Guest blog by Greg Morgan, Site Manager RSPB Ramsey Island and Grassholm

RSPB Ramsey Island lies a mile off the coast of north Pembrokeshire, about as far west in Wales as you can go. The island is famed for its population of chough, a rare member of the crow family that nests in sea caves and favours coastal locations on the western seaboard of the UK.

Gathering sheep on Ramsey Island. Image (c) Greg Morgan, RSPB

The importance of grazing for chough habitat

Grazing animals have long played a hand in nature conservation and that has been the case here on Ramsey too. It is not only the rugged coastline that makes Ramsey suitable for chough. They favour short coastal grassland for foraging, feeding on soil invertebrates such as crane fly larvae (leatherjackets) and beetle larvae. This is where farming on Ramsey lends a helping hand.

Chough on Ramsey Island. Image (c) Lisa Morgan

There are only around 400 pairs of chough in the UK, with over 50% of those in Wales. Historically there were a lot more but the reduction in coastal grazing saw once well grazed slopes revert to rank grass and scrub, edging the chough to the more remote, wild areas of the country. When the RSPB bought Ramsey in 1992 there were 7 pairs of chough breeding on an island of just 242ha. The island had been livestock farmed for centuries and it was no coincidence that chough already had a foothold here. Sheep and cattle had maintained a close cropped sward providing ideal foraging conditions.

If it ain't broke....

‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ is a good metaphor in the conservation world, so we have continued with low-intensity, low-input sheep farming for the past 28 years. Chough have continued to thrive, now up to 11 pairs in some years. Chough don’t breed until they are two or three years old and non-breeders also take advantage of the rich larder that lies just beneath the well-grazed, warmer soils. These non-breeders, when coupled with the breeding pairs and their young can result in over 70 birds making use of the island by late summer, surely one of the densest concentrations of this species anywhere in the UK.

Island life teaches you to be resourceful and make efficient use of your resources. We soon realised that bringing sheep on and off the island each year, topping up the flock when extra grazing was required and removing older animals as conditions dictated, was a false economy and a logistical headache. So in 2008 we decided to start lambing, thus allowing us to increase the number of grazing heads on the island when needed – as crazy as it sounds, lambing was actually ‘easier’ than the logistics and headaches of moving sheep on and off the island (at least that’s what I keep telling myself!)

Feeding sheep on Ramsey Island. Image (c) Greg Morgan

We still have to take sheep off most years (ram lambs and older ewes) but it is only one way traffic and moving them off is easier than getting them on.

We have bred from various forms of Welsh Mountain sheep including Glamorgan and Lleyn, eventually settling on the Breconshire ‘sub breed’ of Cheviots. They might not produce the fattest lambs but they are extremely hardy and easy lambers – ideal for Ramsey.

A new market for Ramsey resources

Going back to the ‘resourceful’ question, we needed a market for the lambs we were exporting at the end of the grazing season. After initially taking them to store marts with varying levels of success, we chanced upon on a partnership with a local restaurant business. St Davids Kitchen prides itself on using local produce and owned land nearby on which to finish our lambs (not something that is possible on the ‘low quality’, natural grasses on the island). This was an ideal scenario for us – low food miles (barely 2 miles from start to finish), low carbon, locally produced Ramsey lamb on a menu in St Davids. Over the years the restaurant added mutton to their menu so our older cull ewes had a local table to end up on too.

In addition to supplying meat to St Davids Kitchen, we are also involved with their sister company, St Davids Gin (that kept your attention didn’t it?!) Under the same ethos of using local produce in the restaurant, the team sought to produce a high-quality gin using botanicals from the island. We mow small areas of heathland on a rotational basis to maintain a diverse range of age structure across the reserve. We also cut stands of gorse for the same reason. Prior to cutting we simply collect up a few kilos of heather and gorse flowers, throw in a few sprigs of water mint from one of the holy wells on the island and you have the perfect combination of botanicals to add a delicate accent to this fine gin. We also used water from the island well in the last batch to add even more of the ‘island feel’ to the product.

Every bottle sold helps our conservation work on Ramsey, as St Davids Gin kindly donate a percentage of profit back to the RSPB for use on the island. 

Making hay

Food production alongside conservation farming on the island doesn’t end with the human consumption angle. That word ‘resourcefulness’ rears its head again. Ramsey is a harsh environment for anything to live in (staff included!) – the island is lashed by winter gales, no trees can survive save for a few sheltered willows and spring flowers are a bonsai version of the nearby mainland. For this reason our livestock need a helping hand in winter, and increasingly in recent years given two successive spring droughts, through April and May too. Bringing on hay is not desirable due to the biosecurity risk. Introducing invasive rodents would have a devastating impact on our burrow nesting seabirds. The alternative is securely packaged hard feed such as sugar beet, a costly and back breaking job involving multiple handling of a tonne of feed at a time. To counter this we have resurrected an old arable plot on the island. We have reseeded an area with a herbal ley and will attempt to produce our own hay this summer (still working on how to come by a mini baler but we’re not easily defeated!) We will sow some wild bird mix alongside it to provide winter stubble for our chough population and a valuable autumn food resource for skylarks and linnets.

Re-established arable plot on Ramsey Island. Image (c) Greg Morgan

The importance of sharing knowledge

The fact that I have been able to do any of this is thanks solely to one man. Derek Rees, one of our nearest mainland neighbours, is delivery and livestock contractor for the RSPB. He has farmed most of his life, including on Ramsey. He taught me everything I know when I came here 15 years ago not knowing one end of a sheep from the other! Lambing has undoubtedly been the highlight in all this but every year I learn something new from him, including more recently how to manage an arable plot – the old plough was obtained from an auction and the tractor is a Massey Ferguson that is nearly 70 years old!

New Ramsey Warden, Nia Stephens, and her own lambs. Image (c) Nia Stephens

It is therefore a real joy to be able to welcome a new member of staff to the team this year who is already a skilled farmer in her own right. Nia Stephens is the new Ramsey Warden. She grew up on a mixed farm in Ceredigion and, alongside her job here, manages a breeding flock of Welsh Mountain ewes with her partner in Pembrokeshire. Having the support of first Derek, and now Nia, to help run the farming operation on Ramsey is invaluable. Alongside the support of the local farming community, it has meant we can operate a resourceful conservation farming project in tough conditions which has been to the benefit of the wildlife it is aimed at while providing locally produced food. Long may it continue.