After recent storms affected Skomer and Skokholm Islands, The Wildlife Trust launched an appeal and the response was overwhelming! The appeal was launched to help raise funds to address the impacts of Storm Ophelia and Brian; to help ensure that the essential seal monitoring work is maintained in the long term, to safeguard the island for the future, to repair buildings and replace key equipment.
We are ecstatic to say that, from our £25,000 appeal target, you helped raise over £40,000! - Thank you so much. The funds raised will help the charity to continue its vital conservation work.
Anyone who has lived in Pembrokeshire will know what an autumn storm feels like; for coastal communities, strong winds and high seas are all part of the changing seasons that form the fabric of their lives. However, recent years have seen some of the most severe storm events in living memory, and this October, Pembrokeshire’s coast was battered by ex-hurricane Ophelia - and close on Ophelia’s heels came Storm Brian.
Ophelia’s force hit its peak during the afternoon of Monday 16th October, with the weather station at St Ann’s Head recording wave heights of 16 metres. This is the highest wave height the station can measure, so nobody knows the true height of the largest waves that were battering our coast that day.
For the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, its island nature reserves of Skomer and Skokholm are always the first concern. Located off the Marloes peninsula, they normally bear the brunt of any incoming storms. By autumn, both islands are minimally staffed with two or three wardens each, and buildings are being battened down for winter. The cacophonous melee of the summer breeding season is over, and almost all of the hundreds of thousands of seabirds have left. Skomer Island in autumn is normally a very quiet and peaceful place – dominated by the Grey Seals, for whom autumn is peak pupping season.
Sadly, Ophelia took a heavy toll on both the islands themselves, and on the seals. On Skokholm, a huge wave crashed into the corner of the lighthouse, which sits high on the southern coast of the island. The wave broke glass panes, forced in two doors, and blew an entire first floor window, including its frame, into the building. Seawater was forced into the building, damaging equipment and infrastructure as it flooded in and down the stairwell. On Skomer, sections of roof were peeled off both the farm buildings and the wardens’ house in North Haven. For the seals however, the storm was quite literally a matter of life and death.
For the Wildlife Trust, this was the most devastating impact. Skomer- normally such a safe place for Grey Seals- was hit hard. The Trust has worked for many years to learn more about Skomer’s Grey Seals. The first annual report to mention seals was for 1961, authored by David Saunders, who was warden at that time. In 1983, a systematic approach to seal monitoring was established by Rosanne Alexander and this study has been continued ever since. This wealth of information means that at least the true impact of storm events like Ophelia can gradually be revealed.
Current Seal Work on Skomer
The Wildlife Trust currently works with staff at Natural Resources Wales, together monitoring Grey Seals throughout Skomer Marine Conservation Zone, because of the importance of this local population. Every year in late summer the pregnant Grey Seal cows return to the island to give birth and the breeding season spans from August to January, with most pups being born in the last week of September and first week of October. Until Skomer is evacuated for the winter at the end of November, the wardens carefully monitor all the pups on the island. They follow the fate of each individual, to inform our understanding of how the total population fares each year.
The remoteness of Skomer makes it an ideal nursery for Grey Seals as these animals are highly sensitive to disturbance. In the caves and on the beaches on Skomer they can raise their pups unmolested.
The Grey Seal is one of the rarest seals species in the world, and the UK population of Grey Seals represents about 38% of the world population and 90% of the European population outside the Baltic. The UK is therefore very important for the survival of the Grey Seal.
Seal pup playing with its mother
Elsewhere in the UK
Grey Seals were killed systematically until 1978, because they were considered a competitor for fish. This affected the national population and in 1983 only 60 seal pups were recorded born on Skomer. However, after culling ceased the seal pup numbers on Skomer started to increased and 202 pups were born in 2016.
Total pups born on Skomer Island between 1983 and 2016
Grey Seals at the Start of 2017
2017 started off as another very good season for the Grey Seal on Skomer, but then the storms hit. At the time of storm Ophelia there were 88 pups on the island’s beaches. The devastation was obvious the next day: where there had been busy beaches with lots of pups and mums, the noise of shuffling animals and seal pups crying to be fed, there was just silence and emptiness. The pups that had survived looked tired and beaten up, with bloody cuts and bruises. There were lots of dead or injured animals over the coming days but many had simply vanished. Only 33 pups were still to be found on Skomer’s beaches the day after Ophelia and then storm Brian came less than a week later.
Dead seal pup feeding juvenile Great Black-backed Gull
Usually around 78% of seal pups born on Skomer survive the first three weeks of their life before becoming independent, however this year we are expecting a much reduced survival rate.
The true long-term impact of these storms won’t be known for many years to come, as female Grey Seals only start breeding when they are around seven years of age. Grey Seals are very long lived and they only produce one offspring per year so continuous long-term monitoring is essential to investigate the effects of events like storms or oil spills. A healthy population will be able to cope with a bad breeding season, however an increase of severe storms due to climate change could deplete the population.