by Charlotte van Praagh, 27th April 2021
Skomer Island has now re-opened to visitors, so we've dipped into our archives to reveal Charlotte van Praagh's spring experience
Pictures: © Andy Davies, © Shutterstock
Every year, thousands of people from all over the world flock to a tiny island off the south-west coast of Pembrokeshire. At just under three square kilometres in size, Skomer (Ynys Sgomer) is nevertheless a global heavyweight in terms of beauty and wildlife. This Welsh island paradise holds around half the world’s population of Manx shearwaters (a small, rare seabird), its colony of Atlantic puffins is the largest in southern Britain and of international importance, and it’s home to numerous other bird and mammal species, including the Skomer vole, which is unique to the island.
Managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, Skomer Island has been a National Nature Reserve since 1959; it is also a Site of Special Scientifc Interest and a Special Protection Area, while the waters surrounding this treeless, volcanic island have been protected since 1990 and are one of a handful of Marine Conservation Zones in the UK. The combination of a rich marine environment, producing a bountiful food source, and absence of land-based predators such as rats, foxes and weasels, makes this habitat the perfect breeding ground for seabirds.
From Easter to October, it’s possible to visit this unspoilt seabird Shangri-La. It’s an unseasonably chilly and blustery Friday morning in late May when we pull up in Martin’s Haven near Dale to make the boat crossing. As there are no advanced bookings taken – tickets are issued on a first-come, first-served basis – and trips are in high demand, we’re in the queue for the ticket office at Lockley Lodge at 7.45am. In peak season, it’s not uncommon for people to be turned away. Already there’s a small group of would-be day visitors gathering but it’s still not clear if the boats will be running today. We’re at the mercy of the unpredictable Welsh weather and the forecast hasn’t been favourable, so there’s a collective sigh of relief when the sign saying ‘no boats running today’ is turned around and the ticket office opens at 8.30am.
Once we’ve paid for our landing fees, we pick up a couple of coffees and retreat to our car to shelter from the cold until closer to departure time.
The first boat of the day leaves at 10am, with subsequent crossings at 11am and 12pm; the boat you take out determines which boat you return on. Despite the overcast start to the day and threat of rain, the Dale Princess is packed. Skomer lies less than a mile off shore from the Marloes Peninsula and the journey over Jack Sound takes just 15 minutes. It’s a pleasant ride across today (though you can understand why the crossing isn’t undertaken in choppy conditions) and affords great views of this rugged, remote part of the Pembrokeshire coastline. On the boat, chatting to fellow passengers, it’s fascinating how far some have travelled for the experience and how many have been here several times before.
Alighting onto the dry land of Skomer is much like stepping into another world. Although still chilly, the sun’s now out, the sky has cleared and the island is ablaze with the colours of the bluebells, red campion and pink sea thrift carpeting its surface. The first are especially dazzling, lending the landscape an almost otherworldly purple glow. And then… The island’s most iconic resident, the puffin, makes an immediate appearance, as do several beautiful black-headed guillemots and razorbills perched on the rocky ledges near the landing place.
TOP TIPS FOR VISITING
• Arrive early – check with The Wildlife Trust’s Lockley Lodge Visitor Centre that week for exact times – to ensure you get a place on the boat as tickets are issued on a strictly first-come, first-served basis.
• Keep an eye on the weather as if it’s too wet or windy the boats won’t run. If you’re in the area on holiday, plan to visit Skomer at the beginning of your stay to give yourself the best chance of success.
• Skomer is exposed to the elements and there’s little shelter – bar a covered seating area at Old Farm – so bring sunscreen, a hat, warm clothes and waterproofs.
• Sensible walking boots are a good idea, as some areas can be slippy especially if there’s been rain.
• Facilities are limited (just compost loos and bottled water) and you’ll be on the island for almost five hours, so bring a full packed lunch and maybe a flask of tea or coffee with you – and a sense of adventure.
• Bring binoculars to get a close-up view of the island’s wild residents, or a camera if you’re an amateur snapper. If you forget the former these can be hired at the Landing Place.
