for National Geographic News
For the first time in nearly a half century, puffins are returning to Ailsa Craig, a plug of volcanic rock off the west coast of Scotland. Curling aficionados already know the island as the world's preferred source of curling stones.
Curling is the centuries-old sport in which people slide smooth granite stones across a 146-foot-long (45-meter-long) sheet of ice toward a bull's-eye, trying to knock their opponents' stones out of the way in the process. Stones used in the sport must withstand a healthy amount of abuse and constant freeze-thaw cycles.
About 250 years ago curlers discovered that the granite on Ailsa Craig made perfect curling stones. About 60 to 70 percent of the curling stones in use today are fashioned from Ailsa Craig granite, according to Mike Thompson, the secretary general for the World Curling Federation in Perth, Scotland.
The United Kingdom's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds hopes to make the island as well known as a sanctuary for seabirds as it is for its stones.
The 104-acre (42-hectare) island is home to more than 40,000 pairs of cliff-dwelling northern gannets and is considered a haven for guillemots, razorbills, and other seabirds. Puffins, wiped out by an infestation of rats introduced by quarry workers in the 19th century, are now rebounding, albeit slowly.
Rats were eradicated from the island in the early 1990s, after the British government recognized Ailsa Craig as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a designation that bestows certain protections.
In 2002 the first puffins returned to the island. Today the population stands at 10 to 20 breeding pairs. In March the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a conservation nonprofit, agreed to manage the island as a nature reserve.
Curlers, meanwhile, retain access to the island's valued stones for the foreseeable future. No new blasting is permitted in the quarries once mined for the granite stones. But the quarries remain littered with chunks of rock suitable for carving new curling stones. A manufacturer is permitted to haul them away.
"The main areas of stones for curling-stone interests are away from the most important bird-breeding areas," said Alan Lauder, regional reserves manager for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Glasgow, Scotland.
Curlers prefer Ailsa Craig blue hone granite for the superior running surface it provides. "It is very dense rock that is resistant to water absorption. It's not porous," said Rick Patzke, a spokesman for the United States Curling Association in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
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