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Wildlife wonder

Words by Andy Forster

A weekend on Scilly reveals a thriving wildlife population, many unique breeds and a haven of untouched beauty.

The unspoiled archipelago that is the Isles of Scilly lies just 28 miles

off the Cornish coast. Out of more than 140 islands, only five are

inhabited by humans, with just over 2,000 residents in total, making

the wildlife on Scilly the islands’ greatest population. The Scillies is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), over half of which

is looked after by local charity, the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust.

On an unseasonably warm October day on Porthcressa Beach, St Mary’s,

I meet with Darren Hart, the Trust’s Education Ranger, to find out more

about the Trust and its work.

Our wildlife tour of St Mary’s is to take in Peninnis, Old Town Bay and

the Lower Moors. As we walk and talk, it becomes immediately apparent

that Darren is passionate about both his job and Scilly. He tells me that

beach-cleaning events across the islands have removed a staggering three tonnes of marine debris in 2019 alone, which is good news for the islands’ thriving seal population. The Isles of Scilly AONB has many designations, including one of the highest available, a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), due to its nationally important population of seals. Halichoerus grypus, more commonly known as the Atlantic grey seal, is among the rarest seal breed in the world and the islands boast a colony of about 700 of them.

The Trust's land management has allowed both flora and fauna to flourish

It’s not just the marine life that falls under the remit of the Trust, it has also taken on a significant land management programme that has seen more than 40,000 metres of paths being cut to allow better access across the islands. Darren also tells me that over five hectares of heathland and wetland have been cleared of invasive plant species to allow wild flowers to thrive. As we reach the Lower Moors, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), I also discover that a second year of hydrological monitoring has been completed here which will ensure that biodiversity is protected and enhanced and sustainable water quality targets are achieved for the future. As a charity, the Trust relies on grants, donations, membership and legacies to carry out its essential work – a donation to the Trust ensures the protection of Scilly’s wild places for generations to come.

Elsewhere on Scilly, wild bird communities are thriving, not least the islands’ resident colony of Manx shearwaters. To end my first day’s foray, I join Vickie Heaney, the Trust’s resident seabird ecologist for a ‘chick check’ on Penninis Head. A staggering 43 chicks have already been identified, all on St Agnes where the Seabird Recovery Programme has done wonders for the bird population, by controlling the rat numbers. Vickie tells me that there are no chicks yet on St Mary’s, but that there are breeding pairs, so we are hopeful that we might be successful with our evening’s search.

Vickie plays a recording of a Manx shearwater’s call, and I’m delighted to hear that there is a response from a chick. However, despite searching under stones, as the shearwaters are burrow nesting birds, our hunt for chicks sadly doesn’t come to fruition that evening. But on my return to the mainland I hear some great news from Vickie: “I wanted to update you on the chick we heard out at Peninnis. I’m just back from checking on it this evening. It was dark and foggy and when I got there at 9pm the chick was already sitting outside the burrow entrance – it was still really quite fluffy (adult feathers all there, but still a lot of down left around its head and shoulders). It shuffled back in and I sat for a little while outside. I think it has another week or two before it heads off to Brazil and I will go out again to see if I can get a recording of its ‘teenager’ squeaky call!”

Exploring the Eastern Isles with Fraser Hicks, Captain of the Sea King, as our guide

The next morning dawns bright and fine and I make my way eagerly to the quay to join a St Mary’s Boatmen’s Association wildlife trip to the Eastern Isles. There’s nothing quite like the sights and sounds of St Mary’s quayside. The Scillonian III occupies her prominent berth, while happy holidaymakers board the off-island boats ready for a day’s excursion. The Eastern Isles are a group of eight islands that can be found to the south-east of St Martin’s. They are not only home to one of the largest breeding colonies of Atlantic grey seals in the archipelago, but also provide a habitat for eight breeding seabird species, including cormorants and puffins. The water is calm and the sun high and our trip feels like something of a mini cruise. Cormorants and seals abound, all enjoying a spot of sunbathing on the rocks. We are out on the water for an hour and half, which goes in a flash as there is so much to see. Although, sadly, the elusive puffin is precisely that.

As a Divemaster, my final underwater exploration of the weekend is much anticipated. In the company of Anna from Scilly Sea Snorkelling I get the chance to look beneath the waters of the Eastern Isles. And it’s a whole other, ethereally beautiful world. The sandy shallows team with fish, shrimps and crabs, all set against the pristine white sand that Scilly is famous for. We’re not under the water for more than a few minutes before an Atlantic grey seal glides into view. Her grey body glistens as the sunshine penetrates the surface from above, set against the stunning brown kelp forests beneath. As she turns towards me her giant black eyes are like jet pools. In a magical moment, her young pup swims up to her and as I watch in awe, they appear to cuddle and kiss. Neither are afraid of our presence and are happy to swim with us for most of the time we are in the water. There couldn’t have been a more fitting end to my wildlife adventure on Scilly and it certainly won’t be long before I’m back!


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