Skomer part 2

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More priceless photographs, more written information is to be found concerning the early 20th century, those peaceful years before the First World War and its many changes. Skomer was now owned by Lord Kensington but leased by him to J.J.Neale, a Cardiff trawler owner who did much to ensure protection for wildlife. He, together with friends from the Cardiff Naturalists Society had been visiting Skomer, and also Grassholm, for a number of years and had written about and photographed the seabirds. To provide protection from the increasing number of visitors he had a leaflet printed and a sign prohibiting landing erected on the island. What would J.J.Neale think of today's visitor numbers and the fact that a worldwide audience is reading this text and learning about him on the Internet?

The changing scene did not bode well for island farming enterprises and Skomer sadly was no exception. Despite brave efforts in the years before and again immediately after the Second World War, Reuben Codd the last person to farm the island, left in 1950, though continued to graze sheep for several more years. He was also the last person to catch Rabbits, so ending a traditional activity that extended across six centuries. The barn had been roofless some years previously but the house itself was badly damaged in a tremendous storm on the last night of November 1954 when winds at St Ann's Head at the entrance of Milford Haven reached 130 mph, this the maximum the anemometer could record.

The house and outbuildings, despite their sad condition, still ring with sound. There is simple accommodation for a few self-catering visitors, and even simpler for the dedicated volunteers who each year provide so much support to the island staff. Part of the barn houses a small information centre, much used by groups of children on school visits. Sadly few, even island staff, now have an opportunity of being the only person on Skomer, and as I have done, to stand in the centre of the farmyard on a misty day. Shut your eyes and imagine the scene a century and a half ago; you soon hear the sound of cattle in the barn, the bustle in the dairy, the distant noise of labourers. Even the smell the smoke from a driftwood fire in the drawing room, and then the gong for lunch.

It is the natural history and scenery which lures most visitors to spend a few hours on Skomer, or the more fortunate to stay a night or two, even longer. If you have a choice then make your visit between mid-May and mid-June, though check on opening times for the island is usually closed for a few days in early June to enable essential seabird census work to be undertaken. A visit made now will enable you to witness one of the most remarkable of all wildlife sights, the Bluebells which carpet acre after acre of the island plateau and the more sheltered coastal slopes. Add to their colour the nesting Lesser Black-backed Gulls and the blush as Red Campion begins to flower. Bluebells are primarily a woodland plant, but not a tree in sight. Perhaps there were trees at one time, if so all trace is gone, but the Bluebells thankfully remain to enchant all who see them.

Turn to the cliff slopes where truly martime species prosper; each having at times to survive drenching by salt-spray, high winds, in some years drought, and then the burrowing activities of Rabbits and seabirds. Scurvy Grass, its white flowers is first to announce spring, the thick fleshy leaves we are told an excellent antidote to scurvy, so dreaded by mariners in the days of sail. Sea Campion comes a little later, its sprawling white carpets cling to the cliff slopes, and many of the rocky outcrops. Even out of season the tight cushions of Thrift, seem remarkable, but more so in June when many are crowned with pink flowers, indeed another name is Sea Pink. Sea Mayweed is the last of the cliff-slope flowers, normally flowering in July and August, when the first late-summer gales are a reminder of weather in store.

Almost everyone who visits the Pembrokeshire islands wants to see Puffins, more of which nest on Skomer than anywhere else in southern Britain, though the 6,000 or so pairs are but a shadow of the 50,000 that used to nest here. Puffins spend two-thirds of their life at sea the other third, that part from early April until the end of July, is spent at the colony. Each spring the birds return and quickly commence the task of preparing the nesting burrow for the new season, for yes this is a burrow-nesting seabird. During late April a single egg is laid which takes about 42 days to hatch.

The first indication that eggs are hatching deep underground is when adult birds start winging their way back to the cliff-slope burrows carrying beak-loads of fish. Each journey from fishing grounds a few miles offshore is fraught with danger for gulls and even Jackdaws lie in wait, and quickly give chase, even grapple with a puffin, in an effort to make it drop its cargo of sand-eels. Despite such unworthy attentions meals continue to be brought several times a day until the chick reaches between six and seven weeks of age. Now the thick down, so essential underground, has been replaced by feathers, and at dusk the Puffin chick leaves the burrow, plunges down on to the sea, and rapidly disappears from the vicinity of the island. Several years will elapse before it will return to breed. The first winter, and indeed first years, will be spent entirely at sea, many Pembrokeshire Puffins spending this period in the Bay of Biscay, off Iberia and into the western Mediterranean. These same areas, with some wandering further afield, are also the wintering area for adults, all having left Skomer by early August, so leaving the nesting burrows and cliff-slopes to the island Rabbits

Puffins are exciting, to many the star of Skomer, yet no one really experiences the Pembrokeshire islands until they have spent at least one night ashore. A night that will prove remarkable for its nocturnal seabirds. Skomer, its tiny neighbour Middleholm and Skokholm together support perhaps 60% of the world population of the Manx Shearwater. Some 150,000 pairs nest on these three islands, but being nocturnal at the colonies will during the day only be briefly glimpsed well offshore. 100,000 pairs on Skomer, small wonder there are birds everywhere at night. A night in a shearwater colony is a magical experience. First of all the screaming, chuckling, magical calls, then birds everywhere, birds emerging from burrows, flighting in, taking off, or just sitting around and all the time the noise, the spirit of nocturnal Skomer.

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