Skomer Island

In mid May, I went on a mini ‘road trip’ through Wales with my partner, Ed.  For the first half of our trip we stayed near Betws-y-Coed in Snowdonia.  We explored the local area, beautiful woodlands, nature walks, waterfalls, stood on top of Snowdon, and had fun in the forest on the Fforest Coaster – the only Alpine Coaster of it’s kind in UK, which was absolutely fantastic!

The second part of our trip was spent in Pembrokeshire, where again we explored the local area and standing stones, but the main focus of our stay was to visit Skomer Island!  I had learnt about Skomer Island at the beginning of the year when I had researched where to see puffins in the UK, and found out that the island along with “neighbouring Skokholm Island forms the largest breeding puffin colony in Southern Britain”.  We therefore decided to base our trip around a visit there, so were very excited when the day arrived.  You cannot pre-book tickets as the boat across depends on the weather, and tickets are instead issued on a first come first serve basis, so you have got to plan the day well.  I had been checking the weather and Skomer Boat Info Twitter account all week and conditions looked good for our chosen day.  There were northerly winds the day before which meant the boat did not cross, but luckily we woke up to a clear, still day.  I had read many reviews and suggestions recommending that you arrive at Lockley Lodge (visitor centre) for around 8:00am – 8:30am to ensure you get a ticket for either the 10am, 11am or 12pm boat, so this is what we did.  The car park was already quite full when we arrived and there was a queue out of the visitor centre door, but as we got closer to the front we could hear that there were extra boat crossings, and we managed to buy our £11 landing tickets and book onto the 10:30am boat! Relief!

After a little wait and some snacks, we headed down to the ‘pick up point’ on the edge of a small cove, and hung back whilst everyone queued up.  Once we saw ‘the Dale Princess’ passenger boat coming, we joined the end of the queue of fifty people and clambered on board (where you pay your boat fee of £11).  As we were last on, we actually ended up getting the best deal as we were allowed to sit at the front of the boat, which was beautiful as the water was smooth, the sky was blue and the air was fresh – what more could you ask for!?  As we approached the island, we started to see gulls, guillemots and razorbills in the water and flying past, and then we started to see puffins flying too!  I was rather elated, even at this point, so after the ten minute crossing we just so happened to be the first off the front of the boat and up the stone steps, where we were greeted by one of the wardens.  Once everyone else had climbed the steep steps, the group was given an interesting talk about Skomer Island – the wildlife, routes, conservation work and of course informed of the important rules (mainly sticking to the paths to avoid burrows), before we were free to explore.

There are several different touch-points and walking trails on the island, each offering their unique views and array of flora and fauna.  We began by heading up the centre of the island towards the Old Farm (a flat, grassy area which homes the overnight accommodation and picnic area) and within just ten minutes spotted a short-eared owl!  It stayed camouflaged on a stone wall for quite some time, before flying off over a field allowing us and a handful of other visitors to excitedly snap some photos.  Those few minutes set us up for a great day!

There was something very special about Skomer Island – I can’t really think of anywhere else where I have experienced the same atmosphere.  I think the fact that there are only three boat trips a day (up to five during peak times) with each only allowing fifty passengers to land, means that it almost feels like you are there alone, experiencing it in your own way… and then when you do find yourself in the busier spots, there is a sense of community as you are appreciating the same thing and sharing something beautiful.  During our trip, there were people there taking photographs, bird-watching, spotting species they had never seen before, even painting the landscape – and if you like those things too, it is like a dream!  During the spring and summer months, the ground is carpeted with flowers, which for us were mainly bluebells.  It was stunning!  On our way around, we saw numerous insects, rabbits, seals, even oystercatchers, and Ed saw either a dolphin or porpoise through his binoculars.  We were enjoying it so much, that after an hour we realised that we hadn’t even seen any puffins yet!  When one finally popped up, we were very excited and took lots of photographs of it looking around and flapping it’s wings, before it returned to it’s underground burrow.

