Ben Lerwill gets back to nature on a remote outcrop off the coast of Pembrokeshire
Puffins flying at speed are a sight to behold. On land they look clownish — exquisite little busybodies with too-big orange feet and sweetshop-striped beaks — but flight transforms them. Their wings hammer away at 400 beats a minute, sending the birds coursing and curving through the air like tiny, face-painted Exocet missiles. Against a backdrop of 230ft-high sea cliffs, the spectacle is glorious.
There are a lot of puffins on Skomer Island. Some 22,000 of them descend on the Welsh outcrop to breed each year, appearing in April and returning to sea (complete with pufflings — and if the natural world contains a more adorable name for offspring, then I’ve yet to hear it) in July. Skomer itself is beautiful, not just because of its birdlife but also thanks to its windblown, sea-scoured headlands. The skies out here almost zing with freshness.
I’m spending two nights on the island, which measures just over one square mile and is a 20-minute boat ride from the Pembrokeshire coast. A thick-walled stone building, situated right in the centre of the island, provides accommodation. There’s running water, a library, a kitchen and fairly reliable solar electricity, but frivolities such as wi-fi and central heating are left for the mainland.
Access for overnight visitors, of which there are just 16 at any given time, is via a small passenger boat that gets cancelled when the waves are rough. You bring everything you’ll need with you — food, drink, sleeping bag, waterproofs — then load it on and off the boat in a human chain with the other guests, marvelling at how much heavier your own provisions are than everyone else’s.
The puffins are just the start. It’s May, and the island plateau is a blanket of bluebells and red campion. Within hours of arriving I’ve seen fulmars, kittiwakes and more guillemots and razorbills than I can keep track of. Seals appear offshore, and pods of porpoises display dark dorsal fins just above the waves. Thrillingly, I spot a short-eared owl making slow circuits above the high grass in search of voles. I track it through my binoculars, watching its big moon face slanting this way and that as it flies.
Then along come the Manx shearwaters. The island is home to no less than 316,000 pairs of them every spring and summer. They remain invisible and inaudible during the day, one of each pair tucked in its burrow while its partner is out at sea. Then, darkness falls and the skies become thronged with them. The noise is ungodly, like half a million witches all laughing at the same joke.
Back to those puffins. It’s worth coming to Skomer simply to watch them fussing on the clifftops and zooming around the bays. But, there are so many other reasons to head here too. Sometimes, there’s no better antidote to modern life than to go somewhere that barely registers on the map, and let nature take over. welshwildlife.org/skomer-skokholm/skomer/
Overnight booking for the 2018 season opens in October. Accommodation is from £30 per person, per night, and sells out quickly. Between April and October, from Tuesday to Sunday, it’s also possible to visit the island on a day trip, with boat tickets sold daily from Martin’s Haven.