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The Dead Guillemot Society

One Voice for Animals UK Guest Blog by George Gunn

Dunnet Beach is the most northerly beach on the Scottish mainland. It stretches for roughly three miles in a North-North-Easterly direction from the village of Castletown at one end and across to my own native village of Dunnet at the other. It is a parabolic curve of yellow sand washed by the Atlantic surf and the wind that determines the shape and location of the chain of dunes that forms the marram grass mantle of the beach. Dwarick Head and Dunnet Head rise up as a red sandstone wall to the North of the bay and eight miles to the West Holborn Head acts as the bays other pier, protecting it against the unrelenting Pentland Firth and the mighty Atlantic. The square white steeple of Dunnet’s medieval kirk stands as a watchtower to the prevailing North-Westerly gales which blow in from the Atlantic’s deep stormy heart and which shape the beach, the bay, the surrounding landscape and the nature of the native population. Dunnet Beach is my imagination and my inspiration. It was the first morning that opened up before me as I entered the world and it will be the door of light that closes behind me as I leave it.

Dunnet Beach is also one of the world’s touchstones. The sea reveals and recovers in equal measure. Everything and anything gets washed up at some time or another. Old bottles with forgotten messages. Bodies. Single sea-boots. Fishing nets. Cynically discarded plastic. Timber washed off the decks of passing ships. In the past entire ships have washed up, either intact or in bits. Nothing humanity constructs lasts long in the unforgiving Dunnet surf. Early in September three quarters of a Minke whale lay like a headless demon, its foul decomposition attracting every crow and raven for miles around. The equinoxial tide washed it away as easily as it washed up. What washes up, more significantly that anything else, is humanities conscience. As the St Lucian poet Derek Walcott wrote, “The sea is history.” Sometimes, when the tide is running and the wind is up, the sea is like a mad person writing in an untranslatable language on the sand and on the rocks – these are the words and signs of death. This Autumn those words and signs were written on the dead bodies of dozens of young guillemots.

To walk along Dunnet Beach is one of life’s great joys. From mid-September to the Equinox on the 22nd it was a heartbreak. Each tide brought in more casualties. Black and white they lay where the sea left them. The tide is honest – it eventually returns all of its drowned. The worst thing was finding birds that were still alive, but so obviously dying. You would need a heart as hard as granite not to be distressed at such a sight. Especially, if you are one like me, who has grown up with guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, puffins, skuas, gannets and terns and consider these birds your family. Every Summer I return again and again to Easter Point, just out past the old foghorn at Dunnet Head lighthouse, and for hours lie face down and watch the colonies of these majestic, noble, beautiful seabirds go about their noisy, hectic and dramatic rituals of bonding, mating and hatching their young on impossibly steep cliff ledges, or in nests amazingly stuck onto unforgiving sheets of rock, or deep in burrows at the sandstone cliffs green lip. To see them swirling in their thousands in mid air below your feet or congregating on the sea in floating communion, or to see them launching themselves from their cliff ledge nests or to return with their beaks full of sand eels, or to listen to their cacophonous conversations that echo off the sandstone cliffs is to participate in one of the great witnessing’s of nature. Their noise and their smell is an affirmation of life itself. Each Summer I see the measurement, the quantity and the quality of love in the ordered, purposeful chaos of the seabird colonies. It is one of the wonders of the world. When they leave to go back to sea in August, when the chicks have fledged and left their precarious beloved ledges, there is a deafening, reverential and lonely silence all around Dunnet Head that not even the tidal roaring of the Pentland Firth can quell.

I always console myself with the knowledge that the birds have done what they had come to Dunnet Head to do: which was to breed, hatch and fledge their young and to go back to their natural environment which is the wide open sea and that they would be back again next year. That certainty, that optimism, took a severe dunt this September with dozens of young guillemots, emaciated, washed up, dead on Dunnet Beach. It was a sight so shocking as to induce a kind of fugue like desperation. As if your heart was being dissolved in acid. It emptied my lungs of air. I felt cold and angry and hopeless.

But, alas, this tragic phenomenon was not restricted to Dunnet Beach or Sannick or Reiss beaches or any other stretch of sand along the Caithness coast. It was happening all along the North East coast of Scotland and down into Northumberland as well. Puffins and kittiwakes have also been affected, as have razorbills but by far the main casualties are the guillemots. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said that while the exact cause remained unknown, the climate crisis was exacerbating the factors that lead to falls in seabird populations.

“Extreme weather, pollution and disease can kill seabirds,” the RSPB said. “If prey fish are scarce, seabirds can be weakened through starvation. We don’t know the exact cause here, but we know climate change is driving prey fish numbers down in our seas and creating more extreme weather events. The world is in a nature and climate crisis, with humans and wildlife already experiencing the impacts. We need urgent action from governments to help revive our world.”

Dr Francis Daunt, an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, told the BBC that many of the guillemots had been found starving. He said: “The birds are emaciated – they are little more than skin and bone, with many half their usual weight, which is catastrophically low. These are signs that the birds are getting desperate in their search for food.”

There have been sightings of them feeding very close to beaches in among swimmers despite usually avoiding people. Dr Daunt said that young guillemots had also been seen up to 20 miles up river, which he described as “unheard of”. The innocent are always the first to suffer and die.

Every day for sixty million years, seabirds have performed complex acts of bravery: circumnavigating the globe without rest, diving more than 200 meters in treacherous seas for food, enduring the most unpredictable weather on the planet and finding their way home in waters with few, if any, landmarks. But now seabirds, like so many other species, may have met their nemesis: the polluting actions of humanity.

Conservationists have long known that many seabird populations are in decline, but what a recent study shows us is that the situation is worse than many anticipated. According to the researchers, seabird abundance has dropped 69.7% in just 60 years – representing the deaths of some 230 million animals, which is a staggeringly depressing statistic.