Continuing anti-clockwise around the island, we remained full of awe and happiness, taking in the magical beauty.  As we approached the south of the island, we could see a gathering of people ahead, opposite the Wick – a deep cut sea cliff, so knew we were getting close to more puffins.  The cliff face was lined with hundreds of seabirds and hundreds more were flying in the valley below and resting on the water – it was like something off the television, but we were actually there!  And then, to top it off, puffins began popping up all over the place, entering and leaving their burrows (and single egg incubation duties), flying in from the sea and landing on the grass in their humorous but cute manner.  My heart was full.  We stayed there for quite some time, clicking away on our cameras and admiring their lovely little faces and webbed feet.  Of course we could have stayed there for hours, but had a bit more of the island to explore before catching our return boat at 3:30pm.

SONY DSC© The Wick – Skomer Island, May 2018.  Can you see the seabirds?

On the boat back, we were told about other trips they run – one of which was to see the Manx shearwaters.  I was amazed to learn that 90% of the world’s population of Manx shearwaters breed around UK islands and 50% of these breed on Skomer and the other Pembrokeshire islands (the largest breeding colony in the world) making them probably the most important species on Skomer!  They are a true seabird, spending most of their time out on the water (where they would have been during the day whilst we were there) and come to land to breed and nest in burrows.  It would be fantastic to stay overnight on Skomer at some point to see the shearwater colony, sunset, sunrise and other animal behaviour.

In total, including the boat journey to the island and group talk, you have five hours there, which may sound a lot, but I can honestly say that for a day trip it was the perfect amount of time to walk around the whole island, have a picnic and appreciate all of the amazing wildlife.

CHECKLIST FOR SKOMER ISLAND:

  • Camera
  • Tripod (if you like using one)
  • Binoculars
  • Walking boots
  • Backpack
  • Food
  • Water
  • Hat and sun-cream (especially if it is sunny)
  • Layers (to take on and off depending on the temperature)
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RSPB Middleton Lakes

With the excessive precipitation and topsy-turvy weather over the last few months, it has been difficult to get out and about at the weekends for a ‘proper walk’, but a couple of weeks ago it was warm and dry enough for an excursion to a nature reserve.  It was easy to pick which one – RSPB Middleton Lakes in Staffordshire – as myself and partner Ed had visited in 2016 and really enjoyed it, so had been keen to return ever since.

We arrived just before lunchtime and parked up in the well-kept car park which is free for RSPB members or a reasonable £3 for non-members.  From the car park you can either head through a small wooded area to a little square of shops and eateries, as well as Middleton Hallor in the other direction past the RSPB hut straight to the reserve.  We decided to have some lunch first in Bake180 Coffee Shop which offers a variety of light bites, treats and drinks, and also sells the RSPB pin badges if you want to add to your collection, which is exactly what I did.  I donated some money and chose a blue tit and pied wagtail.  Once we had finished eating, we headed back through the car park, picked up a map from the RSPB hut, which also has lots of information leaflets, badges and a chalkboard with interesting daily sightings written on it by visitors, and then we made our way into the reserve.

Middleton Lakes is a relatively young RSPB reserve, having been acquired in 2007.  It has since been developed into a lovely site which benefits numerous bird species as well as other wildlife such as otters and of course, the visitors.  The site is described as “one of the best birdwatching sites in the area”, which I certainly agree with as it is divided into sections – water, woodland, grassland and reedbeds, and has various viewpoints, a large lookout, nature trails, a rookery and a heronry!  The conservation work and management that has been done already and continues to take place at Middleton Lakes is ultimately creating a ‘refuge’ for many beautiful birds and excitingly, the RSPB say that it “will become the most important site for breeding waders in the Midlands”.

 It was really enjoyable exploring the different areas of the reserve and spotting the wildlife related to the surrounding nature and environments.  Our favourite spots were a large grass snake (the first either of us had seen in the wild) and a beautiful pheasant who casually wandered up to us through the grass and took a liking to Ed.  He stayed at our feet for a lengthy photo-shoot and good old feather study, and followed Ed’s steps until we could stay no longer.  I was very pleased with my photographs of the pheasant and many stunning plants throughout the reserve, some of which you can view on my Instagram page.

