Memmert, the destination for the epic rowing trip undertaken by Carruthers and Davies on October 22nd, is as much sandbar as island. In fact, right up until the 1950s, its full name was ‘Memmertsand’. It’s mainly famous for birds, and the only inhabitant on the island is a bird warden. Since 1986, the island has formed part of the Waddensee National Park, and visitors are only permitted on official trips or with explicit permission.
The man most associated with Memmert is Otto Leege, a teacher from Juist who visited Memmert for the first time in 1888. He became rather attached to the place, as a keen ornithologist, but grew increasingly dismayed at the number of eggs that were taken from the place by the good people of the East Frisians. They liked taking pot shots at birds, too, such that by the early 20th century the island was littered with bird carcasses. It’s fortunate for Carruthers that he doesn’t tread in some as he stumbles across Memmert in the fog.
Thanks mainly to Leege’s campaigning, Memmert was declared a bird sanctuary by Prussian decree in 1907. The following year, the first building on the island was built, a lodge for a bird warden who would guard the island and prevent hunting and egg stealing. Over the years this lodge has been rebuilt again and again, for the now-familiar East Frisian problem of the tides, which keep changing the shape and indeed the location of Memmert.
The first permanent bird warden on Memmert was none other than Leege’s own son, Otto Leege jr., who took the post from 1921 right through until 1946, presumably repulsing the odd Allied incursion along the way, given those dates. He lived in the lodge on Memmert with his family, and remarkably enough his replacement was his wife, Therese, who took the job until 1956. She in turn was replaced by her son-in-law, Gerhard Pundt, the husband of Otto and Therese’s daughter Klara. A resonant name in this context.
Gerhard and Klara lived on Memmert until 1973, when the Leege family connection was finally broken. The new warden was Reiner Schopf, who lived on Memmert for 30 bird-strewn years, retiring in 2003 to be replaced by today’s warden, Enno Janssen, who spends nine months of the year on the island.
It seems fascinating that Carruthers and Davies, who have for so long been travelling under cover of shooting ducks, should find the answers to their questions on an island that was soon to be a bird sanctuary. We are not likely to be as lucky. There are organised trips to Memmert – but only in August and September, so as not to disturb the breeding of all those watched-over birds. It may be possible to get a special licence to visit, and Tim notCarruthers is keen to try it anyway, but I’m not so sure. I have images of the warden, driven mad by loneliness on this stretch of not-quite-land, emerging from his lodge with a gun and the screeching of gulls in his ears.