FSC | Field Studies Council

Field Studies Council: Bringing Environmental Understanding to All

1957 John W. Cowan, Associate Tutor at Flatford Mill since 1982 memories of FSC Dale Fort

The following are extracts from a diary I kept while attending a course on the Pembrokeshire Coast, its Scenery and Natural History at FSC Dale Fort

Thursday 30th May
9.15 a.m. saw our party of twelve meeting outside in the sunny courtyard. A haze over the water foretold a fine day. We were bound for Grassholm, an island famous for its gannet colony - about 10,000 breeding pairs. It is the largest of the very few colonies in Britain. The island can only be visited when suitable tides and weather coincide. Last year only two trips were made. The boat’s speed is 5 knots and that of the tide is 3 knots, so that it is essential to work with the tide. The party clambered into the small open motor boat and we chugged round the Dale peninsular towards the Atlantic. I was surprised to find the sea almost as smooth here as it had been in Dale Roads. An hour’s most enjoyable sea trip brought us to Skolkholm, where the Field Centre has an outpost. Ornithologists visit this island to study the many sea birds. It was thrilling to see puffins, razorbills and guillemots for the first time. Skolkholm is bounded all round by cliffs and the boat entered a small bay, where about ten ornithologists were gathered on the jetty waiting to board. We did not land, but pushed off straight away for Grassholm - another hour’s voyage. I lay back in the bow of the boat enjoying the sun and reading a pamphlet on the vegetation of Grassholm.

Grassholm is also bounded by cliffs, with the Gannet colony on the north side. We sailed round the north before gingerly coming up a narrow gully to land on the rocks - there was no beach or jetty. Scrambling out of the boat was quite an effort for those unaccustomed to boats as I was. However, we were soon all ashore and the boat withdrew with its local sailor to fish off the island.

The first wonder to be seen was a small colony of kittiwakes nesting on the cliffs so close that I could have touched the nests. The birds took very little notice of the unusual visitors gazing at them. I began to wish I had more film with me - I had taken five photographs on the voyage and of course took one of the kittiwakes. Scrambling up the hill I nearly trod on a gull’s nest with its three large brown-spotted eggs!

We all settled ourselves for lunch on the exceptionally luxuriant carpet of red fescue (Festucarubra), the dominant grass of the island. It was almost like a feather bed. The reason for this growth is the abundance of manure from sea birds and the absence of grazing animals.

We then continued our climb to the top of the hill, where the smell of the gannet colony hit me, being downwind from it. Here again the birds were not easily scared and a photograph was a must. The gannets and their nests completely covered the ground, so that from the boat in the distance it had looked like limestone rock.

Making a circular tour of the island, which is only a quarter of a mile long we saw numerous gulls nests, in one of which two eggs were in the process of hatching. Around another were many broken shells of eggs which the gulls had stolen for their meals. I saw several Razorbill’s eggs, each laid singly in a rock crevice out of the way of marauders. There was apparently no attempt at making a proper nest.

I gathered one or two mosses and a liverwort, but there was very little there. The island had at one time supported a large puffin colony, but the ground had become so undermined by their burrows that most of these have caved in.

The other interest on the island was the seals, who sunned themselves on the rocks. We did not get very close to them, however.

My last photograph I took of the tree mallow (Lavateraarborea), which I saw before only in Jersey. The journey back to Dale was very pleasant - still in perfect weather.

After supper Barbara Dresser, an assistant, gave us a talk on the geology of Pembrokeshire. By the time I had sorted out my botanical specimens I was very ready for bed.

Friday 31st May
At 9.30 a.m. we all packed like sardines in the Centre’s van, which took us to Nolton haven. Mr.Barrett, the Warden, and Barbara Dresser both came. Mr.Moyse, Assistant Warden, had led the Grassholm expedition. From Nolton we took a cliff walk to Broadhaven. St.Bride’s Bay is itself subdivided into numerous small bays where the sea has eaten into softer rocks. Mr.Barrett explained the flora and Miss Dresser the geology as we went along.

The weather was again perfect and I was able to wear my shorts. The views were magnificent. At one point there was a natural arch of rock. Some of us scrambled down to walk over it. Across the rock bridge a platform of rock stretched out to the sea. Mr.Barratt had come across with the rest of us but had disappeared from sight. Presently he climbed from one side of the rock, having waded under the arch and declaring he had now satisfied himself. He is a great one for “doing” places in this manner. I tried to follow suit, but although I went through the arch I could not get right round, and my shorts got a bit wet in the process.

Earlier at Haroldston Chins, where we had lunch, Mr.Barratt and Barbara Dresser had disappeared down a particularly steep path to the beach and none of the party had dared follow. Two of us made several excursionary attempts and came back. After lunch, however, I did descend to find Mr.Barrett and Miss Dresser lazing on the beach wondering why on earth everybody else had not come down - or the more agile of them anyway!

After supper Mr.Barrett gave us a lecture on local history and the importance of the sea. He is a very good speaker, very interesting and with a dry humour.