I plan to visit Middleton Lakes more often and explore it further, so keep your eye out for future posts about my current favourite nature reserve.  In the meantime I would love to hear about your favourite nature reserves!

DSC01295 (2)© RSPB Middleton Lakes, April 2018

Bees at the UoL Botanic Garden

One of my favourite local places to go for a stroll is the University of Leicester Botanic Garden.  I have frequently visited the Garden for many years and have lots of fond memories there right back to primary school!  I now work for the University and am happy to be linked to this beautiful natural space.  I am even more happy to know that the Botanic Garden is “home to almost half of the total number of bumblebee species native to Britain”.

Back in June you may have read my Bee post about their decline in the UK which is largely due to changes in agricultural practices, the removal of flowers from the landscape, the loss of habitat and exposure to harmful pesticides.  And although this general decline is occurring in bumblebee species, bee populations in the Botanic Garden are actually thriving!  Bumblebee survey and identification workshops have been held within the Garden over the last few months and the results have revealed that eleven of the twenty-four species of UK bumblebee reside there, seven of which are social bumblebees and four are cuckoo-bumbles.

I actually spotted and photographed many bees and pollinators there this summer too, which you can view on my Instagram account.

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© Pollinators at Botanic Garden

The Botanic Garden is a lovely place to visit and relax and is one of the most diverse gardens in the region with a herb garden, woodland and herbaceous borders, rock gardens, a water garden, special collections of Skimmia, Aubrieta, and hardy Fuchsia, and a series of glasshouses displaying temperate and tropical plants, alpines and succulents.  Guided tours are offered as well as education and adult learning programmes, workshops and special events such as the LRWT Wild about Gardens Week, which last year was all about bat conservation!  You can even become a Friend of the Garden to promote and support the development of the Garden’s plant collections and amenities.

The Botanic Garden is free to enter, although it does accept donations.  It is open throughout the year, seven days a week (except 25th December, 26th December and 1st January), 10.00am to 4.00pm (5.00pm in British Summer time).

The Major Oak

It has been a busy few months, but recently ‘the Green & the Wild’ has been calling… so here I am, ready to write about the beautifully fading green and welcomed wildlife of Autumn and Winter in the UK.

I awoke this past Sunday to a lovely, crisp, blue-skied morning – the ideal day for a ramble outdoors.  Hoping for a day like this, my partner Ed and I had bought some picnic food and planned to drive to Sherwood Forest after having seen the magical ‘Major Oak’ tree on television a few weeks before.  I was amazed that I had not heard of ‘Britain’s Favourite Tree’ before, and living only a 90 minute drive away, Ed was equally as amazed that I had never visited it as a child, as he had done several times.

After a simple, pleasant drive, we arrived at Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre car park, where we paid our £3 parking fee (very reasonable we thought) and headed for the map to get our bearings.  There were three different marked routes through the forest to pick from, each of varying length, so we opted for the two hour walk… but first the Major Oak!  A five minute stroll took us straight to the 800+ year old Oak, which like a wise old man full of stories and memories, stood, resting on several stilts.  I spent a good while studying it’s branches, golden leaves and aged bark, picturing the hundreds of years of change that had taken place to it and the surrounding forest – my own imagined time lapse.

“Due to its national importance, conservation measures to the tree have been carried out continually since 1908” which is very important as despite it’s age and hollow core, the Major Oak still supports a variety of insects and creatures.  Jackdaws nest there, Winter Moth Caterpillars take nutrients from the leaves and in turn provide food for Blue Tits and their chicks.  In Autumn, Squirrels forage for the tree’s precious acorns, but not only them – rangers also collect and plant the acorns “so even though the Major might be nearing the end of its life, its descendants live on” – how lovely is that!?

