Monday, 7 May 2018

From Indonesia to Skomer. The words of a Pembrokeshire lad.

Hi, my name is Tom Lloyd and I’m one of the new Long-Term Volunteers (LTVs) here on Skomer Island. I’ve been here for just over a month now and while there has been a lot to learn and many changes to my life, I think I’m settling in well. 
I’ve wanted to work in animal conservation for my entire life, and I’ve studied both Zoology and Primate Conservation at university. I’ve also volunteered before, but for the most part this has been on the other side of the world, most notably in Indonesia, and in completely different field conditions.

Me in the Sabangau rainforest of Central Kalimantan, Borneo. Heat and mosquitoes are not pictured
Skomer has presented me with a whole different set of challenges to overcome and experiences to enjoy. The intense heat of the tropics has been replaced by the rain and cold and strong Atlantic winds of West Wales, but, being a Pembrokeshire native I have never been a stranger to these things.
There are no primates here on Skomer (excusing the human kind) but the island is absolutely swarming with an incredible variety of birds, as anyone familiar with it knows, and it has been both daunting and a pleasure to get to grips with all the different species and the ways in which they live their lives.

Skomer is about as far from the jungle as you can get really. For a start there are no trees.
What I’d like to talk about today though is something very novel to me. Something which, despite knowing for a while beforehand that I would be doing it, was still hard for me to picture.

And that is learning to drive the island tractor.

Trundle in profile
His name, appropriately, is Trundle, and he’s the only motorized vehicle on the island. You can often set your watch by the sound of his engine arriving at the Farm or landing to pick up the luggage of our overnight guests and our vital supplies of gas, food and fuel. Life would be a lot more difficult without him, as without the tractor everything would have to be moved by hand (or rather, by wheelbarrow) and the hill leading up from the landing is strenuous enough even when you’re empty-handed.

Unfortunately, I know next to nothing about engines and vehicles, and while I can drive a car there are many differences to driving this tractor, which have made my established instincts completely wrong. Sarah, the Assistant Warden, who can take most of the credit for teaching me, has speculated that it might even be easier to learn if you cannot drive to begin with! 
For a start, Trundle has no accelerator. Once he is in gear, he will go, and his engine, while only capable of trundling along at a speed a little faster than walking, is strong enough to haul incredibly heavy loads. Alongside this neither the brake nor the handbrake are strong enough to stop the tractor while the engine is engaged for that you'll need both brake and clutch. Perhaps most confusing for me was the fact that Trundle has three gear sticks, all of which need to be used for the tractor to go. It is a little more like riding a bike than driving a car in that respect.
One thing however that makes driving this slow but powerful vehicle a little bit more nerve wracking are the incredibly narrow paths we have to work with here on Skomer. The whole island is a honeycomb of tunnels, burrows and nesting chambers, made by the resident puffins, Manx shearwaters and rabbits. All of this underground infrastructure makes the ground so fragile that all it takes is the foot of a careless visitor, or the leg of a camera tripod to collapse the homes of the animals living underneath. 
This means that a lot of focus is required when driving, to make sure you are keeping inside the narrow margins available to you, and for the most part you have to resist the urge to bird-watch from the elevated vantage point of the tractor’s seat. Something which can be hard to do when you’ve just spooked a short-eared owl at a distance of ten metres.  
The tractor is surprisingly well-maintained, especially considering all of the mud we get on rainy days, and so it’s no surprise to hear that the tractor is Sarah’s baby, and she takes his cleaning and maintenance very seriously. Being high up on the tractor though does have the advantage of elevating your own boots and legs above said mud, keeping them clean for a few more precious hours.
Apart from that though perhaps why I most enjoy working on the tractor is the chance to sing at the top of my lungs, completely unheard by anyone above the sound of its engine.
Learning to drive the tractor has been a novel and at times stressful experience for me, but it is something I’m very glad I’ve had the chance to do, and I’m happy to say that after several weeks of tractoring up and down the island, I think I’m getting the hang of it.  

See you in the slow lane!
Tom Lloyd, Long Term Volunteer Spring 2018

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