Travel: The Celtic island tamed by Nature
Man gave up trying to farm Skomer, off the Pembrokeshire coast, but the puffins and rabbits have thrived, writes Nicola Swanborough
Saturday 14 June 1997
Man has dabbled in colonising the island: Iron Age settlers founded a community on the 720-acre Pembrokeshire island, and archaeological remains bear testimony to their ancient lifestyle. From as early as the 7th century the island was farmed, but that came to an end some 40 years ago and the slate-fronted farm buildings quickly fell into disrepair, helped on their way by the winter storms.
Yet nature has made a better job of taming the island. Skomer is a vibrant and magical place with an enviable diversity of fauna and a gentle plateau of spectacular flowers, ranging from the whites and pinks of sea campion and thrift on the clifftops to the purple heathers and yellow ragwort farther inland. Birds and beasts which flourish in the prevailing winds burrow into the island while the flora knits a tight blanket against wanton weather.
Indeed, nature has colonised the island for itself. During the breeding season, from Easter to August, Skomer can boast almost half a million seabirds, including 6,500 pairs of puffins, 10,000 guillemots, 3,000 razorbills, 2,500 kittiwake pairs and 40 per cent of the world's population of Manx shearwater. Rabbits are in abundance, as is the unique Skomer vole. Harbour porpoises and common dolphins can be seen most months of the year.
Visitors are welcomed to the island but should not expect special treatment. This is nature in the raw: there are public toilets, but they are only in use while there is adequate water available. At the best of times you are asked only to flush the chain if absolutely necessary. A network of signposted paths enables visitors to explore the island, but you are advised not to stray from the paths: the ground is so densely burrowed with wildlife that the Dyfed Wildlife Trust, which manages the island, fears that straying feet could damage the diverse fauna.
Eva John, a teacher from Pembrokeshire, spent the day at Skomer with her husband, Mark, and three children, Ellen, 11, Joe, 9, and Lily, 6.
The charm of Skomer is that it offers the chance of escape - you can really get away from it all. To sit on the island and just listen to the wind and wildlife without the background noise of traffic is so relaxing.
Mark and I stayed on the island as voluntary wardens some years ago, and the nice thing about it is that the facilities are still as basic now as they were then. It hasn't been upgraded to meet the demands of visitors, everything is low-key, the island is allowed to speak for itself.
May and June are probably the best times to go. The island is awash with colour. There is a real abundance of wildlife and it pays to be forearmed with a bit of knowledge about the seabirds that migrate to the island. The puffins are easy for the children to spot, but there are some quite rare birds, too. We were lucky enough to see a short-eared owl.
It only takes about 10 or 12 minutes to get to Skomer on the boat and there's lots to see when you get there. We spotted puffins razorbills, guillemots and lots of rabbits. We saw three little black ones as well as the common grey rabbits. The seals were interesting to watch: it was really easy to see them swimming around and lying on the rocks.
In the middle of the island is the old farm, and there is an information centre there. There is a video camera link to a Manx shearwater nest, where you can see the bird sitting on its eggs: as Manx shearwaters tend to fly at night it is a good opportunity to see one during the day.
There is a lot of walking to do on Skomer so your feet get quite tired, but it's worth it for all the animals and flowers you see.
I didn't get at all tired walking around Skomer. I like walking, especially when there is plenty to see, and the island is really interesting. You can get really close to the puffins: at one point they were only about two metres away. There were millions of them. Some of them were floating on the sea while others were on rocks. We took lots of photos of them. We saw a lot of seals too, I think about 15. You could sit and have your picnic and watch them swimming down below in the sea. There was quite a lot of information about the birds and wildlife at the information centre, which was very helpful.
I really enjoyed being on an island and going on a boat. It was a little bit misty at first, but it soon cleared and we saw lots of puffins. There was a lot of walking to do, but we sat down for our picnic.
Location: Skomer Island is off the Pembrokeshire coast. The boat leaves Martinshaven every day apart from Monday (but open Bank Holiday Mondays) between 1 April and 31 October. Departures are at 10am, 11am, and 12 noon (weather permitting) and return trips begin at 3pm.
Price: return boat fare pounds 6 adults, pounds 4 children. Additional landing fee of pounds 6 for adults, pounds 2 students with card, children free. Details: Dyfed Wildlife Trust (01437 765462).
Accommodation: two small chalets offer very basic accommodation for those wishing to stay, but you must book first. Call above number.
Facilities: toilets, but no refreshments. Information centre and resident warden for guidance and first aid. There is little shelter. If it rains, you get wet.
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