Skomer Island – 60 years as a National Nature Reserve

View over South Haven

View over South Haven

Dramatic Sky over Skomer

Dramatic Sky over Skomer

Skomer has reached a momentous landmark in its long and varied history: sixty years as a National Nature Reserve.

As I try to look back and assess that period, it is startling to realise that I have known and loved the island for almost the whole of that time. I first visited as a schoolboy in 1962, just a couple of years into Skomer’s incarnation as a nature reserve, and it was a day that changed my life forever. The most overwhelming idea that stayed with me from that day was that eventually, whatever it took, I would become warden of Skomer. Instantly, from the confusion of my early teenage years, I had found direction and purpose.

Fulmar gliding

Fulmars glide effortlessly

At that time, I thought very little about the degree to which Skomer was in its infancy as a nature reserve or how tortuous the path had been to secure the island’s future. The importance of Skomer had long been recognised and, since the late 19th century, naturalists had been aware of the need for some protection. The real change began to take shape in 1945, when members of the West Wales Field Society were challenged by their president, Dr Julian Huxley (later Sir Julian Huxley), to be adventurous and enterprising in creating nature reserves on the Pembrokeshire islands.

Led and inspired by their chairman, Ronald Lockley, the society responded to the challenge and, despite many apparently impossible obstacles, they were able to announce in the 1958 winter edition of Nature in Wales: ‘Skomer Island – A New National Nature Reserve - as the result of the co-operation we have enjoyed with the Nature Conservancy we are at last able to announce the establishment of Skomer Island as a National Nature Reserve to be occupied and managed as such by the West Wales Field Society.’

Ronald Lockley outside the Skomer farmhouse in 1946.

Ronald Lockley outside the Skomer farmhouse in 1946.

On 15 June 1959, the island was finally designated as a National Nature Reserve.

Skomer was now owned by the nation and managed on their behalf to conserve wildlife. This was a dramatic development for the island, particularly in terms of protection for the globally important populations of seabirds, including Razorbills, Guillemots, Puffins and Manx Shearwaters, but it also meant so much more than that. It meant that Skomer was now there for everyone: for people like me, who could barely have imagined a place so rich and colourful and teeming with life.

Skomer’s time as a nature reserve spans barely a moment in its history.

People have occupied Skomer for millennia, and the archaeologist, John Evans, has described Skomer as possibly unique in the completeness of its archaeological remains. Present day visitors to the island can clearly pick out these faint patterns of the distant past - from hut circles to field systems - and, hopefully, more recent developments, such as LiDAR imagery, will slowly paint a clearer picture of the nature of that occupation.

Anyone who visits the island will be aware of the old farmhouse and buildings, and that period, particularly the Victorian era, is comparatively well documented. Clear imprints of this successful farm dominate the centre of the island, and, even so many years later, Skomer is, to some extent, still in transition from its long period of cultivation and agricultural use.

Down over South Haven

Down over South Haven

Following my first, unforgettable visit, I was able to return to the island in 1965 with a school friend, Brian Jones, and we became Skomer’s first voluntary wardens. David Saunders, who had been appointed warden in 1960, became our mentor, involving us in every aspect of the island’s work and finding the patience to act as a dedicated teacher. It was then that I had the time and opportunity to build on those first impressions and to discover what it was that made Skomer so extraordinary.

Although it is not large, diamond-shaped, a couple of miles long and just 720 acres, there is so much to Skomer that I don’t think it would possible for the island ever to be entirely known by one person. The most striking introduction for any visitor is going to be the island’s cliffs, and the great bays of North Haven and South Haven, which almost bisect the land, leaving it connected only by the narrow thread of the isthmus.

These cliffs attract tens of thousands of seabirds to breed in the summer months and the havens are strewn with puffins, scattering and diving at the arrival of the passenger boat from the mainland. Most people’s favourite place on Skomer is the Wick, an inlet with a towering cliff of black basalt, skimmed on the opposite side by a sweeping, stone slope, creating a perfect amphitheatre. The deep growls and high, soaring sounds of seabirds echo, overwhelmingly, between the cliffs. Guillemots line up along the ledges, protecting first the egg and then the single chick on the bare, rocky shelves until it is time to fledge.

