It seems to me that there is nothing quite as romantic as living on your own private island. Looe Island lies just one mile off the Cornish coast but feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of the busy summer seaside towns nearby. It is home to a breath-taking range of wildlife and 2 very lucky people!
The Moonraker boat takes us the short journey from Buller Quay in East Looe to the makeshift landing point on the white shingle beach of the island. As our small party of 8 people jumps ashore we are greeted by Claire Lewis and her partner Jon Ross. The pair have been wardens on the island for 9 years, “When the job came up in 2008 we were the lucky ones who got it” Claire laughs as she gives us a quick guide to the “dos and don’t” of the island.
These days access to Looe Island (also known as St George’s Island) is carefully managed for the benefit and protection of the wildlife there but it does have a long history of human habitation dating back to the Iron Age too. Looe Island was also once a site of Christian pilgrimage and then a haven for smugglers. In the 19th century the Finn family lived there and according to local legend survived on a diet of rabbits and rats.
Then in 1965 the island was bought by Babs and Evelyn Atkins. These two remarkable sisters lived alone on the island into their 80s and wrote 2 books about it – We Bought an Island and Tales from a Cornish Island. After their deaths they donated it to the Cornwall Wildlife Trust to be cared for as a nature reserve.
Looe Island is roughly 22 acres and only about a mile around but the diversity of the habitats – from grassland to sandy beaches, woodlands to coastal cliffs – makes it a unique haven for a wide range of wildlife. Around 20 species of butterfly have been spotted, as well as bats, numerous woodland birds and, according to Claire, a plague of slugs and snails of near biblical proportions. The island database also records more than 100 individually named grey seals, some which return to the island year after year to breed. But it was the huge numbers of sea birds that really delighted me!
I have never seen so many Cormorants and Shags in one places! They were everywhere on the rocks and cliff-sides, preening themselves and drying their wings in the sunshine. The island also has the largest colony of Great Black-backed Gulls in Cornwall.
From the shelter of the Bird Hide on the seaward side of the island we watched a bird that I am not sure I have ever seen before. The wildly acrobatic Fulmars, who wheeling about the sky and out across the sea before landing on their precipitous nesting sites high in the cliff face.
But the absolute highlight for me was the Oystercatchers. These stocky little characters are black and white with red legs and bills and bright red eyes. They nest on the ground, which makes them very vulnerable to predation, but on the island where (perhaps thanks to the Finn family but more likely CWT) there appears to be no mammals apart from the Herbridean sheep and the seals, they are thriving. Seeing a nest with two very well camouflaged chicks really was wonderful.
I already know that visiting Looe Island is going to be one of the highlights of my summer. It was very affordable (£7 return on the boat, £4 landing fee) and because of the limited access and restrictions on visitor numbers it feels very special to be there.
Claire and Jon saw us all safely back on the boat, there were no more visitors coming that day and as we sailed away, with them waving from the shore, I felt a pang of jealousy.
Landing on the island is very much dependent on the tides being just right – you can see a rough timetable here but this is often subject to change.
For more tales of the coast try: The Raising of Logan Rock or Crantock’s hidden rock carvings & a name for a mystery lady or Langarrow: Cornwall’s Sodom & Gomorrah