This is the story of lightkeepers’ contributions to the natural history of lighthouses in conjunction with the history and maintenance of the manned navigation beacons. Since keepers were first engaged to maintain lighthouses around the British coast they have encountered wildlife, and in some cases developed a keen interest and expertise on the subject. Towards the end of the 19th century keepers were encouraged to submit annual returns of bird movements enabling reports on bird migration and several authoritative books to be compiled. As a result, ornithologists began to recognize how many lighthouses were well-placed to establish bird observatories. However, lightkeepers also recognized that in certain weather conditions and during migration times, flocks of birds were attracted to the beam, resulting in many fatalities. While the problem is now better understood and considerably reduced, the automation of all British lighthouses has resulted in there no longer being lighthouse keepers to monitor the situation and report bird, sea mammal, insect and bat movements.
The Natural History of Lighthouses highlights the contribution made by lighthouse keepers over the last century or two to the study of natural history, and ornithology in particular. Much of this is discussed in the words of the keepers themselves, set in the context of lighthouse history. Scotland has an especially rich lighthouse tradition, mainly due to a dynasty of Stevenson engineers covering over a century, all of whom also had a profound understanding of weather and geology—and indeed natural history—so important in the placing of their lighthouses.
John A. Love is a writer, illustrator and lecturer. He was appointed Manager of the Sea Eagle Reintroduction Project based on the Isle of Rum, Scotland, 1975-85 and is a member of the UK Sea Eagle Project Team, advising on the later phases of reintroduction. He was also formerly Area Officer for Uist, Barra and St. Kilda with Scottish Natural Heritage and now lectures on wildlife cruises. He is the author of the acclaimed The Return of the Sea Eagle and A Saga of Sea Eagles.