Mike on the Mew Stone

Mike on the Mew Stone

Chunkier, starkly black and white Razorbills are scattered among them, while the straggling nests of Kittiwakes cling tenaciously and impossibly to the sheer surfaces. Amid the fast-winged flurry of auks, Fulmars glide effortlessly, pale against the shaded inlet, while the insistent call of the Kittiwake rises above the commotion. And yet, for all this drama, most visitors will be completely distracted by the adorable little Puffins scurrying around their feet. As they make their way to the underground burrows honeycombing the cliff top, the Puffins are oblivious (or sometimes even curious) of the enchanted visitors standing quietly among them.

Manx shearwaters

Manx shearwaters

For me the biggest surprise when I finally got to stay on Skomer was the Manx Shearwaters.

As a day visitor it was impossible to imagine how completely the island is transformed at night. As darkness falls and the daytime sounds fade away, there is a period of quiet until the darkness is absolute and the Shearwater calls begin, tentatively at first. A few screeching calls rake through the sky, or bubble up from the ground, accompanied by the faint thumping and scrabbling of birds as they come in to land.

The noise grows until the air is completely clogged with their cries and the slice of wings as birds flash past. To be surrounded by so many birds was a completely unique experience. As I stood among them their numbers were unquantifiable; it just felt like an island full of birds.

I continued to volunteer on Skomer whenever I could, eventually moving on to work in conservation, until I finally fulfilled that long-held childhood dream of becoming warden of Skomer. Rosanne and I married just a few days after the interview for the island post, and we began what turned out to be a ten year stay on Skomer in the spring of 1976. I was then able to become completely immersed in the island, discovering the changes not just from day to night but through the seasons and the years.

I came to treasure that moment when the first Puffins returned to the island in March, brilliant in their new plumage, nervously rediscovering the land after a long winter at sea. From then until the last Shearwater chick fledged in the early days of October, seabirds dominated our lives. In our cliff-top house we were part of the colonies, as Puffins clattered over our wooden, shingle roof during the daytime and shearwaters called from the cellar of the house through the night.

Mike making safety call

Making the routine morning safety call to the coastguards 1n 1978

Although Skomer is principally a seabird island there is so much more to it than that.

As the birds were departing, growing numbers of grey seals were beginning to gather on our beaches, most looking for somewhere to haul out, but some to give birth to their white-coated pups.

The adult seals were incredibly shy then, and we could only hope to watch them by keeping downwind and out of sight. Now that the animals are no longer persecuted they are losing that fear, becoming oblivious to people, and it is heartening to realise how quickly a level of protection can show such positive results. We had the rare privilege of being able to watch seals from our kitchen window, following the progress of individuals from the day of their birth, and including that completely uplifting moment when the pup discovers the freedom of the water for the first time.

Roseanne at sea

Roseanne at sea

We lived so closely with the island that we were aware of the changes, day by day, throughout the season. The winter storms washed away the colour and crushed the vegetation to a bleached crust, so that every spring felt like a new beginning. The earliest pale flowers were primroses in Driftwood Bay, followed by the white of sea campion frosting the cliff tops and filling the air with scent.

The foamy, pink clouds of thrift in areas such as the Wick are now less extensive than those we enjoyed, but the real floral highlight remains undiminished. No visitor to Skomer in May or June could fail to be captivated by the sheets of bluebells sweeping across the island and out towards the sea. To walk a path through this pure blue, enveloped in the humid scent of flowers, is a truly unforgettable experience.

One of the greatest rewards of long acquaintance with the island is learning to live with all its seasons.

We arrived on the brink of a famous heatwave that lasted all summer and scorched the island, shrivelling the vegetation from the cliff edges and depleting our water supply almost to nothing. And yet, within days of the first September rains the island was blooming again with a fine green flush of growth.

The winter storms sometimes lasted for weeks, building waves that thundered against the cliffs and silvered the air with a saltwater haze. Rarest of all was the snow, which few island visitors would ever have the chance to experience. It draped the island in a thick, white quilt, transforming it more dramatically than anything else could. This was beautiful but harsh, cutting off a whole sky full of small birds from any chance of food.

roseanne repairing the roof

Roseanne repairing the roof

By the time we left, in 1986, Skomer was still a relatively young reserve, just a little past its quarter century. Things appeared to be doing well, and we had seen increasing numbers in most of the more important species. If Skomer could have held on to those gains that would have felt like a huge success at a time when there was so much pessimism about our environment. In those intervening years, under the care of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, Skomer has thrived in a way that would have seemed unimaginable.

