A guided walk on Looe Island Nature Reserve – the island paradise
Words and photographs by Rebecca Bentley
As the days get sunnier, so Cornwall’s coastal towns begin to swell with ice cream scoffing beachgoers. Such was the case on my recent visit to Looe, in south east Cornwall, on a glorious Sunday afternoon. It felt fantastic eating lunch on the beach after many months of waiting, but it was even better to hop on a boat and escape the crowds with a trip to Looe Island Nature Reserve.
The Moonraker boat picked us up from Buller Quay in East Looe, the busy harbour side of the town, taking us smoothly across the glistening water. Within 15 minutes we were greeted by island warden Jon Ross on a seemingly tropical beach inhabited by two nesting oystercatchers – a far cry from the bustling beach we’d left behind.
Looe Island consists of 22 acres of land that includes rocky reef, shingle, sandy beaches, woodlands, coastal cliffs and maritime grassland. Its landscape is home to a variety of sea and woodland birds, as well as insects and a flock of Hebridean sheep brought to the island in 2006. It was once home to a number of rats, but Cornwall Wildlife Trust has worked hard to kill these off.
Jon is one of four residents on Looe Island, or St George’s Island as it is also known, making it the only place in the UK with two official place names (though it has had many others over the centuries). Jon lives with his partner, fellow Cornwall Wildlife Trust warden Claire Lewis, in Jetty Cottage – built in the 1870s, it was later inhabited by the Atkins sisters who, upon their passing, bequeathed it to the trust, along with the rest of the island, in 2004.
Starting at the east side where the boat dropped us off, Jon leads our group of seven on a circular walk around the island. We pass smugglers’ cottages and artefacts, and stroll through a pretty vegetable garden where the wardens grow raspberries, leeks and grapes (among other things), enabling them to be largely self-sufficient during the summer months. They also keep some very happy free-range chickens too.
Jon explains: “It’s unusual to have a wooded island. It’s largely dominated by sycamores; we’ve been introducing different varieties of trees and creating small wildflower meadows. Diversifying the trees and plants is beneficial for birds and insects, and the mix of grassland, scrub and woods is attracting many butterflies and moths each year.”
He adds: “Claire does a weekly butterfly report and has recorded around 20 varieties since coming to the island. Visitors are most likely to spot speckled wood, red admiral and meadow brown, though other varieties such as silver washed fritillaries and the hummingbird hawk moth can be seen too.”
A vast expanse of sea shone ahead of us as we left the garden and cottage behind, and the prospect of seal spotting lay in the rocky waters of the Inner and Outer Ranneys. It wasn’t long before one of our group members spotted a pair of grey seals in the distance, and I zoomed in on them with my camera, just about catching a glimpse of a nose with bristly whiskers.
With the help of the Cornwall Seal Group and volunteers from Looe Marine Conservation Group, the trust is conducting a seal survey and identifying Britain’s largest mammals, using photographs to learn more the species. “We can identify the seals individually by the markings on their necks, so we know when our regular Duchess is visiting, as she has a string of pearls,” say Jon.
A few metres along the coast, a birdwatching hide overlooks the cliffs where Cornwall’s largest colony of great black back gulls nest among herring gulls, cormorants and shags. It was fascinating to see herring gulls in their natural habitat, sitting peacefully on the rocks rather than stealing chips from unsuspecting holidaymakers. Could these really be the same species we commonly refer to as seagulls? Apparently so.
A flock of 18 Hebridean sheep graze beside the cliffs looking out to Portlander Bay – their thick black fleeces provide good insulation when the winter sets in. Reaching the highest point of the island, we came upon the remains of a Benedictine chapel built in 1139, which can be seen jutting through the grass.
A visit from Channel 4’s Time Team in 2008 uncovered the burial of an adult male along with a piece of 13th-century pottery, and the team also had a huge surprise when they unexpectedly unearthed a hoard of Roman coins from one of their trenches. Legend has that Joseph of Arimathea visited the island too.
From this ancient site, we took a short walk through woods carpeted with wild garlic and clusters of bluebells, back to the cottage where we were given the choice of tea and biscuits looking out to Looe Bay, or the chance to learn more about the island with a slide show indoors before being whisked back to the mainland.
Claire says: “It’s a challenging way of life on the island, and we’ve learned to adjust to life off the electricity grid and without running water. It’s a different life, but it’s beautiful – we’ve escaped the rat race.”
- Guided walks on Looe Island take place on the following dates:
- Thursday, June 12 and Thursday, June 26
- Friday, July 11 and Saturday, July 26
Monday, September 8 and Tuesday, September 23
- Sail from East Looe. Numbers limited to 12 per boat.
- £20 (includes boat and landing fees)
- Places must be booked online, in advance at www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/islandwalks
Cornwall Wildlife Trust offers short tipi breaks on the island at certain times in the year, and caters for weddings in Jetty Cottage from April to September. Visit www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk