Razorbills

The Razorbill is the emblem of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, although its first cousin the guillemot could well have been chosen as they are both known as ‘elegugs’ in the distinctive south Pembrokeshire dialect.

It was at an early Park Authority committee meeting in the 1960s that the candidates’ photographs were paraded before members. They included the clown-faced puffin, the guillemot and the razorbill - all members of the auk (Alcidae) family, the puffin seemingly a strong candidate with its colourful triangular beak, large orange feet and DJ-clad waiter costume.

The casting vote went to the chairman, Alderman Tom Scourfield of Carew, a south Pembrokeshire man with a strong and melodious local accent, who said he preferred the ‘elegug’ and pointed to the razorbill. So the razorbill it was, and still is. Where the name ‘elegug’ comes from no-one seems to know. It was thought to have been a Viking word, but the present-day Norse name for an auk is Alk or Alka, so that theory goes out of the window.

The Razorbill lays its single egg per season and rears its lone chick on a rocky ledge on a mainland cliff or island, amid the chaotic maelstrom of competing auks. It looks like the most inhospitable and dangerous situation possible but the razorbill, like the guillemot, lays a cone-shaped egg, which, if knocked or pushed, simply spins in a tight circle and with luck does not fall off the ledge. It lays a very large egg, said to be equivalent to a human baby weighing 18 to 20lbs, and the shell has an interesting individual variation in patterning, believed to be an aid to identification on the crowded nesting ledge. The razorbill’s territory on the ledge could not be more restricted. It amounts to the diameter of twice a beak length, or the distance required to peck the nearest neighbour to protect the breeding space. Few birds live such restricted lives.

The British summer population is estimated at about 110,000 pairs and the European population around 430,000 to 760,000 pairs. There are thousands on the Pembrokeshire islands and on some of the stacks offshore, one of which off the Castlemartin peninsula, is known as ‘elegug’ stack for it is crowded with auks during the breeding season. The largest colonies of razorbills are in the north of Scotland, but they are quite numerous on Skomer and Skokholm where visitors on the boat taking them to the islands from Martin’s Haven will see them floating in large rafts with other auks under the cliffs. When seen in close up their graceful beauty is appreciated, their black upper plumage glossy and their white breasts and underparts pristine. Like the guillemot, the razorbill dives from the surface to catch its food of small fish, squid and sand-eels and it can go down as deep as 60-metres. Its future is under threat from fishing nets, declining fish stocks and pollution, but happily it survives. 

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