Galapagos, 20 minutes from Wales

Nerys Lloyd-Pierce visits the tiny island nature reserve of Skokholm - home to dolphins, seals, and birds in their teeming, screaming thousands

Night has fallen on Skokholm Island. Unlike the mainland, where darkness snuffs out the clamour of the daylight hours, the departure of the sun here unleashes a riot of sound. Frenetic and discordant, the wild screeching of the gulls assaults the ears first, but, amid this babble another curious sound begins to creep in. It starts tentatively, but soon gains confidence, snowballing until the mild night air is vibrant with the strange manic gurgling, whooping, warbling cry of some unseen and unidentifiable creature. Odder still, this airborne animal appears to be receiving a rejoinder from beneath the ground. Entranced by this bizarre and other- worldly rhapsody, we end up walking the island until nearly 3am. So much for escaping to west Wales in the hope of catching up on sleep.

The perpetrator of the unbridled nocturnal din was the Manx Shearwater, a summer visitor from the South Atlantic, which, in addition to making the strangest noise in the Northern Hemisphere, is distinctive due to its habit of nesting in burrows borrowed from the island's rabbit population. Skokholm and neighbouring Skomer can lay claim to the world's largest colony of this migrant bird, totalling some 195,000 pairs, hence the potential to create a sound-barrier breaking cacophony.

Unseasonably atrocious weather, which sent scores of Britain's holiday- makers scuttling off to more reliable climes, had already postponed our visit to Skokholm. Finally, our luck had turned. As the sturdy, former fishing boat, the Dale Princess, left the Pembrokeshire mainland, the sun was smiling sweetly on a bright blue sea which rolled unthreateningly after recent gales.

Just 20 minutes boat ride away lay Skokholm, Britain's answer to the Galapagos, which, in the 1930s, under the auspices of pioneering naturalist Ronald Lockley, became Britain's first official bird observatory. Today it is classed as an internationally important Site of Special Scientific Interest.

In addition to the shearwaters, tens of thousands of seabirds - puffins, guillemots, razorbills and gulls - descend on its rugged sandstone cliffs during the breeding season. Peregrines and buzzards patrol its seaboard too, while its hinterland provides refuge for choughs, wheatears, skylarks, warblers and lapwings. Harbour porpoise and bottle-nosed dolphins regularly leap from the brine, while seals bob about in sheltered coves.

At South Haven, wardens Graham Thompson and his partner Theresa Purcell, were waiting to welcome the new consignment of visitors and transport their luggage from the quay aboard the island's only vehicle, a multi- functional dumper truck.

Guest accommodation is situated in a row of converted 18th-century farm buildings. Spotless but basic, our room was furnished with two small single beds, a bedside table and a wash basin. Don't, however, be tempted to fill up the sink, the tap is purely cosmetic as the island has no running water. Before leaving us to our own devices Graham delivered an introductory tour, pointing out bird hides, telling us what we should be looking for and pointing out the few basic rules necessary in an ecologically sensitive environment, such as sticking to the footpaths which have been clearly marked with a series of painted pebbles.

Then, until the bell called us for dinner at 7.30pm we were free to wander. To the uninitiated it might seem easy to circumnavigate a 240-acre island in the allotted three hours, but then you'd have reckoned without being ambushed by distractions such as the sunlight casting an incandescent glow on distant Grassholm Island, or pausing to fill your nostrils with oodles of clean salt-ranged air, or lifting up your binoculars for the umpteenth time to check the glittering sea for a dolphin or porpoise. And that's before you've even started inspecting the kittiwakes on their nests or the fulmars winging past, or cast your eyes downwards for a glimpse of wild pansies, scarlet pimpernel and self-heal.

Theresa Purcell, while carrying out her warden's duties , performs the unenviable task of cooking three meals per day, plus cakes for tea and coffee breaks, for a total of 19 people. In the communal dining room our ravenous assembly tucked into a fruity chicken dish, broad beans, broccoli and tagliatelle, followed by Jamaican crumble and cream. We could look forward to a cooked breakfast, fruit cake at eleven o'clock, and a delicious lunchtime buffet.

Theresa and Graham agree that a warden's work is physically exhausting: seven days a week without a break for nine months a year, with a pay packet which hardly permits a life of luxury for the remaining three, yet for the couple the job is the fulfilment of a long-cherished ambition.

Said Theresa: "I spent 10 years working in a bank, although I did work as a volunteer countryside ranger at the weekends. Graham did a degree in ecology at Lancaster University and went on to a nature park in Islington. We'd always had a dream about taking on the warden's job on Skokholm, but we never imagined it would come true."

After compiling the day's natural history log at 9pm, when the day's sightings are recorded, we troop off in the fading light to Twinlet Bay where the razorbill and guillemot chicks will be abandoning the nesting ledge. At 18-days-old they can barely fly, so once they have finally teetered over the brink they plummet to join the adult cruising on the water below.

Then it's off to entice the storm petrels. From the same family as the albatross but a fraction of the size, this bird is extremely rare. Seduced by a tape-recording of their own call they arrived, flitting and fluttering like bats. On the morning of our departure we saw another sight guaranteed to set an ornithologist's pulse racing. Closeted away in a hide, we were watching the endearing clockwork toy actions of the puffins immediately before us, when a peregrine swooped in and proceeded to devour one before our very eyes.

Despite the obvious attractions of its flora and fauna, you don't need to be a natural history fiend to enjoy Skokholm. If it's a break from harassment you're looking for, then you've come to the right place. And the nightlife? Well, there's plenty of that, although it's not quite the sort you'd expect from the average travel brochure.

FACT FILE

SKOKHOLM ISLAND is managed by the Dyfed Wildlife Trust. Booking information can be obtained by telephoning 01437 765462. Information is also available on day and overnight trips to Skomer.

A week on Skokholm costs pounds 225 per-person, full board. Special four-day breaks cost pounds 140 per person, full board. There are also art course weeks and photography courses run at various points throughout the year at a cost of pounds 290 per person, per week, full board.

A single room supplement is charged for all the above.

Visitors are advised to take wet weather gear (and to ensure that their luggage is waterproof), waterproof boots, warm clothing, a sleeping bag, pillow cases, some strong sun filter cream, a camera, binoculars, and a torch.

Car parking arrangements are provided by West Hook Farm, Marloes, near Milford Haven, Dyfed. A fee is payable.

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