Skomer Island- Wild Escape from Reality
Heading west from Cardiff along the Welsh coast the landscape changes from industrial plants, lit up 24/7 to miles of wild landscapes. The change between man and nature is instant and noticeable. After Haverfordwest, a small town surrounded by countryside the lanes become narrow and the drive heads down towards the coast at every turn. Leaving the car at the cliff top West Hook Farm the walk down to the boat is surrounded by high banked hedges full of colour from the early summer flowers that fill the gaps.
The boat from Martin's Haven to Skomer Island really is the beginning of the journey. As the mainland distances itself, the rough waters of Jack Sound come in to view. A tidal race with swirling whirlpools and converging waves it is not somewhere to loiter even on a calm day. Rounding the headland at Rye Rocks the landing stage at North Haven comes into view. If you didn't know it was there it would be easily missed. The access to the island is from the landing stage up 87 steps of varying size and depth, a slow and warm climb even without our supplies for three nights sleeping on this isolated lump of rock.
As you land, the seabirds are surrounding you with razorbills, guillemots and puffins lining the cliffs in a noisy welcome to the island.
For such a small island there are a lot of hills, even the top of the island undulates and the four mile circuit really does give a good "work out". The first stop after the climb from the landing was Old Farm. This is in the centre of the island and was to be home for the next three nights. Next to the Old Farm, set atop a large rocky outcrop is the trig point, marking the highest point on Skomer.
Skomer has a maximum of 250 visitors a day, but to really get to enjoy the island a stay gives you freedom when the day trippers have gone home at 5pm to really explore. The hostel sleeps 16 and it is then you, the wardens, the volunteers and researchers plus about 400000 seabirds for the night. The farm is cosy in a basic way, completely off grid with solar power for the essentials. From the farm in the centre of the island it is 30minutes walk along paths to most locations and the whole loop around the cliff top is a gentle three hours (4mile) stroll, depending on how distracted you become with the views and the wildlife.
Skomer is a haven for birds with species breeding in isolated peace. The benefit of staying on the island is that the more unusual species are seen when the day visitors have left as well as the chance to use the amazing light for photography. Breakfast watching short eared owls hunting was an experience that may not be repeated for a long time to come. Little owls are also hidden away with young that hunt in the early evening. The island is also home to a large percentage of the world's population of Manx shearwaters, a weird bird that comes in from the sea under the cover of darkness to return to their burrows, heading back out to sea before the first light. The noise they make is amazing, a weird whooping noise that echoes around the island from their first arrival until their departure in the early hours.
They are clumsy birds, not suited to life on land with feet far too far back on their bodies making walking impossible and making them targets for the resident gulls. The carcasses in the morning shows how busy the gulls are over night with the mutilated remains of the shearwaters littering the island, rotting in the sun. They are also very good at flying into anyone in their way, a few high-speed impacts with heads happened which was an experience in itself.
Over night the island also comes alive with frogs and toads emerging from their daytime hides to hunt for supper, a carpet of moving amphibian life makes night time adventures a hazardous undertaking.
Walking around the island in the day it is easy to see the impact the birds are having on the landscape. The ground is fragile and burrows of shearwaters and puffins litter the island. At times it feels like the whole island is one giant burrow and that walking is hazardous. It does not seem possible that there can be the number of burrows visible and the ground can remain solid. Keeping to the path is essential and even then a few burrows have been dug in the path with man-made protection to prevent damage to the inhabitants and walkers alike.
From the Garland Stone the high cliffs of Bull Hole come into view, covered in guano from the resident colony of razorbills nesting on the high cliffs. The noise is electrifying even from the distant cliff top looking out towards the colony. This area is also home to a pair of choughs as well as a number of smaller birds.
The cliff tops are covered in bright pink campion and white sea campion giving a gentle blanket covering to the undulating cliffs. There is also deep purple milk thistles, daisies and the remains of a blanket of spring bluebells. Hidden amongst the larger plants are the smallest forget-me-nots I have ever seen. In the valley away from the cliffs, bracken provides a dense cover for pheasants and amphibians sheltering from the harsh daytime sunlight.
Following along the west coast of Skomer, eventually The Wick comes into view. The deep cut of The Wick was formed as weaker rock eroded over time leaving the harder rock that forms the cliffs today.
The Wick is home to a colony of puffins as well as having large numbers of seabirds nesting on the sheer cliffs. Again the noise of the colony off shore is a battle of the senses while the colours of the puffins go against the rules of dark coloured sea birds. Hours can be wasted at The Wick, watching the antics of the puffins.
Heading east from the Wick across a small valley the sheer wall of High Cliff is reached, again home to a colony of sea birds and the hunting ground of a peregrine falcon. The peregrine falcon hunts along the cliffs and was seen enjoying a snack of puffin, I just wish I had thought to take a picture down the scope rather than relying on my camera. From High Cliff it is an uphill walk through Moorey Mere past the hide to Gorse Hill and the Old Farm or round the cliffs back to North Haven. The hide at Moorey Mere looks out over the small lakes which are home to gulls, kittiwakes and oystercatchers.
Staying on Skomer Island has the added benefit of proper dark skies which allow a chance to play with some astrophotography and star-gazing without light pollution spoiling the view. This was a magical experience especially when a midsummer aurora appeared as well.
We were there for the summer solstice and so the nights were short and to catch the sunrise it was a very early start. However, having the Garland Stone to ourselves for the earliest sunrise of the year was very special.
After three nights of isolation and the constant noise of seabirds it was a quiet departure from the island, the busy world of birds being replaced with the busy world of humans.