A day on Skomer Island
One of Pembrokeshire’s most iconic features are its islands sitting just off the counties famous coast. Each with their own unique features, wildlife, and geography, the islands of Grassholm, Skokholm and Skomer attract many visitors due to the natural beauty and wildlife that call the islands home. Earlier this year we were lucky enough to spend a day on The Wildlife Trust’s Skomer Island with Lisa Morgan, Head of Islands and Living Seas from the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. Lisa was kind enough to share her knowledge and experience as we took a closer look at the island’s geography, and the stunning wildlife that it is habitat to.
Sitting less than a kilometre off the coast of the Deerpark headland in South-West Pembrokeshire, Skomer is accessible via a short boat trip from Martin’s Haven. The crossing takes you over the stretch of water known as Jack Sound, a fast flowing passage bridging the mainland to the island. Across the Jack Sound you can reach the entrance to Skomer North Haven, where explorers are known to take the plunge in search of the shipwrecked Dutch Coaster, The Lucy which was abandoned by its crew on Valentine’s Day 1967 after crashing into Cable Rock.
After passing through Jack Sound, we make land on Skomer Island. Made up of volcanic rock that was believed to have been created from steady lava flow over 440 million years ago. In that time the island has seen its fair share of history that we can still observe today. Prehistoric field boundaries are still visible to this day, and excavations discovering burnt and cracked rock mound found that this was used for cooking and boiling water and dated back to the Iron Age.
Today however the principal residents of the island are its wildlife. A wide variety of birds take roost in the island’s cliffs and burrows, whilst Grey Seals make the pilgrimage to the island to pup their young at the end of the summer months. Arguably the most iconic and popular of the birds that call Skomer home is the Puffin. A member of the Auk family, along with the Razorbills and Guillemots that can also be found on the island, the Puffin has long been a figurehead of Pembrokeshire’s natural world.
Skomer is traversed via a 6.5-kilometre walking trail and sticking to it is vitally important as the island is covered in burrows built by the puffins and Manx shearwaters for nesting and raising their young. These burrows are of a mixed depth and are easy to collapse, so straying from the path and stumbling over one could risk the safety of any birds or chicks within.
Within these burrows the puffins lay their single egg. Once it hatches the adults are kept busy heading back and forth from the coast to keep their little ones well fed. The birds can be found all around the coastal strip with close views in North Haven and at, The Wick, diving from its heights in search of sandeels before scampering back to their burrow. Each year a puffin count is conducted to evaluate the health and growth of the population and is done so in March before the puffin’s head underground. This year (2022) the count stood at 38,000, 4000 up from the year prior.
Did you know?
A Puffin’s beak isn’t colourful all year round. The rainbow markings are their “breeding plumage” and when breeding season passes the coloured plates fall off leaving their beaks a more low-key grey.
More wildlife can be found at the top of the island where wading Oystercatchers breed and make nests rather than burrows, before wading onto the rocky shoreline to feed on limpets and mussels. The island is also home to the largest colony of Manx Shearwater. More than half a million of the mysterious little birds call Skomer their home, around 60% of the UK’s total population. The plucky little peckers embark on a 7000-mile journey each year to the coast of South America to spend the winter, before returning to the island for the warmer months. Their distinctive cry and secretive nature caused sailors to believe witches and other supernatural beings inhabited the island before modern studies took place!
Whilst the Manx Shearwater only lays one egg per year, the birds are notoriously long-lived, with a lifespan as high as 52 years, the oldest known British birds and will mate and lay eggs many times over its lifetime. Despite the large population, it’s unlikely you’ll find a Manx Shearwater wandering around the island in the sunshine like its Puffin counterparts. Instead, the bird is a nocturnal one on and, one bird waiting until cover of darkness to venture out to fish whilst the other returns to tend the egg.
From around mid-August the island receives more visitors popping their heads up from the ocean and onto land. Atlantic Grey Seals make land and use the island as a pupping site towards the end of the summer and the beginning of Autumn. In 2021, 265 seal pup were born on Skomer Island, 22 more than the previous year and a record total counted. Meanwhile on the Marloes Peninsula which falls under the Skomer Marine Conservation Zone, 181 pups were born for a grand total of 446 pups.
Skomer Island is a testament to the work done by those who look after it, as living proof that with care and consideration, a small island off the coast of Pembrokeshire can be safe haven for ancient history hewn into the land, as well as a varied and unique mix of wildlife, and stunning natural beauty.
To visit Skomer Island you can pre-book your trip online through Pembrokeshire Island Boat Trips. It’s also vitally important that we as visitors continue to protect the biosecurity of the island. Skomer has no ground predators, and this is imperative to the health and prosperity of the island’s wildlife population including it’s burrow nesting Puffins and Manx shearwaters. The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales sets out some points for visitors to adhere to safeguard Skomer and its inhabitants. They are as follows:
- Prior to your trip, pack and store your day bag in a rodent-free environment avoiding garages and sheds. Open bags and carrier bags (especially those containing your picnic) are not allowed on the island boat.
- Before boarding the island boat, check your belongings carefully for stowaways (it sounds unlikely but it can happen)
- Avoid leaving your bag unattended in Martins Haven as this is a high-risk area where rats are regularly recorded.
By following these simple rules, we can ensure the wildlife of Skomer Island continues to flourish for many years to come and can continue to be enjoyed by visitors long into the future!