Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Mendip Island Steep Holm BBC Radio 4

Steep Holm north side facing Wales

Working once again with producer Mary Cowell from BBC Radio 4, this time on a programme about the Severn Estuary. I didn’t imagine my tasks would include a choppy boat ride and a day marooned on a wind-swept island! This was, however, where I found myself last Saturday. Steep Holm is just 5 miles off the coast of Weston-super-Mare, but feels far more remote, and is very Mendip-esque. Indeed, this tiny island was only separated from Mendip by the last ice age.
Now owned by the Kenneth Alsop Memorial Trust, Steep Holm covers around 48 acres (depending on tides) and measures 260ft at its highest point. Absence of mammalian predators it affords it’s wildlife ultimate protection; making this island a fantastic place for seabirds to nest. In particular Gulls seem to enjoy it here, and three species make up the bulk of the Gullery; the Herring Gull, Greater Black-backed Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull.
Great Black-backed Gull

Our guide for this trip, and the person I had to interview was the chairman of the Kenneth Alsop Memorial Trust, Tony Parson. It was fascinating to share some of his encyclopedic knowledge of both the human and natural history of this unique island, which I have gazed at across theBristolChannel for many years, but never visited.
For the few mammals that made it to Steep Holm (aided by humans) the isolation has been both a blessing and a curse. Both rabbits and hedgehogs were common here, but both have now been wiped out either by harsh weather or disease. One mammal that is still doing well, though, is Britain’s smallest deer, the Muntjac. These shy little animals (just 50cm at the shoulder) are everywhere, although you do have to be pretty lucky to spot one!

Herring Gull now Red Listed

Walking around the island during the summer months can be a little daunting and is definitely not for those with ornithophobia! The Lesser Black-backed Gulls in particular fiercely defend their nests by dive-bombing anyone that gets too close. The most common species is the Herring Gull; that epitome of Sea Gulls; bold and noisy, and not averse to steeling an ice-cream or chip straight from an unsuspecting tourists hand! The largest of the Gulls on Steep Holm is the Greater Black-backed, which is substantially bigger than the Herring Gull and quite capable of catching large sea birds and mammals such as Rabbits. Only eight pairs of these giant Gulls are currently breeding on Steep Holm, but even the familiar and once very common Herring Gull has seen huge decline in recent years, and is now Red Listed on the Birds of Conservation Concern List (BCC). The only predators any of these Gulls need worry about are Peregrine Falcons and of course other Gulls which might take the odd chick or weak adult. In fact, the gulls themselves often have to travel great distances to find food; searching out ploughed fields and rubbish tips and other areas where people leave waste such as beaches, playing fields and picnic areas.
Anyone looking for a truly different day out should definitely visit Steep Holm, to sample its special wildlife and learn about its fascinating human history. Boat trips go from Weston-super-Mare, and all the information you need can be found at or by calling 01934 522125. Of course, you will need to be able to clamber in and out of boats. Enjoy this forgotten corner of Mendip Hills, everyone that looked and ignored must visit.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

I have no TX date yet for this programme on BBC Radio 4 but it will feature as part of the new series of Nature.

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