“It’s 50-50 at the moment. The skipper’s just gone down to have a look at the sea conditions. Can you ring back in 15 minutes?” The woman with the Staffordshire accent put the phone down and looked about her. There had been too many days like that this summer.
I was standing in the queue in the South and West Wales Wildlife Trust’s booking office, waiting to buy a ticket for the crossing to Skomer, a small island in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park which is managed as a nature reserve by the Trust. Skomer is famous for its thousands of pairs of breeding puffins, and only 250 people are allowed to cross to it every day. Apparently on a good day 700 turn up in the hope of making the trip, and to be sure of getting aboard you need to be there by 7 in the morning. Today, as the rain fell outside the office I was in a queue of about 10 people. And it was already 8.15.
Fifteen minutes later they got the OK, and soon I felt as I am supposed to feel about the Olympics – I finally held my tickets excitedly in my hand. Puffins are famously unconcerned about a few people wandering about, and I made the short crossing in eager anticipation of them waddling around my feet as they made their way back to their burrows with mouths full of sand eels.
And the puffins are indeed all they are cracked up to be. 6,000 breeding pairs and a similar number of juvenile birds all going about their business in our midst. Feeding, bonding, squabbling and running the gauntlet of scavenging gulls only a few feet from us. And there are also seals, porpoises, gannets, fulmars and no end of other seabirds to admire at a distance. All a bit more wary than the puffins perhaps but well worth watching. And if you are there at dusk you have the awesome sight of over 100,000 Manx Shearwaters returning to the island under cover of darkness after a day at sea. In fact by noon all the permitted 250 of us were on the island.
Where humans are concerned though, Skomer has a rather different story to tell. The island provided a home for our species for several thousand years. Only a hundred years ago the Manx Shearwaters were not a tourist attraction but a useful source of fertiliser – unceremoniously dispatched with a blow to the head and then ploughed into the ground. Farming stopped in 1949 and today only the ghosts of permanent human settlement remain. The Victorian farmhouse is in ruins, with the outbuildings converted to a small visitor centre and some toilets. The field boundaries are lost under the bracken, which, as about the only thing the ubiquitous rabbits don’t eat, is gradually taking over the island.
To the lover of the wild of course this is a thrilling outcome. But I found myself staring back across the half mile of sea to the mainland, to the neat fields of rolling barley and pasture reaching to the cliff edges, and feeling rather as that 18th century polemicist William Cobbett might have done. The fertile soil of the mainland has the timeless beauty of profitable human endeavour. Skomer, by contrast, appears as a barren, unwelcoming wilderness from which he would have recoiled in horror, much as he did from the Surrey beauty spot of Hindhead.
Ironically the conservation of the island’s bird life, and that of its underwater flora and fauna which are protected by the surrounding Marine Nature Reserve (one of only two in Britain), provides an income for far more people today than eking a living from the soil of the island could. 250 visitors paying £20 per head – that’s £5,000 per day. And when the puffins leave at the end of July the seals take over, hauling out to have their pups in remote coves around the island, which keeps people coming until the end of the season. The wardens, office staff, boatmen, guides, photographers and dive schools all make a living from Skomer today.
This year of course things have not gone so well. The weather has affected everybody’s livelihoods. There have been many days when it has been too rough for the boat to go out at all. And as for diving, you need at least two weeks of settled weather to get decent visibility, which means few people will be paying for the privilege in 2012. All those who rely on Skomer for their income are facing the 21st century equivalent of a very poor harvest.
More to the point, the change in the landscape of Skomer displays a universal truth about what is happening to the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. The rest of it may look much as it did in 1952 when the Park was designated, but of course it is in reality anything but. Just up the coast from Skomer the pretty fishing village of Little Haven is now only one-third permanent residents, with the rest holiday lets, B&B’s and gastro-pubs at home counties prices. A combine harvesting contractor does in an evening what a century ago would have taken the whole village a fortnight, and St David’s, “Britain’s smallest city”, is today a collection of art galleries, surf shops and restaurants where you are as likely to hear an Australian accent as you are to hear Welsh spoken.
Mind you St David’s has been a tourist destination for quite a while, since Pope Calistus II canonised St David in 1120 and assured the faithful that two pilgrimages to his shrine were equal to one to Rome. The trade in indulgences, icons and holy relics may be long gone now, but St David’s is still making a good living from visitors.
And of course this is a story which could be told in any of our national parks. Flocks of Herdwick sheep only continue to graze the Lakeland Fells as a result of generous subsidies and the commitment of landowners like the National Trust. Without them the summits would be hidden by woodland within a generation. And the pretty tile-hung cottages of the South Downs are much more likely to house London bankers than local farmworkers.
So what do we actually want from our National Parks? The official-speak is that they are designated “to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area; and promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of their special qualities by the public.” And of course through planning controls, subsidies, and interpretation centres we can do this. We can keep them superficially looking the same as they always have, and tell people what it all means.
And don’t get me wrong – I love them. I love the beauty, sense of space and refuge from the city which they provide. And in rough weather – on top of a mountain or out in a small boat – the sense of adventure too. And I also like to be able to eat high quality, imaginative food as I look at the scenery, and buy an original artwork to remind me of my trip. Or even a new Gortex jacket. But this heritage of consumerism goes back no further than the rise of tourism in the industrial revolution.
Indeed the cultural heritage of our National Parks is nothing more nor less than the cultural heritage of British tourism – the heritage begun by those hardy followers after William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott, who sought out a safe amount of wildness not too far from a tea shop. But if you want to understand what has really happened to the human culture which preceded it – the thousands of years of the lives, livelihoods and hard work of countless individuals – then Skomer is the place to go. Not an espresso machine in sight, and you’ll be amazed by the puffins too.