Pembrokeshire is all about its shimmering sands, cascading cliffs and glorious coastline. Nestling just off-shore from its other coastal gems is Skomer Island – a little piece of paradise for resident sea-birds and for its star attraction during the summer, the perky little Puffin.
Having discovered that our June holiday to Pembrokeshire coincided with Skomer ‘s Puffin season, a trip to this wildlife haven went swiftly to the top of my Welsh holiday wish-list.
Skomer Island is a designated nature reserve and SSSI, managed by the Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales. Aside from the popular Puffins, it is home to a huge diversity of wildlife. Colonies of Guillemots and Razorbills crowd onto the cliffs, there is an abundance of land based wildlife and the 120,000 breeding pairs of Manx Shearwater found here make up part of what’s thought to be the largest concentration of this species in the world.
Getting to Skomer
Located off Pembrokeshire ‘s west coast, Skomer Island is accessed by Pembrokeshire Islands boat service from Martins Haven on the rugged and beautiful Marloes peninsula. There are plenty of boat trips around Skomer but numbers of visitors permitted to land are restricted to 250 maximum daily. With boat tickets to Skomer allocated on the day on a first come-first served basis, you have to be up early to guarantee a landing ticket.
Having checked in advance that babies were allowed on the boat to Skomer (they are – so long as they have head control) we set off on our hour long journey to Martin’s Haven at about 0830 on a sunny Tuesday morning in June. As we neared our destination, we began to gather a trail of other cars behind us. One quick backwards glance at vehicles full to the brim of people in sun-hats clutching high-powered binoculars and expensive looking lenses and we realised that we might be facing a bit of competition for spaces.
The National Trust car park attendant confirmed our fears – we would be lucky indeed to get a place that day. I hotfooted it down the hill whilst the others parked up only to be met with a massive queue at Lockley Lodge for the few remaining tickets. A stream of more organised, early risers were heading for the first boat to Skomer clutching their tickets. We would not be joining them.
Having learnt our lesson we decided not to go on the alternative boat trip around Skomer but to explore elsewhere and to try our luck again the next day.This time we managed to drag ourselves out of bed around 0600 and were there at 0830, looking every inch the sleep-deprived parents of a four month old! We were in luck – we got landing tickets for the 1100 boat to Skomer.
Our drama was not quite yet at an end. Landing tickets can be paid at Lockley Lodge (by card but the boat fare must be paid in cash only. Unfortunately we realised we had spent our boat money from the previous day and had a mad dash back to the nearest cash-point at twenty minute drive away at Milford Haven. Lucky we weren’t on the first boat!
Roo loved the boat-trip to Skomer. It only last ten minutes but squeezed onto the front of the boat, wind whipping her hair and a gull popping onto the deck for a spot of breakfast from the captain, she was wide-eyed with wonder. Travelling next to us were a very knowledgeable couple who were on their third day of consecutive visits to Skomer and they pointed out jellyfish, Guillemots and our first Puffin.
If you shut off all other senses but your hearing, you would still know when you had arrived at Skomer. The clamouring din of the seabird chorus accompanied by the soft growling of the sea makes for a stark assault on senses more tuned in to the rumble of traffic and chatter of human voices.
Once disembarked from the boat, the steep ascent of the cliff begins via a long set of stone steps. From the several rest points, there are already plenty of wildlife sightings to distract you. With a lot of walking still to come though, this is no place for the weak-kneed or those unable to carry a tired toddler ! Good footwear is a must. Luckily for us, Roo aced the stairs, though we were later glad we had packed our Patapum carrier for her.
A brief intro on the where to spot what on Skomer from the volunteers, hiring of extra binoculars (£5for the day – Roo had commandeered ours) and we were free to roam. With lunchtime upon us, this meant a short, slow stroll to the visitors’ centre at the Old Farmhouse, watched along the way by Oyster catchers, Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-Backed Gulls.
Picnic out the way, we gave in to Roo’s persistent ‘I want to see Puffins’ and headed for the main attraction.Our path took us past the highest point of Skomer, marked by a rocky outcrop and a trig point. We also visited a bird hide where Roo’s patience was rewarded with a glimpse of some very rotund, fluffy seagull chicks. With their large heads, scruffy grey down and bullish looks, I couldn’t help feeling that someone should have told the Ugly Duckling that things can always be worse!
Our walk continued past remains of ancient stones and settlements (Skomer is littered with evidence of prehistoric dwelling, including the Harold Stone monolith) before coming to some more recent remains. Littering our path were the disembowelled carcasses of scores of little black Manx Sheerwaters.
Relying on darkness to return en-masse to the safety of their burrows, these unlucky few had fallen prey to the Great Black-Backed Gulls who rely on them as a tasty snack! Roo was fascinated by the ‘squashed’ birds and demanded an explanation. We decided to go with the truth, which to our relief she processed and accepted fairly readily, although she does occasionally ask us ‘why those seagulls so hungry’?
With a toddler in tow, the Puffins on Skomer were always going to be the star attraction. With their comical appearance and characterful behaviour and they did not disappoint. Even though we had been told to expect close encounters with Skomer ‘s Puffins, we had not quite envisaged just how close! They were literally running inches in front of you across the path, seemingly completely unphased by the human paparazzi lined up waiting to snap their every antic! And snap we did…here are a few more of my favourite puffin shots from our Skomer visit.
The best spot on Skomer for Puffins is The Wick – a stretch of cliff edge where the well-mined vegetation-covered soil plunges down dramatically to the turquoise depths far below. Here, from March when they arrive on Skomer, to early August when their chicks fledge, Puffins can be found crammed into every nook and cranny of The Wick.
