On our first afternoon on the Isles of Scilly we found ourselves on Porth Cressa beach watching a blackbird rummaging through seaweed. A blackbird? On a beach? Within touching distance of two very wriggly children? Where we come from the blackbirds eat worms and shout at us in loud indignation should we dare to go in ‘their’ garden. It was at this point we suspected that the Isles of Scilly might be a rather special place for wildlife. We weren’t wrong. Seaweed foraging blackbirds were just the start of it.
A wander up to the Garrison headland on St. Mary’s brought fresh surprises. We gambled along the coastal path, taking in the gorgeous sea views. The girls bounced along on the velvety rabbit-cropped grass, pointing out flowers. Rounding a corner we surprised a group of these expert furry lawn-mowers lazily nibbling in the sunshine. One look at us and they disappeared in a flurry of bounding legs and bobbing cotton-tails. Not before we noticed something very odd though.
“Was that a black rabbit?” There was no doubt. We had all seen its glossy black fur – the kind that would look quite at home in a high-end pet shop. It was a stark contrast to the humble mottled browns of your average field rabbit.. What on earth was it doing running wild on the cliff-tops of St. Mary’s? Whatever it was doing here it had obviously lost no time using its exotic good looks to charm the local ladies. We saw quite a few more black rabbits on our walk.
The answer to the black rabbit mystery was solved the next morning by our knowledgeable guide, George Teideman. When we mentioned our unusual discovery he wasn’t remotely taken aback. Back in the Victorian era, he told us, the Isles of Scilly hit hard times. Whilst the ship builders and traders of St. Mary’s were making good money, the off-islanders had reached starvation point. This coincided with the Duke of Leeds giving up his remote tenancy of the islands and a very reluctant Duchy of Cornwall taking back the reigns amid financial chaos. Prospects for Scilly were bleak.
Augustus John Smith stepped into the breach and took over the tenancy. Young, wealthy and full of ‘good ideas’ he set to work addressing the islands’ poverty. Credited with rescuing the Isles of Scilly from poverty, introducing mandatory schooling for children and providing much needed jobs, Augustus Smith also indulged in some more imaginative schemes.
From opening an ostrich farm with imported birds (successful – ostrich feathers for hats were all the rage back in London) to evicting the islanders from Samson so he could create a deer reserve (unsuccessful – the imported deer didn’t like tree-less Samson and drowned trying to escape), he was not short of ideas to try out.
It comes as no surprise that the release of imported black rabbits on the Isles of Scilly was his idea. The theory was that they would provide an additional food source for the islanders. George went on to tell us that Smith had released different coloured rabbits on each island although if this is true, we didn’t see any signs of anything other than brown or black during our stay. I did find a historic reference to white rabbits on now-uninhabited Tean though. Whatever the historical truth of it, Roo enjoyed searching for different coloured rabbits each day of our island hopping. She was a little disappointed not to find a purple one though.
George also filled us in on our encounter with the blackbird. Such close encounters with birds are by no means rare on the islands, he told us. Other than the occasional cat there are none of the normal predators such as foxes, stoats or weasels on the Isles of Scilly. As a result, blackbirds and song thrushes are everywhere and surprisingly unfazed by humans. I expressed my surprise. I hadn’t seen a song thrush in a decade. He assured me I would not have long before my next encounter with this endangered red list species.
How true his word. Almost every time we sat down for an outdoor meal or wandered along a footpath on Scilly, we were joined by a small flock of bold little birds trying to smuggle off a stray crumb or two. The ring leader of these little groups was usually the aforementioned song thrush. They were so different in character to the birds at home that they seemed almost a different species. Darwin need not have gone as far as Galapagos – it’s all right there on the Isles of Scilly! Both girls of course delighted in having a blackbird, sparrow or thrush join them for their lunch each day. I became slightly less enchanted when I spotted a thrush eyeing up my cream tea.
As well as the thrushes and the rest of their motley crew, we saw many other birds on the Isles of Scilly. Whilst we did pop into the bird hides on Tresco, there wasn’t much need. Most birds were easy to spot without hiding. On St. Agnes I watched as swallows swooped low over the beach just a few feet from where Roo was playing. On Tresco a solitary linnet (a first sighting for me) followed me across the heathland of the island’s north as I raced to get back to our ferry on time. Everywhere we looked the islands were alive with birds – something that rapidly explained the considerable number of tripod carrying, khaki clad men we spotted wandering about clutching over-sized binoculars. Why is it that “gadget” birding seems to be so strongly the domain of this demographic?
Slightly more aloof than their on-land cousins, Scilly is also unsurprisingly popular with sea birds. It’s a great place for young children to spot them too as the small islands mean you are almost always near the coast and close up seabird viewings are pretty much guaranteed. We saw huge numbers of oyster catchers, their pink stockinged legs and long ungainly red beaks making them easy for Roo to spot. The islands also receive much rarer seasonal visitors, with their temperate climate and remoteness attracting birds that would get any ornithologist’s pulse racing. They also receive annual visits from puffins, shags, cormorants and storm petrols are all commonly sighted and the Isles of Scilly are one of only two breeding grounds in England for Manx sheer-waters.