The two hour walk that followed was just as wonderful and awe-inspiring.  It was a pleasure spending time amongst so many veteran trees and walking across nature’s different carpets, from dark-leaf mud to freshly fallen yellow paths, all glittered with the delicate warmth and light of autumnal sunbeams.

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© the Green & the Wild

Find out more about Sherwood Forest and the Major Oak here.

Chalice Well and Gardens

“The Chalice Well is among the best known and most loved holy wells in Britain” and is located in one of my favourite places, Glastonbury. Glastonbury is a lovely little market-town in Somerset, with an array of eccentric shops, delicious food, famous Tor and beautiful Abbey. I have been there at least once a year since I was eight and it is always so lovely to see and feel the change of seasons whenever I visit the Chalice Well and Gardens.

Chalice Well is somewhere I have returned to over the years for its beauty and overwhelming sense of peace. “The Well and surrounding gardens are a Living Sanctuary, a place to soothe the soul and revive the spirits.” Surrounded by nature and healing waters, you cannot help but absorb the pure atmosphere and celebrate life. There are many areas of the garden to visit, including the Meadow, an ideal spot not only for insects but also for a picnic with a wonderful view of Glastonbury Tor.  The Healing Pool, Yew Tree entrance, Vesica pool and the Well head itself all add magic to the gardens. The cover of the Well features an“ancient sacred symbol of two interlocking circles”, geometry that symbolises a union, of“spirit and matter” – the duality of existence.

The gardens quietly sit and grow between Chalice Hill and Glastonbury Tor, the charming hill which never fails to attract me to it’s summit for amazing views across the Somerset levels.

BioBlitz 2016

Leicester City Council’s annual BioBlitz event took place at Welford Road Cemetery this year, on the 20th and 21st May.  Working together with TCV and other organisations to promote biodiversity, experts, specialists and the general public were able to record the diversity of plants, birds, invertebrates, mammals and many more species at the site in less than 24 hours.  With a target of finding 500 species, a number of trails, activities and guided walks were offered to all, two of which I attended.

Twilight Bat walk

This was a very pleasant evening, full of young and old, enthusiasts and novices alike.  Two bat experts from Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust took half of the group each, handed out some sonic bat detectors and informed us that we were likely to detect the ‘common pipistrelle’, Britain’s smallest and most common species.  They measure between 3-5cm, have a wingspan of 18-24cm and weigh about the same as a 2p coin!  We promptly tuned our detectors to 45kHz, as this is the frequency of a pip’s echolocation, and began our walk.  It didn’t take long before the detectors were ‘peeping’ and two pipistrelles were spotted against the gloaming-sky.  Further down the path we were treated to a lengthy performance by another pip, which every so often was joined by a second.  This was the highlight of the night, for we were able to hear their calls and feeding buzzes wonderfully and truly experience and appreciate this little bat.

History and Habitat guided walk

Having experienced the Cemetery in owl-light, the History and Habitat walk allowed myself and a handful of others to see the area in it’s full glory.  Now, I have always lived a stone’s throw away from Welford Road Cemetery, but have only visited it once as a child, and I must say, after attending this event and learning about Leicester’s oldest municipal cemetery, it will now be a regular spot for me to walk and take photographs.

The Cemetery opened in 1849 and covers around 31 acres of land.  Due to it’s location and beautiful views over the City, it was used by many as a ‘park’ and in fact today, it is listed Grade 2 in the English heritage Register of Parks and Gardens.  What is special about the Cemetery is that it is designated as a Local Wildlife Site and contains a number of important habitats.  At almost 170 years old, many of the beautiful trees including Cedar, Horse Chestnut and Ash provide valuable roosting sites for bats and birds.  Decaying sections of Beech trees create havens for many insects, plants and fungi.  The ‘managed’ grassland meadows are rich in plant life and home to numerous Ant-hills.  Ivy on headstones provides cover for small nesting birds and produces nectar for insects.  Although we didn’t spot any during our walk, the site is home to larger animals too, including Wild Rabbits, Foxes and even Muntjac Deer (the latter of which I am still amazed about).

© the Green & the Wild