Skokholm Island is located two and a half miles off the southwest tip of the Pembrokeshire coast and a similar distance from Skomer Island. Like its big sister Skomer, Skokholm is, save for a small area around its lighthouse which remains in the ownership of Trinity Lighthouse, owned by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. Earlier this year, after being closed for four years and following ongoing refurbishments, Skokholm reopened to overnight visitors and at the end of June I spent seven nights on the Island.
Skokholm is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, part of the Skomer and Skokholm Special Protection Area, its foreshore is part of the Pembrokeshire Marine Special Area of Conservation and Skokholm has recently been designated as a National Nature Reserve. Skokholm is internationally important for breeding seabirds. Skokholm has the third largest breeding colony of Manx Shearwaters in the world containing some 15% of the world population and 20% of Europe’s population of Storm-Petrels. The Island also has breeding populations of Guillemots, Razorbills, Lesser Black-Backed Gulls, Great Black-Backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Oystercatchers, Chough, Skylark, Wheatear and Peregrine Falcons. However, the main purpose of my visit was to photograph Skokholm’s colony of 4,500 Puffins.
Whilst is is true that Skomer is larger, easier to reach, has (much!) better facilities and has smaller breeding populations, Skokholm has one simple advantage that means, in my humble opinion, that it wins hands down over Skomer. Skokholm only ever has a maximum of a dozen or so people on the Island at any one time compared with the 250 day visitors that can visit Skomer together with those staying overnight. When you factor in the assistant warden and volunteers into Skokholm’s small population, you virtually have the Island all to yourself.
Although most of the accommodation has recently been refurbished, with further work to be done on the cottage, it still remains very basic. Skokholm has no running water with all water coming either from a well or from rainwater collection. Electricity is provided by a small wind generator and solar power (there is sufficient power to run laptops and charge batteries). The cooker and fridge in the communal kitchen are powered by bottled gas. The Island has no roads, although there are good but rugged paths over the Island, with a small dumper truck being used to carry baggage from the small Jetty to the accommodation. But as Skokholm is only around a mile long by half a mile wide, all parts can be reached by a short walk.
There are several places where Puffins can be photographed throughout the day making using of different light. One of the best places is Crab Bay which has a good population nesting on steep cliffs that fall away to the sea. Crab Bay also has a small metal hide that can be used in wet weather.
As well as working on making portraits of the Puffins, images of them in their environment and images showing their behaviour, I also wanted to make images of the Puffins in flight. Photographing birds in flight is acknowledged as being one of the hardest, if not the hardest, genres of photography. When working with Puffins, their small size and fast, erratic flight make this even harder. Of the thousands of images I took of the Puffins in flight, only a small number were sharp enough to keep.
The problems facing Puffins from, amongst other things, the commercial fishing of Sandeels have been widely reported. I have heard reports from at least one fellow photographer that he has personally noted that this has not been a good year for Puffins. From my own observations, this appears to be subject to local variations with the Puffins on Skokholm having a good year although their diet is clearly not limited to Sandeels.
One of the advantages of staying on Skokholm is the ability to photograph at all times of the day and to make the best use of the variations in light that occur. After the first couple of nights on the Island, I identified a small rock outcrop where the Puffins would gather towards sunset. Each night after dinner, I would make my way to this outcrop and wait for the gathering Puffins to be silhouetted against the setting sun. On two nights I was lucky.
I would like to thank Skokholm’s and Skomer’s assistant wardens and volunteers, Jerry, Sarah, Alice and Kate, for making my stay on Skokholm so enjoyable and for sharing their knowledge of the Island and its wildlife.