Julia Webb on islands, pollen, and lots of rain!

Our academics are often busy in the summer with research projects (no we don’t get the whole summer on holiday!). Here Julia Webb writes about her recent research field trip to a island off the coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales, one of the sunniest counties in the UK…! 

Fieldwork this summer for me has been pretty warm and sunny. In Switzerland in June we topped our trip records for mountain temperature and sunshine hours. It’s only right that my recent trip to Skokholm Island readdressed the balance, with a not a dry item of clothing left on the island!

Julia, Sarah and Henry enjoying the summer weather
Julia, Sarah and Henry enjoying the summer weather

You may remember a blog written here “Past island landscapes revealed by pollen” posted in May 2014. It described some research that we have been undertaking, trying to unravel the mystery of the current vegetation on Skomer Island (Pembrokeshire), and to document the last time natural woodland existed there. We’ve been successful in answering some of our questions, but to support our findings we gained permission to undertake a similar project on Skomer’s neighbouring island of Skokholm. Skokholm is important as a bird observatory and for its seabird colonies, with visitors on the island from March to November each year. The wardens kindly allowed me, Julia Smith (a recently completed PhD student of ours), Sarah Davies and Henry Lamb (University of Aberystwyth) to stay for a weekend to complete our fieldwork. We initially tried to get onto the Island in May, but due to an unappealing Atlantic swell, the little boat transporting us could not dock at the Island quay. We nearly had the same bad luck last weekend, but the friendly boatmen took us on 24h later once the swell had subsided (the rain continued incessantly).

Once on the island with all our kit (sampling the peat/soil can involve a lot of heavy equipment), we began our survey for suitable locations. Like Skomer, Skokholm Island has a history of human occupation and disturbance. Areas where the soil has been disturbed (cultivation, peat cutting for fuel, draining or damming) are avoided; we are looking for an undisturbed record of soil/peat development which (hopefully) will contain fossilised pollen in a layered chronology of island vegetation change.

Dandelion pollen
Dandelion pollen

When the going got tough, we called in for reinforcements! Thanks to the Oxford University OxNav team, who were having a quiet morning with few feathered visitors in the soggy conditions. Three areas looked promising, but we won’t know until the pollen samples are prepared over the next few months. Skokholm is a Norse name meaning ‘wooded isle’, or ‘pole isle’, so we are hoping to see some evidence for woodland. Stay tuned to the blog for updates.

Julia Webb, Senior Lecturer


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