Present State of Conservation

Difficulties of access to St Kilda and its satellites have necessitated studies being somewhat intermittent and short-term so it is difficult to assess trends in flora and fauna. Seabirds –especially Atlantic puffins and northern gannets –are relatively well documented. Northern gannets are increasing at about 0.8% per annum with a similar increase in northern fulmars, although more erratic over the decades. Great skuas first bred in 1963 and now number nearly 200 pairs. In contrast black-legged kittiwakes have declined in recent years. Although earlier counts may not be strictly comparable, the black-legged kittiwake numbers have dropped from 11,485 pairs in 1969 to only 3,886 pairs in 1999. This decline is apparently a recent phenomenon, since 1993, perhaps related to food abundance near the Continental Shelf Break where the black-legged kittiwakes feed. Although there has been an apparent decrease from 310,000 pairs of Atlantic puffins in 1978 to 230,500 in 1988, more systematic counts are needed to determine if this drop is in fact significant. From intermittent census work it seems that the number of St Kilda wrens is stable, while the fieldmice are known to have spread since the human inhabitants left and the house mice became extinct. Seal numbers have also increased slightly since 1930 but the nature of St Kilda’s coastline offers limited opportunities for this to continue. The numbers of Soay sheep on Hirta are monitored annually, with intermittent counts undertaken of the other sheep on Soay itself and on Boreray; although numbers fluctuate from year to year no significant trend has yet been detected.

Its unsurpassed natural heritage has also attracted the full range of designations. In 1957 it became one of Britain’s first National Nature Reserves (NNRs) for its geology, its plants, the seabirds, sheep, wrens, and other features. The new NTS Management Plan will be approved as a working document with which NTS will manage the NNR on behalf of SNH. The buildings and archaeological remains became protected under the Ancient Monuments Acts (1963, 1972, 2002) while in 1976 St Kilda became a Biosphere Reserve (though recently delisted because of difficulties in fitting some of the criteria). In 1981 it became a National Scenic Area (NSA), one of three in the Outer Hebrides. In 1984, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act it was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and it is also a Geological Conservation Review (GCR) Site for Tertiary Igneous, Quaternary of Scotland and coastal geomorphological interests. St Kilda became Scotland’s first World Heritage Site in 1987 for its natural heritage and in 1992 it became a Special Protection Area (SPA) for its seabird colonies, under the European Birds Directive. Consultations are on-going for it to become a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for its vegetated sea cliffs and marine interests under the European Habitats Directive.

The marine environment around St Kilda is in near pristine condition with very little impact from any human activities. Anchoring is limited to a small number of visitors each year and concentrated on Village Bay where the soft sea bed provides good holding ground and results in minimal damage. There is only a very small amount of sporadic fishing in the area, largely using creels fishing for lobsters or crabs. The creels themselves result in negligible damage to the sea bed and associated benthos and the catch taken is well within levels that may be regarded as sustainable.

Almost uniquely on a landscape scale in Scotland, the continuing conservation aim for St Kilda is largely to arrest deterioration of historic fabric, and to ‘fossilise’ the landscape as closely as possible to its appearance when it first came into the care of The National Trust for Scotland. Most large-scale deviations from this philosophy relate to the early infrastructural works associated with the creation of the MoD Base in the late 1950s and 1960s, or to the careful and very sympathetic restoration works of selected structures for operational or interpretative reasons.

The current policy for standing fabric is firmly to maintain the status quo, in an attempt to preserve the spirit of the place as much as possible. To that end, the NTS continues to send out annual conservation Work Parties of volunteers of mixed skills, who attend to most of the routine repairs and also to some fairly substantial ones. Since 1996, in partnership with Historic Scotland, the NTS has employed a seasonal St Kilda Archaeologist, part of whose task has been to ensure that adequate records are made of Work Party repairs, and to guide this work according to best conservation practice.

The St Kilda Archaeologist has also compiled detailed written and photographic information regarding the condition of archaeological sites and historic buildings, and has produced an Archaeological Action Plan (working draft) which includes proposals for a prioritised programme of monitoring and further recording as well as targeted conservation actions. This working draft is a key reference document, informing the formal 5-year Management Agreement between the NTS and Historic Scotland, regarding permitted works affecting the designated parts of St Kilda (see 4c below). However, prioritisation of resources has had to focus on the main settlement in Village Bay and surrounding areas; outwith this, selected cleitean have been identified for monitoring and conservation. The possibly prehistoric structures in Gleann Mor, are currently being assessed for appropriate conservation actions.