Gannet chick harvest at
© Images and text by Carsten Egevang
Mykines island is located at the westernmost end of the Faroe Archipelago. Although many of the Faroe Islands are home of fantastic scenery and impressive numbers of seabirds – Mykines holds a special position. It is the only place in the Faroes where a colony of Gannets are found. Annually, an unusual harvest takes place.
The Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) is the largest seabird species in the North Atlantic with a weight of more than 3 kilos. The adult birds are white with black wing tips and the head and neck are brushed in a delicate yellow. The chicks are covered with white down but as they grow they develop a greyish-brown plumage with small white spots – and it is these nearly-fledged birds the harvest is all about.
The small settlement of Mykines has only about 10 inhabitants living year around, but the island becomes a lively place during summer with more than 10000 visitors. Mykines is connected to the mainland both by helicopter and a ferry during the summer months. But the exposed location of the island means that “The Weather is the Boss!” and cancellations are frequent. The houses of the settlement are of traditional Faroese style and there are no cars.
The old leader
Oskar Joensen used to be the leader of the Gannet harvest at Mykines. At the age of 80 he now leaves the hard work to the younger people.
Mykines has a population of only 10 year-around inhabitants. During summer, however, it’s busy and both local Faroese people and tourists from all over the world pay a visit to the island.
A harvest in darkness
Once a year a special seabird harvest takes place at the islet Mykineshólmur at Mykines. The annual Gannet chick harvest is carried out during night time and in complete darkness. The men are lowered down the 120 -meter steep cliff with a headlamp as the only light source. The darkness makes the chicks more reluctant to jump from the ledges.
It's all about timing
The date of harvest is decided by many factors and the hunters try to match a short window of opportunity. The chicks must be the right age. Ideally, they are harvested just after the chicks have developed their feathers. Their body size is at a maximum and they are easier to pluck later. But one can’t wait too long, because the chicks will then leave the cliffs not to return that season. Furthermore, it is essential that the weather is good, and the sea is calm at the day of the harvest.
At the end of August, the spirit amongst the Gannet hunters is getting higher. Everybody is awaiting the “go” from the leader of the hunt, who is constantly checking the weather forecast. One year the leader waited too long and when the age of the chicks was correct, severe wind prevented the hunters from harvesting. By the time the wind had calmed down it was too late, and the chicks had left the ledges, so no birds were harvested that year.
Before the onset of the harvest 50-60 persons gather in the Mykines settlement. People has come from all over The Faroes to participate in the event. In the early evening the party begins the 1.5 km walk how far? to Mykineshólmur. Eight strong men are required to carry the wrist-thick, 150-meter long rope from the settlement to the cliffs where the harvest takes place. Before crossing the bridge between Mykines and Mykineshólmur, the men reach Lamba - a slope of luxurious plant growth with one of the largest Puffin colonies on the island.
The Important Rope
One man is given the task of taking care of the rope used in the hunt. The rope must be washed after use and kept in a dry place until next year. The “rope-keeper” gets an extra share of the catch for his effort.
Esbern í Eyðansstovu – the chief Gannet catcher - lives on Mykines and is the leader of the gannet hunt. It is his third year as the coordinator of the 50-60-person operation.
Waiting for the darkness
Waiting for darkness. After reaching Mykineshólmur, the harvest party takes a break at an old ruin and awaits darkness. Most talk and have a snack of skerpikjøt – the traditional, fermented meat of lamb. Others say a quiet prayer wishing that no accidents will happen during the harvest.
We don't want to depend on imported food and eat animals kept in captivity all of their lives!
First men up
At 4:30 the first men appear over the edge of the cliff. With them, they bring bundles of Gannet chicks tied together.
A pile of dead birds
The hunters descend the cliff at four places on the cliff. The harvest from one of the places are put in a pile.
The harvest requires a considerable man-power. The hunters descend the cliff at an almost vertical drop to the ledges where the Gannets nest. When it has become dark, the hunters descend on the ledges where they will spend the night harvesting Gannets. To lower the men down and pull them up again the thick rope is hand-operated by 20-30 persons. One by one they disappear over the edge and into the darkness. Once on the ledges, the men walk around without the safety of the rope. They go systematically from one Gannet nest to another picking out the chicks of the right age – and leaving the rest to become fledglings. The chicks are swiftly killed by a cut to the back of their necks with a sharp knife. At the break of dawn, the men are pulled up again. All dirty and covered in bird guano they emerge at the edge of the cliff.
A boat filled with Gannets
The Gannet is a heavy bird and it would be a considerate job to carry all the birds back to the settlement. Instead, at the break of dawn the birds are thrown over the ledges down to the sea where a boat is waiting.
Sharing of the catch
All the harvested chicks are brought to the harbour of Mykines to be distributed amongst the participants. The dead birds are spread out on the rocks. This makes it easier for the men to inspect the birds. This also cools the birds down, preventing decomposition. The sharing of the catch is not an event that is quickly done. A considerately amount of effort and time is put into dividing the birds amongst the participating hunters. The harvest is shared according to old – and rather complicated - rules. A total of 24 persons originates from Mykines and they have right to the largest share of the birds. The harvested birds are inspected as to size and age and the catch is divided into nine equal sized piles. One pile belongs to the boat and its crew that collected the bird beneath the cliffs. The other eight piles go to the hunters with connection to the island. To make sure that no one gets an unequal share, the leader Espern turns his back and somebody points at a pile. Without looking Espern calls out the group that gets that pile.
A sustainable harvest
The total Gannet harvest in 2017 was 550 chicks and 650 the year before. These are taken from a colony of approximately 2500 pairs. The population is stable – if not slightly increasing – indicating that the present level of harvest at Mykines is conducted in a sustainable matter.
Two birds each
The tenth heap of birds is shared between those people who doesn’t have a direct connection to Mykines but have come from elsewhere on the Faroes to participate in the harvest. This year, each person from “outside” got two Gannets for their help a with the harvest.
The boat keeper
Jógvan Joensen lives with his wife Elisabeth in Sørvágur – the port from where the ferry departs to Mykines. Jógvan participated for the first time in the Gannet harvest at Mykines in 1994 – and since he has been taken part almost every year. His share in the harvest is due to the boat he provides for picking up the birds off the sea. He has never descended the cliff – but as he says “leaves that to the younger and more brave men”.
When Elisabeth is asked about the importance of the Gannet harvest, she replies that the traditional hunt is not only a cultural event, but the birds also make an important contribution to the household. The Gannets are salted and kept in the freezer. On special occasions the birds are prepared in the oven, together with vegetables, for two and a half hours. Despite the long cooking time the birds are still juicy from all the fat, tells Elisabeth
After the harvest at Mykines there is still a considerate amount of work to be done. Jógvan´s share was 22 Gannets this year and the birds needs to be prepared before salting and freezing.
Burning the downs
Back in his garage in Sørvágur, Jógvan plucks the feathers of the birds, a time-consuming work. Thereafter, the small down is singed of the bird.
Getting the boat ready
The boat “Hjalti” is a traditional Faroese wooden type from 1981 named after Elisabeth and Jógvan´s first-born son. The night before the harvest, Hjalti is taken out of the shed at the harbour and prepared for the day to come.
The photo reportage “Gannet chick harvest at Mykines” is part of the project Seabird Harvest in the North Atlantic. Images included in the reportage are the result of a visit by Carsten Egevang to Mykines and Sørvágur in August 2017. A warm “manga takk!” goes to the hospitable people of the Faroe Islands.