Our 6,500 pairs of Puffins, have increased fourfold to over 25,000. Guillemots, which reached a low of around 2,300 birds in the 1970s, have soared to ten times that number. During our time on Skomer the Manx Shearwaters were to be doing incredibly well, with numbers peaking at around 120,000 pairs. There were so many birds they seemed to crowd the night sky to saturation point, and it would have been hard to envisage even greater numbers, but they have now reached around 350,000 pairs. Despite this immense presence, visitors to Skomer will see no trace of these burrow-nesting birds during the daytime, and it is not easy to census these elusive visitors, but there can be little doubt that Skomer has the largest and most important breeding colony in the world.

Snow on Skomer

Snow Calves Park and the old farm in January 1985

At a time of so much concern for our environment, Skomer shines out with a near impossible brilliance, and this success is certainly not an illusion, but there is absolutely no room for complacency.

More widely in Europe puffins are declining, and are now classed vulnerable.  A recent stormy winter killed thousands of seabirds around our coasts, and the increasingly unpredictable climate suggests that these wrecks may become more commonplace.

Manx Shearwaters travel half way across the globe, to the shores off South America, every year. In pioneering research, supervised by Tim Guilford, Shearwaters have been fitted with miniature data loggers, providing precise information about where they feed and their exact migration routes. This is ground breaking knowledge, but seeing these once-mysterious journeys traced across a map of the world is also a stark reminder of how far these birds travel, into environments over which we have no control.

Closer to home, this greater understanding of the Shearwater’s movements has made it possible to map the areas used by rafting birds around the island. The studies have shown that these areas are regularly occupied by moored oil tankers. The blaze of lights from the boats is very disorientating, particularly for the fledging birds, discovering their powers of flight for the first time.

In September 2017, Martyna Syposz, a research worker on Skomer, and Ed Stubbings, one of the wardens, spent a night on a tanker moored off the north coast of Skomer.  They found 14 birds which had already become trapped on board, and collected a further 33 individuals during the night. Once on the decks, the birds are unable to escape and, unless captured and released, they will starve to death. Of the birds that Ed and Martyna released, five returned to the boat and two were killed when they collided with the tanker. Great Black-Backed Gulls were also seen attacking the birds around the tanker.

In October 2014, the Welsh Government announced changes to the Pembrokeshire Islands Special Protection Area which included an extension of marine boundaries, specifically to enhance the protection of Manx Shearwaters and other seabirds. In reality, there have been no significant improvements. When there is so little that we can do to address the threats to these birds throughout their global range, it feels like a lost opportunity not to tackle those issues that we can influence.

Guillemots line up along the ledges

Guillemots line up along the ledges

My generation has grown up with an almost subliminal pessimism about the fate of our wildlife, to the point where decline seems inevitable and we can only hope to slow the rate of it. To have seen Skomer thrive throughout its time as a nature reserve is contrary to nearly everything I have grown up to believe, and yet it is important to remember that Skomer once had the potential for so much more.

Tim Birkhead has used photographs of the Wick, taken by Ronald Lockley in 1934, to estimate a minimum island population of around 100,000 Guillemots: four times the present number.

Photographs from the turn of the last century, show the slopes of South Haven thick with Puffins, where now they only form a thin fringe. Perhaps these things will not be possible again, but it is a vital reminder never to set our sights too low, and to hold on to that vision of what the future could be.

Foggy Skies over Skomer

Skomer is a perfect example of why we need nature reserves.

This little fragment of land has an extraordinary richness of wildlife, held in a fragile balance that is maintained by constant vigilance. The ongoing research work has, in some cases, continued unbroken for decades, building an invaluable bank of knowledge that will contribute to the protection not just of the island but the wider environment. All this is possible only because of the dedicated work of the Wildlife Trust staff and research scientists: people who treat these responsibilities as a vocation and recognise the value of what they can achieve. The growing support from volunteers has also been vital in maintaining these high standards.

Perhaps, above all, reserves like Skomer are the most powerful advocate for nature that we could possibly have. The island gives visitors an almost magical insight into somewhere that transcends our ordinary world, and one close encounter with a puffin may speak more eloquently for conservation than a thousand words ever could. I will never forget the moment when I first saw Skomer and will always be grateful for the way it changed my life. I hope that it can go on changing lives for at least another sixty years.

If you would like to more about our time on Skomer Rosanne’s book, Waterfalls of Stars, provides a remarkable insight into those ten wonderful years, when (in the days before internet, telephone or electricity) Skomer felt even more isolated than it does today.

Written by Mike Alexander,  Skomer Warden 1976 - 1986

 

Waterfalls of Stars: My Ten Years on the Island of Skomer