We’re greeted by long-term volunteer Hannah, who’s working here between school and university. She gives an engaging and informative introduction, pointing out key locations, hotspots for puffins, razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and seals, and – most importantly – advises on behaviour to avoid damaging this precious habitat or disrupting the research carried out here.
Above: Some 20,000 guillemots breed on Skomer – these birds spend most of their life at sea, only coming to land to build their nests on sheer cliffs
Hannah also recommends deciding on which direction you’re going to walk in, depending on whether you need to use the facilities first. The only WCs (compost) on the island are at Old Farm – 20 minutes away from the landing place if you walk in one direction or more than two hours if you opt for the other – with few bushes but lots of binoculars and cameras, she adds, with a knowing twinkle in her eye.
There are several routes around Skomer and we elect to take the longest of these, the four-mile island circuit, to see as much as we can during our time here. The visit lasts for nearly five hours, allowing ample time to complete the loop at a leisurely pace with plenty of stops to admire the panoramas and, of course, to watch the wildlife. In fine weather, the duration of the trip is ideal but warm, waterproof clothing would be essential when cold and wet.
Conserving the island and its wildlife is paramount, so every visitor must stick rigidly to the paths. However, this doesn’t detract from the experience in any way and serves a vital function. Huge swathes of the island are peppered with the nesting burrows of puffins and Manx shearwaters, plus those of rabbits, too. The burrows are quite fragile and the weight of a human could easily collapse one, destroying the nest and possibly crushing a bird inside.
Although I’d read about Skomer, nothing prepares you for the sheer amount of seabirds and the diversity of species co-existing on the island. Among them are about 22,500 puffins and more than 316,000 breeding pairs of rare Manx shearwaters, a curious little seabird that only returns to land under cover of darkness. In certain spots, the noise is overwhelming, the shrieks, calls and cries of rowdy seabirds filling the air. We’d expected a pungent odour but, happily, aside from the odd whiff the air is surprisingly fresh – perhaps thanks to the heavily perfumed sea campion decorating the landscape.
It’s fair to say the majority of visitors to Skomer come to see its puffins, whether it’s to watch or photograph them – in fact, there are few finer places on earth to see them. One of the world’s best-loved seabirds, this distinctively marked clown of the cliff tops may be on the Red List for conservation but is faring very well here, with record numbers just counted. Sea-going for most of the year, these auks come to land in order to breed in late March and leave at the beginning of August. As much about these creatures is a mystery, it’s incredible to be able to observe their behaviour at such close quarters. During April and May they’re industriously building nests and laying eggs and it’s a joy to be walking along and see a puffin suddenly pop up from its burrow a couple of feet away. Although the bird is instantly recognisable, seeing them in the flesh it’s striking just how tiny they really are; despite this, with their comical mannerisms and inelegant movements they’re instantly endearing and captivating to watch. What’s more, they seem unruffled by man’s intrusion into their domain.
Above: A puffin framed by sea campion. These mysterious birds are indifferent to visitors on Skomer
One of the best spots on Skomer to get up close to them is at The Wick, an impressively large cliff face sloping down at 45 degrees into a thin wedge of sea below. There’s a large concentration of puffins here and, in season, particularly when they’re bringing in sandeels for the young puflings, it’s not uncommon to have them literally around your ankles or even stumbling over your feet.
Elsewhere on the island we spot evidence of man’s presence here, from Iron Age remains that have earned Skomer its title as one of the UK’s best-preserved Scheduled Ancient Monuments to the bleak farmhouse ruins that stand as a reminder of Skomer’s more recent history as a farming community. Nature has reclaimed much of the rest, however, and with wild wonder after wild wonder to marvel at, it’s easy to forget Skomer was ever anything other than a nature reserve. Seabirds aside, we see baby rabbits cautiously nibbling at the vegetation, majestic birds of prey circling overhead, a short-eared owl out hunting and eight plump adult seals lazing on the Garland Stone.
