farne
Puffins on Inner Farne

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