Towering from its isolated location within the Atlantic Ocean, St Kilda may no longer be home to a community of islanders, but it remains globally important for a different type of population.

The archipelago, consisting of the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides, is internationally recognised for its nearly 1 million-strong seabird population.

Now for the first time in more than 20 years, conservationists and volunteers will look to establish accurate numbers of some of the area’s cliff-breeding seabird species.

Counting the fulmars, a relative of the huge albatross, will be particularly challenging as St Kilda is home to the largest colony of the bird in Britain with an estimated 67,000 breeding pairs in the last survey.

Leading the work, which will involve scouring the archipelago from both land and sea, will be National Trust for Scotland (NTS) seabird and marine ranger Craig Nisbet.

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The Herald:

The Scot is now in his third year of taking on the seasonal summer role – even swapping a gig on the tropical islands of Seychelles for the opportunity to work in St Kilda.

After years of working on the Isle of Noss in Shetland as well as a year on Handa, Mr Nisbet took on a year contract in Seychelles in 2019.

The Herald: Sunset in Desroches in Seychelles - image taken by Craig NisbetSunset in Desroches in Seychelles - image taken by Craig Nisbet (Image: Craig Nisbet)

“I was prepared to stay in Seychelles for a period of time, but seeing the opportunity come up in St Kilda I had to grab it,” he said.

His first season in the role, which is one of eight seasonal roles NTS made possible this year through the People's Postcode Lottery, was set back by the outbreak of Covid-19. 

He admits that he misses the tropical sea experienced in Desroches Island in the outer parts of Seychelles, but added: “Wherever you’ve come from, whatever you have done in the past I have never seen a place quite as dramatic, geologically impressive, awe-inspiring as St Kilda.

“I have worked on a lot of really cool islands, and I have had the privilege to travel a fair bit to remarkable places, but I am not sure I have ever seen anywhere as spectacular as St Kilda."

The conservationist returned to Seychelles briefly for a consultancy role, but adds that the seasonal work on the Scottish archipelago is "not one I could pass up". 

"It was enough to take me away from Seychelles," he said. 

He lists the rich and “unique” seabird life as a key component to the special appeal of the archipelago and added: “It’s really when you get to spend a little bit of time here that you recognise the true significance of it to the seabird populations.

“The seabirds have made this their home for millennia.”

The ranger added: “I guess one of the most striking things about living here is being constantly aware that you are living in one of the world’s few UNESCO mixed world heritage sites.”

As well as fulmars, St Kilda homes Britain’s largest puffin population as well as the vast majority of its Leach's petrels.

The Herald: Fulmars on St KildaFulmars on St Kilda (Image: PA)

But razorbills, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes and some other species with small populations will be the primary focus of the latest census that will involve splitting the islands into sections and surveying each one for nests.

“The last time a lot of the seabirds were censused accurately was over 20 years ago,” Mr Nisbet said.

“The size of the seabird colonies on St Kilda and the difficulty in access to them, mean that many of the censuses that take place for species can’t be done regularly.

“This year with the help of the volunteers that we have got and potentially with the use of some modern technology we are hopeful that we will get a number of species fully censused for the first time in a long time.”

He explained that “consistency and continuity” is key so new technology such as drones only have the role of “augmenting the way seabirds have been monitored in the past” rather than replacing the established methods.

But it still remains a “daunting process”, Mr Nisbett added: “When you walk around St Kilda and you look in every nook and cranny and down every cliff face, you see pockets of fulmars all over the place.

“It’s not like they are nesting in one confined place, you have to cover the whole island.”

The burrow-nesting seabirds, including puffins and petrels were surveyed in 2019 “which is why the cliff-nesting birds really need to be targeted this year”.

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The Herald: Razorbills on St KildaRazorbills on St Kilda (Image: Newsquest)

However fresh counts remain particularly important amid continuous pressures on seabirds including loss of habitat and climate change and particularly in light of the devastating outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza.

The disease was behind the deaths of thousands of birds, but the total impact remains unknown.

The great skua population of St Kilda was most noticeably affected as they breed inland and their global population is thought to have shrunk between two-thirds and three-quarters.

Last year, the seabird ranger recorded only 66 great skua territories compared to 183 which were registered in 2019.

He added: “I also found 133 dead Great Skua’s across the island and that was in itself heartbreaking to see.”

As the seabirds settle in for their breeding season, however, there are more positive signs so far this year.

“I guess one of the most striking things about living here is being constantly aware that you are living in one of the world’s few UNESCO mixed world heritage sites,” Mr Nisbet added.

“I am hopeful we will not need to deal with it to nearly the same extent as last year.”