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  1. Politics
1 October 2007

At the obs

Fair Isle's rich bird life tempts many visitors to this remote place. Many of them stay at the islan

By Malachy Tallack

For most places in the UK the end of summer means the end of the tourist season; for us this is not the case. Late September and October are high season for birds and, consequently, high season for birders.

The island feels full of life at this time of year. Small clusters of people wander endlessly around the roads and fields, with an identical look of quiet, concentrated optimism on their faces – a look which only birders and anglers can truly muster.

Towards the end of the day their sheen of optimism may have worn off slightly, but there remains always an underlying energy that can snap into frantic action whenever required. If a “good bird” is spotted, there will be a rush to the spot, and a small crowd of birders can swell to a great mob within minutes.

Over the past week there has been a veritable flock of these good birds, including a buff-bellied pipit, two lanceolated warblers, thrush nightingale, Pallass’s grasshopper warbler and a grey-cheeked thrush. And that’s what folk come to Fair Isle for.

For the vast majority of visitors, particularly of the ornithological persuasion, the destination of choice is the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. As well as being a centre for the collection of scientific data on bird migration and breeding, the observatory is also a guesthouse, and a significant contributor to the island’s economy.

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‘The obs’, as it is known to both islanders and visitors, is home year-round to a warden and administrator, Deryk and Hollie Shaw, and their four children. Between spring and late autumn it also employs assistant wardens, a ranger, cooks and general assistants. These additional staff – about eight in all – usually spend the entire season in Fair Isle, and play an important role in the island’s life. Increasing the population by more than 10 per cent, they help to add to the vibrancy of the community during the period, and their arrival each year, like the arrival of the birds, is a welcome reminder that winter is finally at an end.

It is difficult to explain or to quantify the importance of the obs to Fair Isle. To attempt to do so in financial terms – the numbers of visitors and the cash they bring to the isle – is to underestimate, and, I think, to misunderstand the nature of the relationship.

It is, in many ways, an unusual and a peculiar relationship. Not only are the full-time staff and their family a significant part of the community, but the observatory itself, as an institution, has a presence within the island that is much bigger than the sum of its parts.

To some extent this is just a question of longevity. The obs began its days almost 60 years ago, in August 1948, so it as been around for a long time. But the island and the observatory have evolved and developed together over that time. The connection has become symbiotic, and the success of one has also been the success of the other.

Today that success is greater than ever, and big changes are planned for the obs. The current building was first constructed in 1969, and, despite some improvements over the years, is no longer considered fit for the purpose. So plans are being drawn up to replace it with a modern building – more comfortable, more weather-proof and more environmentally sound.

This development will mean that for the first time the obs will have to be closed to visitors for one season – most likely 2009. The scientific work will continue during that time, however. And when the new observatory opens its doors the following spring, it will be a great step into the future, for the obs and for the island.

* * *

I am migrating away from the island for the next few weeks, but will return to Fair Isle, and to this page, later in October.

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