Chris Packham: the magic of Bass Rock

As Bass Rock deservedly takes first place as 2015/2016's 'Nature Reserve of the Year', Chris Packham describes the magic of this gannet-drenched stone kingdom.


Gannets (Morus bassanus) in flight, following fishing boat off Bass Rock, Firth of Forth, Scotland, United Kingdom, Europe

It sits like a great cake, iced in birds, floating in wet sky, wrapped in a drifting shawl of fine mist stained lemon by the yawning sun. And over its crest floats a busy dust, and on the nip of the morning is a perfume of stale pastry.

The boat cuts a wake from Dunbar’s kittiwake wide-awake club and is escorted by a few big gulls; the swirling cloud above the Bass becomes avian and the sugar-coating granulates into bickering birds and the heady smack of their guano wipes the salt from my nose and the sheer sides of birdland rock and roll as we pitch on deep blue, watching the gnashing waves. Gannets scud stiffly and whirl in luxurious arcs around their gleaming fortress; art-deco gliders with coffee-washed napes and blue mascara. Elegant and determined and foul-tempered and jealous, they jeer at the squadrons and growl at their neighbours or cavort lovingly with their aged mates, their bills pointing at the twinkling wings wheeling across the sky bowl. It’s breathtaking and beautiful.

I once landed in the company of ‘Mr Gannet’, the remarkable Dr Bryan Nelson, who, while I was being born, was camped on here with his wife in a small wooden hut. He made a brilliant study of gannet behaviour, wrote a monograph and was a great host, regaling us with tales of gannetry and fascinating science. The sun shone, the birds plunged, posed and pooed and we sweated in ornithological nirvana. We took photographs and then retired to the Scottish Seabird Centre’s café for cake. It was pretty much the perfect day – a 9.9. Well, you’ve got to save the 10, just in case.