An unprecedented scorcher of a day may have been predicted by the national weather forecast, but as our group of ten nature enthusiasts from Launceston Area Parish Wildlife Group (LAPWG) and a good friend from Looe boarded our little boat, there was a slight chill in the air. As Jen, our usual coordinator, waved us off from the quay, thin, grey mist hung over the wooded hills above Buller’s Quay and the dark grey, white-tipped waves were a little on the choppy side. This only added to the excitement of our trip to visit Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s only island nature reserve, Looe Island.
Jon and Claire, the island’s resident wardens, were already waiting on the silvery scoop of beach to give us a warm welcome, put out the landing stage and keep hold of the boat as we clambered over the side. Along the sand lay grey and white stones, some large, pale, plate-like pebbles, low-growing plants that would be trampled away on busier beaches, and a little wooden boat. The backdrop was dense woodland, growing uphill to the top of the island. A sense of peace came over us as we stepped onshore. The sun came out and fleeces were removed as we followed Claire up the beach and along a narrow, uphill path with high hedges. We arrived at a quaint reception desk next to a little building full of information about the island and its wildlife. My attention was drawn first of all, however, to the fresh island produce for sale, which included apple juice, jam and chutney, courgettes, chillies and hen’s eggs of different sizes and colours.
After an introduction from the wardens, including safety advice, we were given laminated guides, to return at the end of our circular walk. As we perused the books and information in the building, we were gently reminded that our visit time was limited to two hours, and we dragged ourselves away and headed into the sunshine along the island trail. We were extremely fortunate that one of our number was Derek Spooner from Looe, a retired academic and geographer who has become an expert conservation volunteer for various local groups. Derek is the author of books about the wildlife of the area and a frequent visitor to Looe Island. He helps bird ringers, identifies seals and monitors birds and nests as well as leading guided walks. We were delighted when he offered to lead the way, commentating as he went.
First of all, he told us about the island’s former rat problem, and how the rats had been eradicated by Cornwall Wildlife Trust, bringing a welcome increase in the numbers of ground-nesting birds. Interestingly, there are no mammals on the island other than bats (lesser horseshoe and pipistrelle, and perhaps the occasional Daubenton’s). Just offshore, however, grey seals (with more dog-like faces, as Claire had described) and the occasional common seal (with a rounder, more cat-like face) are often seen.
Just past pretty Smuggler’s Cottage, our first sightings were of butterflies – mostly distinctive orange-brown gatekeepers but also the occasional ringlet, meadow brown and red admiral. They flitted amongst the flowery hedges – including new hedges made for wildlife by the wardens – and across a grassy field where ‘Babs’ (Roselyn), one of the Atkins sisters who used to own the island, was buried in 2004. What a peaceful place to rest.
We were impressed by Claire’s well-kept and productive organic flower and vegetable plot behind Jetty Cottage, where the wardens live. Among the produce were some impressive cardoons, and the microclimate provides opportunities to grow grapes and a kiwi vine, as well as the chillies I noticed on arrival. The wardens also share a variety of fruit trees with the local wildlife. The sisters lived at Island House, which was leased to the first couple to marry on the island in 2006.
At the headland, a small group had gathered to watch as a seal ‘bottled’ in the water, its nose upright like the top of a floating bottle. Some of the residents and regular visitors are sighted on multiple occasions. My photo was blurred, but there was a brownish nose and quite splodgy patterning. It later transpired, thanks to an ID from Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust, that this was an as-yet unnamed seal first spotted only a month earlier!
As we passed the edge of the woodland at the top of the island, a wren scolded us loudly. Wrens are common on the island, but, as Derek told us, no blue tit has ever been seen there, great tits are rare, jackdaws have been seen only once and there are no magpies. Derek monitors oystercatchers, fulmars, shags and cormorants. The gulls are mostly herring and black-backed gulls, although black-headed gulls and the occasional Mediterranean gull visit too. Although crows, ravens, buzzards and peregrines may appear, some chick casualties may be down to cannibalism amongst the gulls.