Roo couldn’t believe her eyes. Puffins were running across the paths, delivering sand-eel food parcels back to their burrows. Puffins crowded in groups on the cliff-tops like a bunch of old gents on the park bench setting the world to rights. Puffins bombed through the air, looking every inch the tall kids at the back of the ballet class, not quite comfortable in their element. Puffins bobbing about like rubber ducks on the wave-tops many meters below.
One of those curious group of birds who prefer to nest not so much on the ground as in it, Puffins spend most of their early years at sea. Adults similarly stick out the winters in the ocean before returning to land to breed each spring, choosing islands to nest where there is minimal risk of terrestrial predators. This year, numbers of Puffins coming back to Skomer were down on 2013 figures – bad winter storms made for tricky conditions and many returned to the island exhausted. To the uninitiated though, they still appeared to be thriving.
With enough photos to fill a lifetime of albums, eventually we dragged ourselves reluctantly away from our new favourite birds. We wandered along the cliff edge path, alert for sightings of for seals or dolphins. In the autumn and winter months Grey Seals can be easily spotted here and in spring the baby seal pups are a big draw for visitors. I spotted something swimming in the sea that looked through binoculars very much like a seal but that was our only sighting.
The final wander back to the boat gave us glimpses of some of the land-based fauna on Skomer. Rabbits bounded about on what is effectively one giant warren and Meadow Pipits fluttered along our route, as if to show us the way.
Worn out with all the excitement and walking, Roo got a lift for the last stretch – just as well as we had to put some pace on to get back to the boat in time! When we finally got back to the landing point, she was fast asleep.
A ride back in the boat’s cabin and an ice-cream at Lockley Lodge before we headed home did wonders to revive her. We all slept well that night although I can’t help feeling that we barely scratched the surface of Skomer. I rather wished we were amongst the fortunate few booked in to stay overnight in the Old Farmhouse on Skomer. It is not often that most of us have the luxury of time to stand still and simply study the wonder of the natural world around us. Visiting Skomer provideded exactly this experience and it is a joy I hope to repeat sooner rather than later.
Skomer with children
Children are welcome on Skomer and there are even maps, quizzes and other educational activities aimed at engaging the young naturalist. You are entering a truly wild realm though. There are no beaches to play on or wide grassy areas for running about. Skomer is a kingdom of birds where their needs and rules come first and where even the youngest human visitors are expected to tread lightly.
The one main rule for visitors to Skomer is perhaps the hardest for children to follow. The paths around Skomer are narrow and wandering off them is not permitted. There is good reason for this – even walking or sitting a foot away from the beaten track can risk putting your foot, or bottom, through the burrow of a ground nesting bird, with a strong chance of damaging both bird and egg.
For us the biggest unknown with Roo was the un-negotiable five hour stay on Skomer. You are dropped off and must then wait for your allocated boat time back to mainland. There is no leaving Skomer half way through. It was with no small degree of trepidation therefore that we embarked on our trip and five hours threatened to feel like eternity when Roo decided to throw a minor tantrum for reasons incomprehensible to adults a mere fifteen minutes into our visit.
Fortunately for us, she hadn’t been told about the five hour stay. The threat of being deported back to mainland stopped her in her tracks before the addition of her cries to those of the sea-gulls won her mortified parents too many disapproving glances from more seasoned twitchers. The rest of our trip was a dream – the baby slept the whole time in a carrier and it was worth every second of the earlier tantrum to see Roo’s excited face when a pair of Puffins hopped out a hole right by her feet. She is still chatting about them!
A few other things parents should know about before visiting:
- paths are narrow, sometimes near steep cliffs and at times uneven. There are steps to get to the boat on both mainland and Skomer and depending on the tide, the step up of the boat can be quite large. Babies will need to be carried and you might want a carrier for weary toddlers too. good footwear is essential;
- it’s a squish on the boat to Skomer. Try and pack as light as possible – it will make sitting down a lot easier!
- there are no big trees on Skomer and shade from the sun is hard to find. Sunhats, cream and lots of water on a sunny day are essential. We took an umbrella as an emergency sunshade though didn’t need it. Likewise on rainy or windy days – there is little shelter so do prepare for a day exposed to the elements.;
- you will need to be prepared for lots of walking. The whole round island trip takes 3 1/2 hours although there are shorter options. Worth buying the Skomer guide book as details are given in there;
- Skomer is well signposted with approximate walking times for each section. Do leave sufficient time to get back to the boat though, particularly with slow walkers!
- facilities are basic on Skomer. You need to bring your own picnic and drinks and take all rubbish away;
- there are composting toilets but only at the farmhouse. If you’re thinking of nipping behind a bush then the risk of burrow bashing and a profusion of long-range camera lenses may make you reconsider. Dirty nappies need to be taken away with you and bring your own changing mat;
- do bring binoculars or hire some when you arrive and it’s worth getting a guide to the island or at least a basic bird spotting guide. It makes the trip a lot more interesting, particularly for kids who will enjoy seeing the birds up close and ticking them off.
If you’re up for the challenge though, don’t let any of this put you off. We managed it successfully with a four month old baby and a strong-minded two year old and not only lived to tell the tale but actively enjoyed every magical moment of our visit. I’d do it all again tomorrow.
Skomer Island is open to visitors from 1st April (or Good Friday, whichever is first) until 30th September. Call ahead or check on Twitter to make sure the boats are running before setting off. For more information on Skomer, prices and how to get there, please visit the Welsh Wildlife website.
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