Not all the sights on Skomer are so magical. Littering the paths are dozens of carcasses, including pairs of scythe-like wings that are all that’s left of unlucky Manx shearwaters who’ve been devoured by the island’s great black-backed gulls, huge gulls that snack on other seabirds and rabbits. The colony of Manx shearwaters here is the largest in the world, but as the birds either spend the day incubating eggs in their burrows or sea-fishing, and only return when darkness falls, for safety, day visitors seldom see them. The birds’ haunting calls are reserved for the ears of overnight guests, researchers and island staff.
Above: There are about 316,000 breeding pairs of Manx shearwaters on Skomer
It’s rather sad that dead remains are the only sight of the Manx shearwater we experience, but it does serve as a powerful reminder that Skomer is a wilderness, with its own ecosystem, and that a lack of interference from man is integral to its success as a breeding colony for so many species.
Keeping Skomer open to visitors – which provides a vital revenue stream, allowing the Wildlife Trust to continue its work – while simultaneously conserving it, is a careful balancing act. As well as restricting visitor access to designated paths and parts of the island, numbers are kept to a maximum of 250 per day. Nor is Skomer run as a typical attraction – there’s no café or shop, other than bottled water sold via honesty boxes at the information point at Old Farm. And aside from the clear benefits for the island’s wild residents, these factors enhance the visitor experience hugely, too. The limited numbers of people and buildings mean there’s a continual sense of wide open space and it’s not hard to escape the ‘crowds’ to feel as if you have Skomer to yourself.
That there’s no mains water or electricity, landlines, shops or cars undoubtedly makes life for the small team of island staff who live here from March to November challenging. Before catching the 3pm boat back to the mainland, we meet Skomer wardens, Bee (Birgitta Bueche) and Ed (Edward Stubbings), who’ve been working here full time since 2013. What do they think makes Skomer so unique?
“It’s the most incredible seabird island and probably the most accessible on the planet,” explains Bee. “It’s just 15 minutes by boat; if you wanted to visit other places where you can see not only the number of seabirds but the sheer amount of species, you’d have to travel for a good couple of hours on a boat. It’s just incredible and has been a dream of mine to work here.”
What’s it like to work here? “Busy!” laughs Bee. “But you feel very privileged. How many people are allowed to live in a place like this? When you’re standing in front of the window doing the washing up, seeing puffins and Manx shearwaters flying past, it’s the best view in the world.”
“Although people often don’t appreciate what a hard job it is,” Ed interrupts. “They always say, ‘Oh, what a wonderful job you have.’ It is a wonderful job, but they don’t see the stress and the levels of work you have to do. Everything on the island is done by us and Jason, the assistant warden, and Leighton. Between four of us we have to maintain all the buildings, toilets, the footpaths and if anything goes wrong we have to fix it.”
Aside from ongoing maintenance, looking after the day visitors – whose numbers can reach 16,000 annually – taking care of the overnight guests, working with the volunteers and ensuring research staff can carry out their work, the most vital elements of Bee and Ed’s roles here are conservation, people management, carrying out monitoring, bird counts and surveys. As Skomer is such a unique environment it provides an unrivalled opportunity to study seabirds, some of which are rare or numbers elsewhere are struggling. Relatively little is known about some, especially surrounding the time they spend out at sea. The more that is understood about the conditions necessary for them to breed successfully in havens like Skomer, the more can be done to conserve them worldwide.
On the boat back to the mainland, we’re already discussing our next trip to Skomer to catch up on their progress. It’s this that brings naturalists, bird lovers, photographers, writers and artists back over and over again. While May, with its glorious display of bluebells, is a magical time to visit, in June and July visitors are guaranteed the sight of puffins with bills full of sandeels and the chance to see the chicks, while autumn sees seals and their pups claim its shores for themselves.
As the seasons turn, so Skomer transforms, promising new wonders each time for those who step onto its shores.
Boats are now running to Skomer Island with limited capacity and covid restrictions in place. For further information, tel: 01646 636800 or visit www.welshwildlife.org/skomer-day-trip