Meeting the puffins on Skomer

We sailed out of Milford Haven with hints of sunshine and a gentle breeze from the south west which was just enough to ease us along the coast to Skomer. A name that evokes the Viking marauders who plundered these shores throughout the first millennium. This rocky island sitting less than a mile off the Pembrokeshire coast is now home to one of the UK’s biggest puffin colonies and about 22,000 of these mournful busy little birds graced its shores at the last count.

We found a sunny anchorage in a small high walled bay on the south of the island, with puffins flying, paddling and diving all around us. As the sun slid out of view behind the cliffs, we motored around to the north the island to find a night mooring in a sheltered bay – the North Haven – where we could land the dinghy.

Have you ever seen a puffin up close? No, nor had I until Skomer. On Skomer I was virtually tripping over the tiny feathered critters as they trotted to and fro going about their puffin business. They are so heartachingly adorable it was only with the greatest will power – and respect for avian welfare – that I did not spirit one away with us to live as a boat bird aboard N’Tiana.

But while the puffins are the island’s most exotic occupant, Skomer and its sister island Skokholm are also home to the largest concentration of Manx Shearwaters in the world as well as guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, gannets and fulmars.

And preying on many of the above, the great black backed gull. A seagull designed by the creator of Godzilla. This savage killer can effortlessly tear a little puffin to pieces in seconds – I know, I saw. The Manx Shearwaters, ground nesting birds, are forced to wait for cover of darkness to return to the island from their hunting grounds at sea – which means after 11pm in summer – to try and evade the gull’s deadly attacks.

Skomer is uninhabited by humans apart from a handful of bird lovers who pay to stay in its one hostel overnight and a couple of wardens employed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales to police the island for unwelcome visitors and keep a protective eye on its feathered population.

The Wildlife Trust have built their wardens a palatial pad high on the cliffs with a wooden terrace looking out west above the North Haven bay. It would be an idyllic existence, if you preferred the company of birds to humans.

Having picked up a mooring buoy in the bay, we rowed ashore watched by a large seal which had taken up residence on the Wildlife Trust’s rib and lounged across the inflatable vessel with proprietorial majesty.

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We reached the beach and hauled the dinghy up on the pebbles ready to enjoy a well earned evening meander on the island. But no. From above us on the cliffs came a yell and we looked up into the lofty face of a bearded man who, it became apparent, was one of the wardens. After a certain amount of indistinct yelling it also became apparent he was insisting that we pay £15 each to come ashore. We had no cash on us. Who brings money to an island inhabited only by birds? I wasn’t expecting to do any casual shopping or find myself ordering a pint from a puffin.

It was 7pm and the island was empty of all day visitors, with only the dozen or so staying at the hostel overnight remaining. We had about two hours of decent light for a walk before we would need to get back to the boat. But no bending of the rules for this chappie, nope, without paying £30 for the two of us, we were not allowed any further.

So, we rowed back past the regal seal, hoping it would bear its teeth at the next Wildlife Trust representative who tried to board the rib, and after some time got back to the boat. We grabbed the last of our cash – a total of £32 between us – in order to buy ourselves the right to go for a walk on a deserted island.

Having rowed past the seal a third time, by which time he was observing us with a decidedly mocking look in his watery eyes, we once again pulled the dinghy up on the beach and, money at the ready, ascended the path up the island slopes.

We were met half way up by our over conscientious Wildlife Trust acquaintance, who stopped us not just as we hoped, to take our cash. He insisted on giving us the most unnecessary health and safety briefing I’ve ever sat through. To his credit, it was quick, and focused much more on preserving the health and safety of the birdlife, than our ankles, which made it slightly more bearable: ‘Don’t veer off the paths at all, I mean, at all, because these are ground nesting birds and the island is dotted with holes, their nests are everywhere so if you tread even slightly off the path you could cause crumbling of the earth around their holes.’ Stay on the path, got it mate. We’ll stay on the paths.

He then issued us with our ‘permissions’ slips, just in case me met another rogue warden on our evening stroll who questioned our right to be meandering among his avian friends.

But, once past this bureaucratic interruption and out of sight of the Wildlife Trust’s luxurious ‘research centre’, Skomer was a golden and amber hued island of harsh wild unadulterated beauty. We walked around its high cliffs, with the crashing of the waves far below us, their Atlantic ozone spray filling our lungs. There were birds everywhere, alive and dead. We passed clustered puffins hosting committee meetings and black backed gulls watching us with the predatorial appraisal of whether we were potential prey, we passed massacre sites of victims who had been less lucky under their gaze. Mother nature is cruel and Skomer is a veritable killing field.

The path followed the cliffs above South Haven where the high grassy slopes were carpeted with puffins bustling about, looking quizzically up at us, teetering on the brink of the path politely uncertain before bobbing quickly across in front of us and behind us. A puffin crossing.

We sat down among them and watched them tootle about chatting, conferring, popping up and down in and out of their burrows. They were not so tame as to fly into our arms but close proximity to humans clearly did not faze them. It was enchanting.

After two hours of trudging to the music of waves and birdsong, the island’s golden contours sinking into lengthening shadows, we returned to the boat and dreamt of tiny birds with sorrowful eyes.

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