Despite the Isles of Scilly seeming a perfect haven for sea birds, their numbers have shown a worrying decline in recent years. The major on-land threat comes from brown rats, thought to have been introduced after shipwrecks near the islands in the 18th Century. It turns out that rats can swim up to a mile when they need to. Their predation on the Isles of Scilly seabirds’ eggs and tiny chicks has caused worry and an eradication program has been in place for some time now on St. Agnes and Gugh – the islands least likely to be re-infected. These islands are now hopefully rat free but visitors will notice signs asking you to ‘rat on a rat’ should you notice any during your visit or on your boat.
The highlight for Roo and Beth was our ‘Sea Quest’ glass-bottomed boat tour. Leaving from St. Mary’s our knowledgeable skipper Alfred took us out to the rocky Western Isles in search of seabirds and seals. I won’t lie to you. You would be extremely lucky to see anything more exciting than the occasional jelly fish wafting pass beneath the glass. Of course with their noses glued to the guard rail and eyes firmly fixed on the mesmerising stream of seaweed and kelp, the girls were completely oblivious to this. Therein lies the massive advantage of taking the glass bottomed boat over another boat tour – instant and continual interest for very young children.
Our tour lasted around a couple of hours before we were dropped at St. Martin’s for the day. When the girls weren’t peering down at the seaweedy depths they were treated to close-up sightings of seagull chicks, crowds of shags perched on the rocky outcrops and yet more oyster catchers.
Then of course there were the seals. At first we spotted just one or two bobbing wet heads and the girls scrambled in excitement to the side of the boat for a better look. As we pottered amongst the shallows of each island their sleek domed heads and curious flat black eyes soon became a familiar sight. The Isles of Scilly is home to an important stronghold of Grey Atlantic Seals and from what we saw it would appear that their numbers are doing well. Having seen the seals in such abundance, what would I have given for some extra time to join a seal snorkeling safari from St. Martins. For a few hours it is possible to wallow in the shallows alongside these endearing sea mammals but sadly for us, you have to be at least eight to take part.
The Squirrels of Tresco
Back on land the Isles of Scilly had more natural treats in store for us. Our final day took us to Tresco and its famous gardens – the result incidentally of yet another grand scheme of our old friend Augustus Smith. The tropical plants of Tresco are worth a post in their own right, as are the whole host of definitely-not-nicked-from-Tresco-Gardens flowers and plants springing up in showy garden displays all across these frost-free islands. The garden residents we most wanted to see though were far more recently introduced and they don’t grow seeds, they eat them. Tresco is home to an experiment in red squirrel conservation. Given the island’s isolation from the threats our native squirrels face on the mainland, it is an ideal place for them to establish and a small population was introduced over 2012 and 2013.
We know from experience how shy and elusive red squirrels can be, having tried unsuccessfully to spot them a number of times previously on the mainland. It was with amazement therefore that we spotted a flurry of deep red fur heading for a nut feeder as we crossed the entrance bridge to the gardens. In silent awe we ‘shhh-ed’ the girls and stealthily crept a little closer. At that point a lady came marching vigorously across the bridge and in a flash the squirrel was gone. ‘Oh there’s loads of them in the tea garden’ she declared dismissively, no doubt noticing our glares. It seems as with everything else on Scilly, the squirrels here are much bolder than the mainland. We were treated to several more sightings of the squirrels during our visit.
Writing this post I am amazed at the number of wildlife experiences we had during our visit to the Isles of Scilly. I haven’t even touched on the jewel-like beetle and over-sized hairy caterpillar we found on Bryher, nor the many butterflies and moths the girls spotted or the trees dripping with lichen everywhere you go. In an environment where you are almost constantly outdoors it is hardly surprising that you tune into its wildlife a little more and that the wildlife becomes accustomed to you. My wish for the Isles of Scilly is that they may long remain a haven for wildlife and that we as a family may have many more opportunities to discover the secrets of their flora and fauna.
A few more of our wildlife photos from the Isles of Scilly
– You can book guided wildlife, history and off-island tours through the Isles of Scilly Tourist Office, on the Porth Cressa beach esplanade on St. Mary’s. Our guide George Teideman is often to be found leading these tours in return for a donation towards Children’s Hospice, Cornwall.
– Details of wildlife boat trips to the off-islands can be found at the tourist office or on the quayside of Hugh Town, st. Mary’s, each morning. For Sea Quest glass-bottomed boat bookings, contact Alfred HIcks on 01720 422917 or 07795 022311.
– Bring windproof clothing and layers for boat trips. No matter how warm on land, the sea can be a lot cooler and the weather in the Isles of Scilly can change fast.
– For more information on wildlife on the Isles of Scilly, be sure to visit the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust website where you can find details of nature reserves, nature trails, events and wildlife species across the islands.
– If you’d like to see certain types of wildlife on your Isles of Scilly trip be sure to research the best season before booking your trip. For puffins, visit in May and June, for seal pups try August and December, October is a good month for migratory visitors.