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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Woodland Conservation Management

With only a couple of weeks left of my Ecology, Conservation and Habitat Management course, it is the latter, Habitat Management that I have been reading up on recently and more specifically, it is Woodland Conservation Management that I have been particularly interested in.

Woodland is extremely rich in species, but unfortunately every single one cannot be individually managed.  Certain groups of plants and animals however have become the main focal points for woodland conservation management, as they ultimately benefit many other species.  Some of the main species may use a range of habitats for example, or may even be very rare and specialised, which are equally as important.

So what are these groups and management plans?

Tree communities

There are around 54 types of tree community today in ancient woodland, and most are genetically the direct descendants of the original trees that grew.  Trees of the same type can be found in all areas of Britain, but no one individual tree will harbour all of the insect/lichen/bird/fauna species that are known to be associated with that type, or even the woodland it is in.  This is due to climatic and geographical variations in different areas of Britain.

To maintain the variety of trees and therefore species that benefit from them, it is important that semi-natural tree communities are managed through natural regeneration (the growth of trees that develop from seeds that fall and germinate on site) and/or by planting new trees of local provenance.

Ground flora

Like the tree communities, ground flora varies greatly from one woodland to another due to location variations and actually tends to be more abundant and concentrated in ancient woodland than in newer woodland.  However, the isolation of ancient woods, could in fact lead to the extinction of some plant and invertebrate species (particularly those with poor mobility), so it is important that such species are encouraged to colonise or re-colonise to avoid extinction from habitiat deterioration.  Open spaces and development of young growth are both vital for certain species.

Epiphytic flora and fungi

Plants that grow harmlessly upon another plant and derive moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and sometimes from debris are called epiphytes, and many mature trees in relatively unpolluted parts of Britain carry an interesting and huge array of epiphytic flora and fungi (including more than 70 species of lichens alone).  Particularly in the west of the country, these epiphytes are very rich and resemble those that lived in the original forests.

Epiphytes need to be conserved with methods such as partial-cutting to ensure that the mature tree communities they grow on remain in particular woodland sites and continue to naturally regenerate.

Small mammals

There are several small mammals in British woodlands that are rare and thankfully protected, and one of these is the Dormouse.  The Dormouse is an elusive nocturnal mammal which can be found mainly in woodlands in the southern counties of the UK. Over the last 100 years its distribution has declined and it is now extinct in 7 counties where it previously existed. This is mainly due to changes in woodland management and habitat fragmentation.  They feed on a combination of plant materials including flowers, fruits and nuts as well as insects, so it is important to manage sites specifically for them or any other rare species.  Good management will help increase numbers and make the site more ‘valuable’.

Management for small mammals must include the provision of nest-boxes, tracking and surveying, coppicing and the encouragement of mixed species in the woodland to ensure good food supplies.

Birds

Although birds are different to most other woodland groups in terms of being very mobile, woodlands still have to be managed to ensure a range of birds benefit.  Some species prefer mature, native trees or depend on dense close-canopy scrub, whereas others are associated with replanted areas.

Woodland management for birds is therefore concentrated on maintaining a mixture of age classes, by reducing the amount of old habitat deterioration and creating new suitable habitats.

Butterflies and moths

Many woodland butterflies and moths inhabit areas of young growth where nectar sources and food-plants for their larvae can be found.  There has been declines in several species for many years however, and this is due to many things including woods becoming isolated which in turn weakens the ability for colonisation, as well as a reduction in coppicing which would produce new growth.

Understanding the complex life cycles of butterflies and moths provides an insight into what they need from woodland habitats and could provide the answer to effective conservation.  Each stage may require a different habitat, from sheltered, warm places to areas that are plentiful in food sources, so management must concentrate on providing nectar-rich areas and suitable habitat for egg-laying and larval development.

Saproxylic invertebrates

These animals depend on dead, decaying or living wood and fungi to survive, so it is important that areas of mature trees, or even individuals are maintained and protected, to avoid dead wood being removed which would ultimately reduce or destroy the specialised habitats of many saproxylic invertebrates, including beetles and flies.  Populations of such species rely on old wood being in a specific condition, so it is vital at these sites that the continuity of prime wood and trees is considered.