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The land that time forgot.

Byline: By CATHERINE JONES Western Mail

The race is on to save a unique wildlife sanctuary off the coast of west Wales that's up for sale. Catherine Jones travelled to Skokholm and found herself bewitched by the tiny island

TRAVEL to Skokholm, the island up for sale at pounds 750,000, and you cross Jack Sound, a stretch of water so choppy, your small boat tosses around like a terrifying fairground ride.

Pass Jack Sound and you sail on altogether calmer seas. To your right is the small island of Grassholm. Ahead, three miles from the Pembrokeshire coast is Skokholm, a hunk of red sandstone rising from the grey-green waters. It is an unexpected haven for wildlife.

Skokholm is host to 45,000 pairs of Manx shearwaters (40% of the world's population) 5,000 puffins, about 300 pairs of storm petrels and a significant number of razorbills, guillemots and oystercatchers.

Metre-long porpoises dip in and out of the waters around the 247-acre island. If you sit at the tip, in front of the bright white lighthouse (not included in the sale) you might hear them below.

Dolphins might put on a performance and this time of year, the sleek heads of seals, who are pupping, can be seen bobbing as you pass in the boat.

Like a younger, shyer sister of the It-Girl island of nearby Skomer, Skokholm - Norse for wooded island - has garnered little publicity (until now) but it has always had its fans.

Naturalist and author Ronald Lockley set up the first bird observatory here in 1933 and his book, Dream Island, tells of his early days on Skokholm.

Lockley lived on the island with his wife, Doris, from 1927 to 1940, and his research on the island's rabbit population is thought to have formed the basis for Richard Adams's novel Watership Down.

It seems likely the writer Beatrix Potter visited Skokholm when she travelled to Tenby. Drawings she made in a letter to a friend depict a small island with a lighthouse and she wrote to a young girl called Freda of the puffins and rabbits fighting over burrows.

The decision to sell the island - it has been owned by the same local family for more than 300 years - came after the death this year of Osra Lloyd-Phillips.

Although the island has been, reluctantly, put up for sale by the Dale Castle Estate - the cash is to meet death duties - The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, which has been managing the island on a lease for more than 50 years, has preferred bidder status.

The Bridgend-based charity is currently halfway to meeting the three-quarters-of-a-million mark and has until the end of the year to do so.

Dr Madeleine Havard, the Trust's chief executive, is hoping the public will dig deep into their pockets to save this magical island for everyone. Visit it - as I did - and you will probably want to go back.

Skokholm is internationally recognised for its importance to wildlife and is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a European Natura 2000 conservation site.

It has no electricity or running water, no showers and only two chemical toilets. Solar panels are used to recharge mobile phone batteries and to provide email. There is a Grade II listed 18th Century farmhouse, accommodation blocks for summer visitors and the wildlife wardens, and a lab for field studies.

The stove in one of the old buildings, The Wheelhouse, is powered by bottled gas. Rainwater is used for washing and drinking.

Welcome to an island a world away from modern life.

Once owned by the Earl of Pembroke, the island last changed hands in 1646 when it was bought for pounds 300 by William Phillips, a barrister and one of the founders of the Dale Castle Estate.

Skokholm is one of the most important sea bird breeding sites in Europe.

One of the most spectacular wildlife experiences, according to Jo Havard, the island's warden, is the arrival of the colony of seabirds, Manx shearwaters, late at night.

One half of a mating couple remains in the nest while the other spends a couple of days searching for food, such as crustaceans, sand eels and sprats.

'The birds call as they are flying in and their partner in the burrow will call as well,' says Jo. 'On a dark windy night, with 45,000 shearwaters coming back to their nests, it can be very eerie to hear them calling. You might be freaked out by it - the call is quite mad and shrill - if you didn't know what it was.

'Shearwaters are wonderful flyers but hopeless walkers. They fly in and hit the ground and get to the burrows as quickly as possible. To hear and experience it is one of wildlife's spectacles.

'Puffins arrive from March having been spread out at sea in the Atlantic. They come back to Skokholm and Skomer and are here until the end of July. By the second week of August they are gone. The Manx shearwaters stay longer


There are no rats on the island

. Nor are there are any cats. They would no doubt cut a swathe through the rabbits, currently around 1,500, who inhabit the island.

The Cottage, a home for Lockley - whose ashes were scattered on the island - still stands and is now cosy accommodation for visitors from April to September. You can stay three or four nights in the summer, alighting from the boat onto a little jetty with steps that lead you

up into the island.

Havard, 28, and her partner, Dave Milborrow, 27, visitor services officer, greet visitors when they arrive. Dave's vegetable garden is testament to the couple's commitment to giving visitors a truly home-grown experience.

