Good Causes

Protecting puffins on Skomer Island during lockdown

Nathan Wilkie and Sylwia Zbijewska, the guardians of Skomer Island, know all too well that the vast colonies of rare seabirds that breed there each year need their protection.

The island is a mile from the Pembrokeshire coast, but its population of puffins and Manx shearwaters – seabirds that draw visitors from around the world – is at risk both from unsupervised human visitors and introduced predators.

Sylwia and Nathan – as well as two other wardens on nearby Skokholm Island – are employed by The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales (WTSWW). But this year the Trust was faced with the prospect of withdrawing them because its income – derived from supervised visits to the islands and other nature reserves – had been decimated by the coronavirus lockdown.

Sarah Kessell WTSWW’s Chief Executive Officer said, “We earn over half of our income from tourism: visitor centres, cafes, shops, holiday accommodation and day visits to the island. That income has been turned off overnight. It has left us with a gap in our budget of more than £500,000.”

With many of its staff already furloughed, the Trust turned to The National Lottery to help fund the wardens on Skomer and Skokholm Islands. Thanks to you, it has received funding from the £600M set aside to combat the impact of the coronavirus – enough to keep the wardens in place on both islands.

Sarah said, “The funding is ensuring that we can keep the conservation staff who haven’t been furloughed going. That includes the wardens on Skomer who need to be there to protect the breeding seabirds as well three members of staff on the mainland who are looking after 100 nature reserves between them at the moment.”

Nathan, 29, spends eight months a year on Skomer. He said, “The island is really fragile. Puffins and Manx shearwater nest in burrows so the ground is like a honeycomb. It’s really important that any visitor stays on the paths.”

Humans aren’t the only threat to the colony of 30,000 puffins and more than 300,000 Manx shearwaters – half the world’s population. Sylwia, 29, said, “The island is bio-secured – there are absolutely no rats or other animals like foxes that would prey on the seabirds. We’re making sure it stays that way.”

As well as protecting the island’s wildlife, Sylwia and Nathan are collecting vital data on each species. If the wardens had been unable to work this year it would have been the first time in decades that this information had not been collected.

Nathan said, “There’s lots of long term data going back decades: the populations of breeding seabirds and other birds like short-eared owls, choughs and peregrines. The data allows us to assess whether the population is changing and how well they’re doing.”

Sylwia and Nathan admit they are missing the visitors that usually spend a day on the island or stay overnight in its hostel. But Skomer’s teeming wildlife has not lost its appeal. Sylwia said, “I quite like being isolated and being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of seabirds is quite extraordinary.”

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2nd June 2020

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