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Treasured island - Harry Mount

Blog | By Harry Mount | Jun 16, 2022

A seal pup

Every spring, thousands of puffins, guillemots and Manx shearwaters cross the sea to Skomer. Harry Mount joins their annual migration

Skomer is the island that time forgot.

A turtle-shaped island, just over a square mile in size, it’s moored a couple of hundred yards off the Pembrokeshire coast. It’s that tiny gap, whipped up by a vigorous, ten-knot current, between Skomer and the mainland, that makes it one of the world’s greatest nature reserves – the Welsh answer to the Galápagos Islands.

Because there are no egg-eating rats on the island – or humans, apart from a resident warden and a handful of tourists in the hostel during the summer – Skomer is for the birds.

Some 350,000 pairs of Manx shearwaters, half the world’s population, nest on Skomer, with another 40,000 pairs on the neighbouring, smaller island of Skokholm. The Atlantic puffin colony on Skomer is the biggest in southern Britain and, thank God, it’s growing.

The number of puffins is up more than 40 per cent on 2019. On Skokholm, there are more puffins – 11,245 – than at any time since the war. There are 10 per cent more shearwaters on Skomer than 10 years ago. Razorbills and guillemots, too, are doing really well.

Kings of all they survey: Skomer’s Atlantic puffin colony is southern Britain’s biggest

And now Mike Alexander, once Skomer’s warden for a decade, has written the definitive book about the island, after 50 years’ study of the place.

Take a boat to Skomer in nesting season, and you feel you’re approaching a spot where seabirds really rule the roost. As you chug into North Haven, you’re surrounded by rafts of puffins and razorbills drifting on the water. On the cliffs above, kittiwakes nest in a guano-marked line just above the dark rock where waves crash against the cliffs. Sometimes, the spring waves knock their nests into the sea. It’s usually early enough in the season for the birds to rebuild them.

Also on the cliffs, guillemots tend to their green eggs, marked with Jackson Pollock scribbles – each egg with a different pattern so their parents can recognise them. The eggshells are thick, to prevent cracking if they tumble down the cliff edge. They’re also pear-shaped – meaning they’re less likely than rounder eggs to slide off the cliffs.

A guillemot on Skomer

Overhead, great black-backed gulls, the biggest gulls in the world, quarter the island, on the lookout for lunch. The shearwaters fish out at sea, as far as Galloway and Dublin Bay, during the day, returning to their burrows at night. The slower ones are nabbed by the gulls – their feathery skeletons dot the Skomer footpaths.

The island has been cut off from the mainland for so many millennia that a unique animal – the bracken-loving Skomer vole (Myodes glareolus skomerensis), a subspecies of the bank vole – has evolved here and only here.

Skomer voles are up to 50 per cent heavier than mainland voles – an example, Alexander says, of the ‘island rule’ that ‘small-bodied species tend to get bigger and more robust when they invade an island’. The reasons for the island rule, he says, are contentious.

In turn, the short-eared owl – which feeds off the voles – thrives on the island. Never has the food chain – who eats whom – been so clear as on Skomer. The ‘apex predator’ on the island is that terrifying great black-backed gull.

Little

I’ve been coming to Skomer ever since I was a boy, 40 years ago. Every time I return, I’m more astounded by the explosion of life between the birds’ arrival in March and their departure in August. It’s a sign of the natural world’s peak fertility. When the seabirds leave in August, it feels like a kind of dying of the land, as they head out to the fertile sea.

On Skomer, more than anywhere else I’ve been, you get a feel for what life would be like on earth if we weren’t here – a place left to the animals, where they’re at the top of the food chain.

Because the birds have been so little disturbed since Skomer became a nature reserve 60 years ago, they’re innocent and trusting. At the Wick − a great cleft in the cliffs, the best spot for seabirds, in the south of the island − the puffins happily scurry past you, even between your legs, indifferent to your presence.

Their bright red beaks crammed with sand eels (Alexander has seen 20 in a single mouthful), the puffins make a camp, nasal, upwardly climbing ‘rouuunnnhh’ noise – the Kenneth Williams of the seabird world – as they strut off on their big, webbed, orange feet to feed their young.

Puffin chicks are jet-black above, white below, with pale grey and pink feet. Only the adults have the lurid red and orange beaks and feet.

I’ve been to Skomer lots of times and, every time, the three-hour walk round the island’s circumference is different.

Once I saw a porpoise, diving yards away from the boat as we reached the island. In the bays below the cliffs, I’ve looked down on grey seals, feeding off-white calves in blissful seclusion.

More take refuge, out of sight, in Skomer’s caves – rich with ‘the heavy, oily, fishy, musty smell of flatulent seals’, says Alexander. It helps that, since 1977, there’s been a marine reserve around the island, ensuring plentiful supplies of fish.

I’ve been there in spring, when the thrift is at its pinkest, the sea campion at its whitest, and Skomer is carpeted with bluebells. I’ve been there in howling gales – but, because it’s on the coast and warmed by the Gulf Stream, Skomer rarely gets properly cold.

The island is on the same latitude as the Saint Lawrence River in North America which, without the benefit of the Gulf Stream, freezes every winter.

As you skirt the island, everywhere you see signs of the days when it was cultivated and inhabited. You can still make out ancient field boundaries. The Harold Stone, on a prominent spot above North Haven, is probably Bronze Age.

The name Skomer is thought to have been given by the Vikings, from skalm, Old Norse for ‘short sword’, which, with a good deal of imagination, is a bit like the shape of the island.

As John McEwen writes on page 86, the fulmars on Skomer also have a Viking name: fúll is Old Norse for ‘foul’ and már means ‘gull’. Alexander says they spit ‘extremely smelly, clinging oil at potential predators, birds of prey, sheep and incautious reserve wardens’.

It’s thought Skomer was first cultivated in around 3,500 BC. The island was farmed with vigour until 1905, when J J Neale, an enlightened nature-lover, leased the island from the Kensington Estate. Lord Kensington owned much of Pembrokeshire and west London. That’s why Kensington is full of streets with Pembrokeshire names: including Nevern Square, Marloes Road and Pembroke Studios.

Skomer became a fully-fledged nature reserve, run by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, in 1959, when the last farm animals were taken off the island. It’s thanks to 5,500 years of cultivation and the howling winter winds that Skomer is practically treeless.

Who knows? Perhaps that treelessness makes the island more recognisable to those Manx shearwaters, which winter in South America and return every year.

The puffins, too, always come back to Skomer in spring after seven months at sea. What good taste they have.


Mike Alexander is the author of Skomer Island