Skomer - Bex Sykes (Scientist in Residence)


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Skomer - Bex Sykes (Scientist in Residence)

What are you most looking forward to about visiting the island?


We anchored off North Haven and put the boat in the water. Before it reached the water, we were already sighting bright-beaked birds bobbing on the surface of the sea, the inspiration for many ship hull lines. The phone calls to the Wildlife Trust ranger and the Seas Your Future operations manager, and from them to the Wildlife Trust’s main office had been worth it. We were able to make a visit to the National Nature Reserve island of Skomer (51deg 44.28’N 5deg 17.85’W).

Skomer shimmered in the May sunshine. As the rib set off, I reminded them of the 5kts max on the local Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) bylaws. The MCZ here restricts certain activities and you can see why when you encounter the floating rafts of seabirds.

That morning over breakfast, we had enjoyed the temporary renaming of Pelican as Puffin of London (sorry Neptune) as the staff relabelled their uniforms with sticky labels. Puffin impersonators, inspired by internet audio clips of puffin, enlivened the sounds of breakfast in the mess. Sadly, it didn’t carry through the onboard PA we use to make all company announcements.

As part of our first shore party, we had to put down our cameras as we nosed the boat onto the ferry landing station. The Wildlife trust were kind enough to allow us to use this, in between the ferries landing from the mainland. The steps up were a little precarious but added to the sense of adventure; the roughly poured concrete and shackled tyres showing this was not a place when humans have priority.

A few steps up and we handed our buoyancy aids back to Janice and Connor in the boat, and there they were, facing us, right next to the path up the steps – puffin standing, curious about these new visitors to the island.

As we climbed, below us they floated on the sea surface, grouped together in the bay, and they flew past our heads, orange legs seemingly comically outstretched, ready to land on the cliff side.

We waited for all the boat runs to bring the whole party ashore, and between negotiating groups getting off the island, we were given a talk by the ranger, Layton. Essentially, keep to the paths, puffin burrows are very fragile, so arms, legs, bums, bags, must stay on the paths. “What is the most important thing to remember?” Keep to the paths, we chorused.

He said there were some 10,000 puffin and 5,000 gulls who call the island home at this time of the year, as well as many other species including short-eared owls on the island. On nearby Grassholm, there are 36,000 pairs of gannets. These sorts of numbers seem astonishing, but when you discover that they are vulnerable because there are very few nesting sites for puffin, then you realise why they are on the list of UK Birds of Conservation Concern[1]. It truly is a privilege to be able to visit.

This is a rat-free island. Humans have introduced rats to many islands over the years, which have predated eggs and chicks from ground nesting bird populations. The signs on the way up the staircase warning you to check your boat before approaching and preferably only land with open decked vessels is therefore warranted.

The trainees all stop on the staircase, like us, astounded by the puffin surrounding us, and up so close, as well as the view over the bay.

The birds here can feed on amazingly rich seas which surround it; I heard the ranger tell one of the researchers who’d just arrived on the ferry, that he had just seen a puffin head into a burrow by the path with sandeels in its beak. This might remind you of the classic image of puffin with a row of silvery thin fish lined up in its beak; the ability to hold multiple fish courtesy of a specially adapted raspy tongues and spiny palates.[2]

Swathes of purple swept across the island – the season for bluebells, which the rabbits seem to enjoy eating. Perhaps it was the knowledge that we weren’t supposed to step off the path, or that they were not prey here, but they were not scared of us, and didn’t bolt as we wandered past a metre away.

The Pelican crew split into the three groups, to reduce the impact of a big group. We were asked to follow an anticlockwise route around the island as the paths were narrow and with 250 people on the island, the potential for traffic jams was high. We had limited time and so set off, a watchleader and a volunteer or mentor with each to follow the path around the island.

This is an island for nature beyond our human version of nature, and respected for it. There was no rubbish anywhere at all and many of the visitors that day were there with cameras and binoculars to see an experience this unique space, respected for nature.

The landscape itself is rewilded, with the remains of the farmstead now the visitor centre and composting toilets. A heavily fenced allotment patch at the back points to the longer-term human residents. Researchers from universities such as the University of Oxford studying Manx Shearwater navigation[3] and other bird productivity, as well as the counts which are carried out by the Wildlife Trust.

That day, our group had the privilege of experiencing buzzards, oystercatchers, possibly a chough, pied wagtail, some sort of thrush, buff tailed bumblebee, fulmar, sorrel, bluebells (so many bluebells!), sea campion, razorbills, swifts, swallows and a pelican (well that was the ship).

As we walked around, the ground nesting bird’s burrows covered large areas to each side of the path. Peering into one I could see a scattering of flowers, presumably laid to make the place a little more comfortable, possibly by a male puffin, the typical guardians of a pair’s burrow. Puffins are typically monogamous.

Approaching the north coast, outside of the eddies, rafts of Guillemots floated under nesting birds on the ledges above.

In land, broken stone walls became pathways through the landscape. We were especially lucky as the weather that day was stunning and we enjoyed the smell of the wildflowers, and less so the nests, when the breeze was in the right direction. This is not a theme park island though, and carcasses scatter parts of the island and path, showing the threads of connection between species. Something I believe we are becoming more aware of: our interconnectivity with nature and other species for our existence.

Out to sea, large tankers and other ships were anchored to the north of the MCZ, presumably waiting to get into Milford Haven. A juxtaposition with the special nature of the island which reminded me of reading about how the Torrey Canyon oil disaster in 1967 had killed 75% of the French puffin colony. I wonder what the impact of climate change will be on the island residents, and the wider food web in the seas around the island on which they depend.

I’d prepared a short list of possible nature connection activities before we arrived but with the limited time to explore the island, it was more important to gather experiences and photos. There was a lively debate around what the puffin might feel about us as we waited for the return boat.

When we were all accounted for on board Pelican, we gathered the company for feedback. We heard that they had really enjoyed seeing the puffin, the rabbits, the wildflowers and like the volunteer crew, felt that we’d needed more time there. They would recommend it again for future sail training voyages.

Significantly, the follow day’s egg drop competition (a tradition on sail training voyages, involving designing, in less than 300g, a way to drop an egg from up the mast without breaking) was won by Polly the Puffin, who kept her egg safe for Main Watch.

On our last morning on board, a young man specifically came to me to say how amazing the island was, he had not seen such amazing wildflowers like that before and how his home area was being increasingly built up. It is these moments which move me to keep volunteering, to keep investing myself in their future.

We had asked whether we could conduct an Invasive Species survey for Capturing our Coasts project, but as we had only planned to visit two days before, we did not have time to get the necessary permissions from the Wildlife Trust or the MCZ Conservation officer. We hope to be able to assist with research activities on future voyages now we have a better understanding of the island, and her resident’s needs.

[1]… tbc

[2] Wwf reference – Ten high flying facts about puffins




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