'Herbs, rocket and spinach,' says Dave, 'and next year onions.'

'Half the people who come are interested in the birds and wildlife - we can have 15 visitors staying at a time - and the other half just want to get away from modern life,' says Jo, who studied marine biology.

'I think the job appealed to us because it's quite a simple existence in that there's no traffic, no rushing around, no distractions. There's not exactly no stress but it's something I've always wanted to do.'

They keep contact with the news via a solar radio - 'we're outside most of the time anyway' - and there is surely no need for television when you can see so many birds.

There are traps for house mice on the floors - 'probably came in with farmers who leased the island in the past' - and the walls of the outside portable lavatory are covered with drawings of birds spotted and painted by visitors.

Asked about leaving the mainland behind, she says, 'You look forward to things you don't have here. But the first time I went back I had a headache after a couple of hours of being in the car.'

In the Wheelhouse, there's the figurehead of a boat called the Alice Williams. Like a Virgin Madonna she leans over the long table keeping watch on the inhabitants of the island.

The Alice Williams was wrecked on the island in 1928 just as Ronald Lockley was trying to get the buildings, previously used for farming purposes, into a habitable state.

Full of coal, the boat also provided timber, and was a godsend for Lockley who bought the lot for pounds 5.

'It had always been his dream to come to the island,' says Jo. 'Then he took the lease on from a farmer. And ended up being here for 17 years.'

According to Dr Madeleine Havard, the Wildlife Trust would like to open the island up more to visitors - a day trip a month is planned for next May, June and July - though getting there is difficult because of prevailing winds.

The Trust has managed the island since 1948 and has carried out bird surveys and management of the vegetation.

Even as preferred buyer, Dr Havard says that hasn't stopped her losing sleep over whether they will raise the full amount in time.

'We are a small charity and getting the commitment to do this is major. We have got huge support from the rest of Wildlife Trust movement and the Countryside Council for Wales.'

In June 1988, on the Trust's 40th anniversary, Prince Charles visited the island and each year loyal fans return, many for years on end.

'It draws people back,' says Dr Havard. 'It's here to show people that you don't always turn electricity on, there isn't always water on tap, there are no flushing loos. It's also the peacefulness - and lovely people come here.'

Black rabbits are up by the lighthouse, the wetland area is favoured by the geese. There was once a horse on the island.

At one time three people staffed the lighthouse but now the wardens are the ones who regard the place as home.

'When we first come out to the island in the early part of the year, it is quite open and bleak, lots of brown and dark dull colours and very quiet,' says Jo. 'When the gulls, who have left on migration, come back, it can be very noisy.'

The previous warden stayed for nine years and Jo, says Dr Havard, has made a good start. 'They have done a lot of work, really made the island very welcoming.'

In the spring, there are bluebells. All the year round, the rocks jut into the sea, like toppled gravestones. And lots of lichen, a sign of low air pollution.

There are signs on the island of human habitation from the Bronze Age, around 2000 BC. The rabbits, brought to the UK by the Normans, have survived for years on Skokholm.

The population is self-regulating. If there isn't enough food they die back, though at one stage there were up to 6,000 on the island.

In the distance, beyond the white fluffs at sea where the currents are whipped together by the winds, you can see where the Sea Empress went down.

There's a story that Lockley wanted to breed chinchilla rabbits because their pelts would have been worth more. He tried to get the rabbit population to nought but succeeded in diminishing it to around 400. If you look around the island today, you see some very long-haired rabbits which are possibly genetic throwbacks to the chinchilla rabbits.

At one point on the path, there is a brick with three holes in it.

'Not,' says Dr Havard, ' a meaningless discarded brick.' It has method. Down in the cliff there is a hide near a good puffin site. Because these bird watchers can be solitary creatures who enjoy their own company, there is a form that you follow as a visitor on the island.

If you're in the hide, you have to leave a stick in the brick. That way people know if they will have company or be perfectly alone to enjoy the beautiful island.

Then again, if you're up on Spy Rock, the second highest point on Skokholm from where you can spy most things, you've probably seen who went down to the hide.

Give pounds 50 to the Skokholm Appeal and you will be helping to secure 50 metres of the island. A donation of more than pounds 1,000 will entitle you to become a founder sponsor.

For more information about the Skokholm Appeal, contact the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales on 01656 724100. You can make a donation to help to buy Skokholm by sending a cheque payable to 'Skokholm Appeal' to the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, The Nature Centre, Fountain Road, Tondu, Bridgend, South Wales CF32 OEH.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 28, 2005
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