Skomer Marine Nature Reserve Allies
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Skomer Marine Nature Reserve
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MNR history

SKOMER MARINE NATURE RESERVE – WALES’ ONLY MNR

A SHORT HISTORY

Skomer Island’s early inhabitants, from prehistoric Celts to farmers struggling to make agriculture viable on a small offshore Welsh island in the early twentieth century, must have found the surrounding sea little more than a source of constant difficulties.  South-westerly storm swells and the racing tides of Jack Sound, the narrow but intimidating stretch of water that separates the island from the mainland, are challenging enough in a powerful modern boat, but how much harder it must have been in a rudimentary oar-powered open boat.

Although the prehistoric residents exploited the island’s nesting seabirds, little evidence has been found to indicate that the largely inaccessible shores provided a regular source of food.  When fishing did develop, it was from the mainland.  By the first half of the twentieth century, up to twenty boats were based at Martin’s Haven near the western extremity of the Marloes Peninsula.  But the Marloes fishermen of those days were mainly smallholding farmers, supplementing their incomes and larders by fishing, catching rabbits and collecting seabird eggs in season.

The days when a dozen, oar-powered, fishing boats were hauled up the beach at Martin’s Haven are still within living memory.  Many visitors to Skomer and the Marloes Peninsula are likely to remember Kenny Edwards, the National Trust’s car-park attendant for 21 years until the early 1990s.  Ken was always happy to recount tales of fishing from Martin’s Haven with his father in the 1930’s, describing rowing as far as Skokholm, to set and haul strings of a dozen wicker pots by hand.

Naturally, motorised fishing eventually came to the Skomer area, both powering vessels and pot-haulers.   Although there are no reliable records, effort undoubtedly increased dramatically with the coming of mechanical fishing.  The effect on catches was such that even by the mid-1960s a local Pembrokeshire historian was commenting on the scarcity of lobsters.

For centuries, seals were also exploited around Pembrokeshire; historical accounts describe them being hunted ruthlessly.  Killed for their skins, for oil rendered from their fat and, apparently, also for sport, the sea was described in one record from the early 1700’s as being “red with blood”.

Early interest in the wildlife of Skomer focussed on seabirds and visits from the public were  so well established by the early twentieth century that the island’s owners became concerned about the disturbance they caused and closed the island to visitors – especially photographers – in 1909.   Nevertheless, interest in the island’s natural history continued to grow, and following surveys by the West Wales Field Society (now, after several evolutionary and name changes, the Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales) in the mid 1940s, the Island became a National Nature Reserve in 1959.

Although the importance of the island’s offshore position was recognised as critically important to the conservation of seabird populations, the waters between island and the Marloes Peninsula were still a major logistical inconvenience to the island’s wardens.  Also, despite the appreciation of the sea’s importance as the source of food for the island’s nesting birds, the marine environment did not seem to command much respect.  One early island warden even recorded how empty food tins were thrown into North Haven to dispose of them!

But the regular visits to the island by professional conservationists and educators, coupled with the marine biological expertise of the nearby Dale Fort Field Centre led to increased curiosity about the marine wildlife around Skomer, and the effects on it from human pressures.  Unease about the possible ecological effect of divers collecting large numbers of sea urchins from the area around Martin’s Haven as souvenirs and for the curio trade developed in the late 1960s.   At about the same time, the potentially damaging impact of dredging for scallops with heavy, toothed, dredges become apparent.  First suggestions for a need to protect the marine environment around Skomer came in 1968, but it took until 1971 before a small group of local naturalists and biologists from the Field Studies Council proposed that a marine reserve be established around the island and the adjacent Marloes Peninsula.

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