New Welsh Review
Skomer Island: Its History and Natural History
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A botanist visiting Skomer in the early twentieth century described it as a ‘bird slum’. Certainly, the tiny lump of volcanic rock off the Pembrokeshire coast was, and remains, densely populated with avian life. The noise of chattering guillemots and puffins might well resemble the human clamour of a slum quarter. Perhaps the guano daubed on every bare patch of rock recalled for the botanist the pungent sewers of the time.
A century later and Mike Alexander, who was one of Skomer’s first volunteer wardens back in 1965, and then served as a paid warden from 1976–86, presents the nature reserve as one of the ‘most important places for wildlife in Wales’. His impressively detailed book provides natural histories of Manx shearwaters, razorbills, grey seals, shovelers, lesser and greater black-backed and herring gulls, recounts the life cycles of lichens, spurrey, spleenwort and samphire, gives an account of wind speed and climate, and takes the reader on below-ground explorations of the rocky substrata and less photogenic aspects of the island.
That Skomer is ‘important’ is undeniable. But it is not all good news, as its importance is partly due to the decline of the wildlife and natural vitality of the Welsh mainland. Nor is Skomer an altogether safe haven. Alexander documents the passage of birds such as the lapwing and curlew, once common on Skomer, on to the so-called Red List of vulnerable species. The island is too close to Wales to be a miniature Galapagos.
While he clearly derives his greatest delights from the natural world, the author is at pains to present Skomer as a ‘cynefin’, a place to which he feels he intimately belongs, and where he spent the ‘best ten years’ of his life, along with his wife. A hefty 110 pages of the 415 that comprise the proof-edition I saw are titled History. The reader is sped fairly briskly through a few footnotes on the ancient dwellers who left field boundaries and (possibly) a monolith or two and, later, forts and small dams. There is no specific mention of Skomer in the historic record before 1324, so we cannot be sure what the Norman Conquest meant for the island and its residents. Vestiges of the pre-modern era are scant, and, as Alexander notes, ‘Everything we see on the island today – the landscape, the wildlife and the cultural artefacts – were all, to some extent, influenced by the nineteenth-century inhabitants.’ He gives us a peek in to the lives of the Robinson family, who leased Skomer from 1846–61, and of Vaughan Palmer Davies, Edward Robinson’s son-in-law, who farmed the island from 1861–92. Rural life on a Welsh island in the Victorian era wasn’t very much different to that on the mainland, except for the vagaries of weather that might limit supplies or complicate a hospital visit. Portraits of farm servants and early amateur naturalists, as well as the boatmen who plied the treacherous Jack Sound, fill out this picture. Alexander also reflects on minutiae such as lintel designs and lime manufacture, and gives an account of ploughing techniques using the latest LiDAR imagery.
Since 1959, Skomer has been a National Nature Reserves – one of seventy-two, managed by the organisation Mike Alexander managed for more than twenty years. This denomination effectively ended its human history in the sense of agricultural labour and exploitation. No judgment is made by this author on the damage wrought by previous tenants, though seal-hunting and bird-trapping were features of everyday life. The section, dedicated to the purchase of the island for its new life and council records of the time, will perhaps be of interest only to those who have worked in mind-numbing municipal bureaucracies, and so it is cheering that only a few pages are given over to such matters.
For, let’s be honest, it’s the seabirds – the shit-splattering slummers – who most entertain visitors to Skomer. Twelve species breed on the island, which is impressive given that it only measures 721 acres (a little under three square kilometres). As well as the birds mentioned above, there are storm petrels, black-legged kittiwakes, great cormorants, shags and fulmars (another vulnerable species), notable for the way it defends its nest by spitting out stinky oil. More than 170 birds have been spotted on Skomer, including 54 breeding species, including the rare red-legged chough.
Along with pen-portraits, the author surveys the impact of isolation on wildlife, the progress made by scientists and ornithologists, and the ongoing challenges of plastics, oil spills, marine food resources and climate change.
What all this amounts to is a truly comprehensive picture of a tiny spot on the map. There is little doubt that Skomer Island has been a labour of love and what Mike Alexander might lack in poetry and prose-craft he makes up for in attention to detail. My copy was an advance proof printout of A4 pages, but I’m sure that, with the right paper and ink, this bird-celebrating biography of Skomer (which contains some superb photography, also by the author) will tempt many more people to visit the prettiest shanty town in the Celtic Sea.
Chris Moss is a travel writer and critic from the north-west of England.