Growing up in the Orkney islands has spoiled me: I have experienced unpeopled coastlines and uninhabited islands up north. So when I arrived at Martin’s Haven pier at 7am, where 200 other people were gathered hoping for the same island solitude as me, I felt irritated at the sight. But I’m living in London now and missing island air and the noise of seabirds, so I stake my claim and join the queue for tickets.
I’d come to follow the path of Ronald Lockley, after reading and writing about Dream Island, his account of life on the island of Skokholm where he and his family were the only residents in the 1930s. Boats to Skokholm don’t sail on Fridays so I will visit its slightly larger sister: Skomer. The island lies just off the Pembrokeshire coast, managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, open to day visitors over the summer, taking us over in boatloads of 50 or so.
Each morning, the weather is consulted and a decision made about whether the boats will sail. This is familiar to me from Lockley’s writing: much of it taken up with sea conditions and the chances of landing on the island. Today, after a calm 15-minute crossing, the boat – the Dale Princess – lands at North Haven, a sheltered bay below cliffs. There are immediately puffins, guillemots and razorbills all around – on the sea, in the air and on the cliffs – in great numbers. At the pier we’re greeted by one of the wardens who lives on Skomer over the summer and one of the ‘Skomer rabbits’ – black and brown, originating from domestic animals.
Once we are on the island, the group disperses and I wander off alone. It’s June and Skomer is carpeted with bluebells, pink sea thrift, purple campions and bluebells; idyllic in the sunshine. Large ships are on the horizon and I later look on the Vessel Tracking website – oil tankers at anchor. Seals are hauled out at the foot of a sea stack and seeing them, my sense of scale shifts queasily – the stack was much larger than I thought.
The island is riddled with burrows in which live rabbits, puffins and manx shearwater. I’ve never seen a shearwater before – they do not breed in Orkney – but although there are thousands (incredibly around 120,000 pairs) of them nesting on the island, I do not see any because they stay in their burrows or are out at sea during the day. What I did see, however, were the grisly remains of many dead ones. The black-backed gulls prey on them, which is why they only cross the land at night. The warden tells me that nights with a full moon are carnage.
I sit on top of the trig point at the highest point of the island and see the sea all around. That morning I’d read about how the universe is expanding at a faster rate than scientists had thought. As I look at the horizon, I wonder if it is possible to feel this expansion. On a small island it’s easier to conceive of your place in the ocean, on the globe, in the solar system, in the universe. I can see the curve of the earth. Are all the stars and the islands and the cells in my body moving further apart? There on the trig point with the sun sparkling off the sea and ships on the horizon and swallows darting above, I think I felt it.
I had a snooze on the grass. I saw a little owl and a short-eared owl, and heard a curlew. As I looked over to Skokholm I thought of Lockley. As an enthusiast for both small islands and wildlife – particularly seabirds – I am an inheritor of the adventurous naturalist’s legacy. What a glorious thing to have a place like this to yourself, as he and his family did. I’d like to return to stay overnight on Skomer or Skokholm, both islands accept guests, and see and hear the shearwaters and storm petrels.
But it didn’t matter so much today that I was with a big group of people. Skomer is still a dream island. The money that visitors pay to land here means the wildlife trust can keep maintaining the place for conservation. Now many more animals and people are able to join the dream.