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Skomer Island Nature Trail

West Wales Naturalists’ Trust,

7 Market Street, Haverfordwest,

Dyfed

Reached by boat (April-October) from Martin’s Haven 2 miles past Marloes village on unclassified road off B4327. Also boats from Dale. Sailing details from The Information Officer, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, County Offices, Haverfordwest, Dyfed, SA61 1QZ

Map references:

Martin’s Haven SM760092 Skomer North Haven SM735 4-mile trail around island Nature Reserve with dramatic cliffs and fascinating sea bird and seal populations Excellent descriptive and illustrated guide, guided walks with naturalist one day a week (details National Park Offices and Trust). Note sturdy footwear essential – boat landing can be difficult, not suitable for children under five or disabled people

preserve of gulls, puffins, kittiwakes, gannets, razorbills and fulmars.

The smallest of the National Parks in England and Wales, no part of the Pembrokeshire Coast Park is more than ten miles from the sea and the majority of it falls within three miles from the shore. It is a dramatic coast along which the sea has carved the predominantly limestone and old red sandstone cliffs into a jagged-ly indented shore which is the haven of a raucous population of seabirds. Between the jutting headlands are small bays with beaches of wave-lapped sand. Here and there the sea has battered away the soft rock into caves and needle stacks, parting off small islands from the mainland which are almost exclusively the

Most of the islands can be visited but only Caldey is permanently inhabited. Undisturbed by man, plant and animal life develop a unique balance, providing naturalists with unparalleled opportunities for the study of remote habitats. A particularly active conservation group, the West Wales Naturalists’ Trust is responsible for the tiny national Nature Reserve of Skomer Island, poised just a mile off the mainland beyond the tiny islet of Midland off Wooltack Point. Boats depart from Martin’s Haven (two miles beyond the village of Marloes) up to three times a day (not Mondays) landing at Skomer’s North Haven. This is a practical way of limiting the number of people on the island at any one time to about a hundred and minimising disturbance to the environment. You are quite free to walk the nature trail that circumnavigates Skomer’s cliffs by yourself but under the auspices of the

National Park authority there are also guided tours led by a Naturalists’ Trust expert that you can join. To get to Skomer you will pay for a boat ticket and a landing charge.

Skomer Reserve covers over 700 acres of heath and rough fescue pastures reaching up to 200ft above sea level atop cliffs of a dark volcanic basaltic rock. The remains of huts and field enclosures show that Skomer was inhabited during the Iron Age and Norse visitors named it Skalmey, a description of its near disintegration into two islands at the narrow rock bridge between the main part of Skomer and The Neck. In the 18th century, the name Skomer was current. Rabbits were farmed here from the 14th century and some two centuries later sheep and cattle were probably being pastured here. There were sporadic attempts at cultivation including quite expensive corn growing during the mid-19th century and an attempt at making early potatoes, brought on by the generally mild climate, a paying crop in the late Forties. The island was last farmed in 1949.

Skomer’s trail starts on the cliff above the warden’s house overlooking the sheltered North Haven, where puffins abound, and sets off around the island’s south cliffs. In the South Haven, quickly reached over this narrow part of Skomer, is a cave where seals retreat to breed. The clifftop gives a superb view of the Pembroke Coast as far as St Ann’s Head, the turnpoint into Milford Haven. To the south is the island of Skokholm, another island managed by the Trust. Rn High Cliff is the first of the major sea bird colonies reached on the walk – a tower of babel with the kittiwakes occupying the lower storeys of the rocks and guillemots and razorbills taking the higher ledges. The kittiwake is named for the sound of its excited cry. Rock stacks are a magnificent feature of this coastline and the Mew Stone is among the largest. A buzzard nests here, finding its food from the large

population of smaller mammals on the island. The rabbit community has fluctuated in number over the years as waves of myxomatosis have taken their toll, but large numbers have survived. Skomer rabbits are a very mixed lot-wild races are interbred with various domestic types introduced over the years.

Quite the most intriguing of the five mammals native to the island is the Skomer vole, a relative of the bank vole found on the mainland. It is larger and lighter in colour and there are differences in its teeth and skull that make it a distinct island race. The common shrew, pygmy shrew and long-tailed field mouse complete Skomer’s mammal population. All four small residents were probably introduced accidentally by visiting supply boats.

Skomer vegetation is subjected to many ad-verse influences. The rabbits can be very damaging and there are plots on the island enclosed to keep them out and study the un-grazed vegetation. The grass you will see is fescue but there are also large areas of heather grappling for survival in the face of the onslaught of bracken, and patches of the white-flowered sea campion. The vole inhabits sheltered areas with spring bluebells and, later, dense bracken cover. Other plants you may see are wood sage (it looks like garden sage), scarlet pimpernel, common sorrel and, in the marshy areas, silverweed and marsh cudweed. There is only one tree on the island, a black poplar standing in the yard of the ruined farmhouse buildings at the island’s centre.

One of the best places to observe seals is at the island’s most northerly point overlooking the offshore Garland Stone. Skomer is one of the most important grey seal-breeding grounds of this coast and up to a hundred pups are born here every year. Females give birth in September and October and feed the pups for only three weeks with a rich milk that fattens the baby rapidly. Pups are then left to moult off the white natal coat and learn to feed themselves before heading for the perils of the open sea.

Skomer’s life isn’t only above the waves. The waters around the island have been designated a Marine Reserve of four square miles in which observations of submarine life are being made and projects for the conservation of the underwater areas are pursued.

Back on the mainland you will find that warm sheltered bays and coves abound around St Brides Bay. Newgale sands are nearly two miles long but there are many smaller bathing beaches such as the sand and shingle of Porth Clais. Sailors and sightseers alike should head for the old smuggling village of Solva at the head of the flower-lined fjord of Gribin Cove, a National Trust property. Solva is a yachting harbour and a centre of crafts industries which include hand-made furniture and woollens.

Golfing fiends will find pleasant nine-hole courses at Milford Haven, Haverfordwest and Pembroke Docks. Fishing in the area is mainly sea or game, although coarse anglers at Bosher-ton Lakes, just north of St Govan’s Head, have been rewarded by big catches of the shy tench. Sea fish in the bag locally are bass, pollack, mackerel, tope and conger taken from rock platforms or by beach casting. Shark boats sail out of Fishguard, a ferry port for Ireland – the picturesque lower town was the setting for Richard Burton’s adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s

Pembrokeshire is not only the smallest National Park – it has Britain’s smallest city. Enjoying this exalted status with its 12th-14th-century cathedral, St David’s is in reality only a village. Poor drainage of the cathedral foundations has resulted in a tilt of the floor, a rise from west to east of three feet in the 298ft-long interior. St David’s and the whole of the fascinating legend-ridden coastline of St Bride’s Bay are a section of the 168-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path, a feast of clifftop scenery and sea shore wildlife for the more ambitious walker.

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