“Seabirds are particularly good indicators of the health of marine ecosystems,” according to lead author, Michelle Paleczny with the University of British Columbia and the Sea Around Us Project. “When we see this magnitude of seabird decline, we can see there is something wrong with marine ecosystems. It gives us an idea of the overall impact we’re having.”

Seabirds, a term which includes any bird that depends largely on the marine environment, comprise nearly 350 species worldwide. But, given that seabirds inhabit both the open ocean and the shoreline, this eclectic mix of birds faces a litany of threats: over fishing, drowning in fishing lines or nets, plastic pollution, invasive species like rats in nesting areas, oil and gas development and toxic pollution moving up the food chain. And as if these weren’t enough, the double-dunt of climate change and ocean acidification threatens to flood nesting sites and disrupt food sources.

Having spoken to local nature wardens in Caithness the consensus of opinion concludes that the young guillemots washed up dead on Dunnet Beach died of hunger. Because of glacial melt there is an increasing amount fresh water entering our Northern oceans and as a result the salination level of the seawater is dropping so the sea is effectively warming. This causes the guillemots natural food, sand eels and the like, to go deeper into the colder water. This is fine for the mature birds, who can dive to depths of over a hundred feet, but not so good for young, immature birds who, when they throw themselves off their cliff ledges on Dunnet Head, cannot as yet fly, so they exist on the water with their parents for several weeks until they find their wings. The young guillemot still has down beneath its feathers so it is far too buoyant to be able dive to any great depth, so it cannot find food, so it staves. That is the grim reality.

In the cliffs around the UK there are 950,000 breeding pairs of guillemots. That’s 1,900,000 birds! And they can live for an amazing 20 years. What we have witnessed along our Scottish coast this Autumn is the death of a generation of guillemots. They only lived for several weeks. They died before they had a chance to live. They were murdered by what humanity has done to the planet.

As the media keep reminding us the Cop26 climate summit starts in Glasgow on 31st October and all the big-polluting countries must deliver tougher pledges to cut emissions to keep the goal of 1.5C within reach. Which of course they won’t. According to the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, “This is not some expensive, politically correct, green act of bunny hugging.” Well, of course it isn’t, but for Bojo and his ilk it is an expensive occasion to say a lot of words. This was pointed out by the redoubtable Greta Thunberg when she addressed the Youth4Climate summit in Milan, Italy, last Tuesday. She said:

“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises. But they’ve now had 30 years of blah, blah, blah and where has that led us? We can still turn this around – it is entirely possible. It will take immediate, drastic annual emission reductions. But not if things go on like today. Our leaders’ intentional lack of action is a betrayal toward all present and future generations. We can no longer let the people in power decide what is politically possible. We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah, blah, blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action. And hope always comes from the people.”

She is not wrong. She was speaking to and for young people. And well she might for research published last week showed that children born today will experience many times more extreme heatwaves and other climate disasters over their lifetimes than their grandparents, even if countries fulfill their current emissions pledges. In reality this is unlikely. It is young people who have to act because they have literally a world to lose so it was heartening to see large numbers of youth climate protesters taking to the streets last Friday in almost a hundred countries across the world, including 100,000 in Berlin, where Thunberg spoke and across Scotland in such places as far apart as Ullapool and Edinburgh.

It is too late for the dead young guillemots. The full moon and the equinoxial tides washed the evidence of their bodies back out to sea, leaving nothing but a murmur of footprints on the sand. They were a warning. Now they are a memory. When I look out over the surf on Dunnet Beach to the far Western horizon I realise that the sea does not need to remember anything. Not where it comes from or where it’s going. Between itself and amongst itself it is lost in its comings and goings. It is the sea. It is relentless. It is everything. If we, as a species, damage the sea beyond repair we are done for. It will be young humans not young guillemots washed up on Dunnet Beach.

One estimate puts the weight of everything humans have ever built and manufactured at 30 trillion tonnes. That is a lot of stuff and a lot of it has been dumped into the sea an pumped into the air.

The North Atlantic is not a remote part of the world. It is where we live. Jonathan Watts, in his harrowing piece, “Race To The Bottom: this disastrous, blindfolded rush to mine the deep sea” (Guardian 27th September, 2021) points out that there is a dangerous gap in how we wish to treat our planet and how we show our concern about that, whilst at the same time turning a blind eye to what is happening locally. The real problems are far away somewhere else – the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Equator.

Watt’s cites the French philosopher Bruno Latour, in his new book “After Lockdown: Metamorphosis”, who traces this back to colonial thinking, which he claims continues on in present-day neo-liberal capitalism.

“Every state delineated by its borders is obliged, by definition, to lie about what allows it to exist since, if it is wealthy and developed, it has to expand over other territories on the quiet, though without seeing itself as being responsible for those territories in any way. That’s a basic hypocrisy that creates a disconnect between, on the one hand, the world I live in as a citizen of a developed country, and, on the other, the world I live off, as a consumer of the same country. As if every state was coupled with a shadow state that never stopped haunting it, a doppelganger that provides for it on the one hand and is devoured by it, on the other.”

Jonathan Watts also reveals a pithier argument made by Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace,who fears the deep sea will suffer like all other newly opened territories. He said, “Any claim of not being environmentally damaging is meaningless, as we have no idea now what that environment is. We have never entered a frontier and not fucked it up more.”

If we as humans want to exist in a society on this planet this environmental disregard cannot go on. It comes down to a fundamental question: Do we want to live in a healthy and sustainable human society or do we content to live in a dead guillemot society?

©George Gunn 2021

George Gunn’s latest collection of poems, “Chronicles Of The First Light” has just been published by the Drunk Muse Press.


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