We saw great black-backed gulls with their quite large speckled offspring on the grassy slopes where a few Hebridean sheep were grazing, and herring gulls accompanying the shags and cormorants on the rocks below or swooping low over the grass. Young herring gulls were content to bob around on the sea in groups, looking like teenagers. According to Derek, they can swim before they can fly. On the rocks behind a little beach, we caught sight of a couple of oystercatchers, bright black and white with a red eye, but surprisingly difficult to spot on rocks.
Where the cormorants had raised their young, the black rocks were splashed with white guano, and in the black-backed gull field, fluffy baby feathers littered the ground. Derek told us about the sheep: the flock of 20, which were only briefly a breeding flock, have gradually reduced to eight through old age, or were taken to the mainland for breeding. Sheep are not bred on the island, as it is difficult getting veterinary help, but the Trust are in negotiations about getting some more. Hebridean sheep can graze brambles, which can take over much of the island if not kept in check. The sheep droppings looked much like rabbit droppings, but rabbits were not there at all.
As we looked across to ‘Little Island’ and in a patch of sea between rocks a shiny, dark grey seal head appeared above the water – who turned out to be Brittany. Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust later told me that this was the 245th time Brittany had been sighted, having moved from the Lizard to Looe and apparently settled happily over here.
Jagged rocks on the edges of the island were perches for shags, cormorants, black-backed gulls and herring gulls, looking out to sea. A little further along, by the turf-topped bird hide, Derek told us that there were probably fulmars under us as we stood on the grassy cliff. Fulmars spend more of the year at sea than their cliffside companion species. At the age of about six, a fulmar lays a single egg, which takes about 50 days to hatch and another 50 days to rear. The first fulmars appeared in Cornwall in 1943, having spread from north-western areas such as distant St Kilda, perhaps lured south by discards from the fishing and whaling industries. After this, the ‘fat-ball’ chick has to make its own way in the world.
We were now at the place described on our guide as ‘View Point’. Rising from below was a strong smell of bird guano, coming from the big chicks of the black-backs in the grass. To the west were steep, rocky cliffs. Large, open cormorant nests, trampled by growing offspring, had gone by the time we arrived (late July). These are easy for Derek to count. Shag nests, hidden on ledges, are more difficult to spot. The shag nesting area was taken over by ravens visiting from the mainland one year, but today the shags looked undisturbed and confident, although their distinctive crests, which appear in spring, had gone. The flatter rocks below us were more popular with oystercatchers.
Having walked up steeply for a while, we reached the summit of the island, the site of the remains of a very ancient chapel, possibly dating to the 12th century or earlier.
Heading back down and facing the mainland again, we spotted an oystercatcher on the rocks below that was almost invisible although in plain sight, and then we saw a whimbrel, a slender brown bird with an elegant long, sloping bill.
Further inland, Derek sometimes finds stonechats. Just as we were tiring in the beating sun, a refreshing breeze cooled us a little, and then we were quite relieved to find ourselves in the cool shade of sycamore woodland again. We spotted a holly blue butterfly, and there were beautiful views of the main beach through the trees.
The boatman was approaching, a light blue shape on the wide sea, and civilisation in the form of tourist-filled Looe beckoned once more. Our visit was behind us all too quickly, and there was no chance to explore the sea life of the kelpy fringes and rockpools around the margins of the island, but I did find time to buy half a dozen hen’s eggs in half a dozen shades of brown. All too soon we were through the harbour entrance and there was Jen, taking our photo as we went past. The hills above Looe were still shrouded in mist, but down by the shore the sun shone, and visitors swarmed around the ice cream, pasties, fish and chips, teas and cakes. Others milled around the shops that sold nets and inflatables, getting in the way of the odd annoyed car driver. Some lured unsuspecting crabs into plastic buckets, using identical strings with brightly coloured plastic handles and little netted bags of chum. Discarded in the water, these bags rather resemble a meaty sort of jellyfish, so I hope they don’t end up in the stomachs of larger marine creatures. Some of the LAPWG group were meeting for lunch, while others sat by the water before returning to their duties at home.
Meanwhile, with their day visitors out of the way, Jon, Claire, the sheep and the gulls were left to their Looe Island life in maritime tranquillity.