Life of a Volunteer on Flat Holm Island

(it's not really a desert island!)

Life on any island is special and Flat Holm is no different. As a volunteer we get to help with all island jobs from the enjoyable to the mundane to the bizarre. Flat Holm is 5 miles off the coast of Cardiff in the Bristol Channel. The most southerly point in Wales it was home to the first radio message across water, has been fortified twice, is home to a cholera isolation hospital and has tales of smugglers and ghosts.  Sited within the Severn Estuary SPA, Flat Holm is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for the gull colony, wild leeks, geology and maritime grassland. The island is managed in two halves: one half as a grassland and is grazed by sheep and the other half is left to the scrub habitats which provide cover for the nesting gulls.

Our morning starts with daily duties - the only routine part of our day - with no mains electricity we need to complete daily generator checks to ensure we can get some electricity, feed the chickens and collect eggs, write the weather forecast down from the coastguard, record the climatological observations at our mini weather station and during the winter feed the sheep. We don’t have 'mains' anything here not even water so we collect rainwater form the roofs and the water is stored in  a huge underground tank and then when it is needed it is pumped form the tank through UV filters to make it safe to drink. We only collect water between September and April as there is too much guano on the roofs in the summer. As water is limited we can’t shower every day or waste water because once its gone… its gone.

Recently we have dedicated a lot of time to repairing the strained fence which separates the managed and unmanaged parts of the island, which had been subject to high winds and to naughty sheep squeezing their way through. We have had some amazing storms out here with waves crashing up onto the island with gale force winds. It’s a good job we have a small wood burner to help keep us warm and dry. We collect driftwood from the beach throughout the year to burn for warmth during the winter!!

Of course gale force winds out here can cause a lot of damage and being an island we can’t nip down the local DIY store to buy replacements parts or callout a contractor. We have to fix things ourselves as best we can with what we have….I believe you call it being resourceful. The longest anyone has been stuck out here is about 10 days because during the winter those north easterly winds can stick around for a long time. Our boat can’t travel in high winds so getting stuck here is always a possibility, more so in the winter. Good job we keep a freezer full of food and we always have the RAF rations they left behind if we get desperate.

Early this morning we had visitors from Trinity House, the lighthouse maintenance guys. They allowed us to go up the lighthouse where the views over the island were amazing. We had to hang on tight to the railings though as there was quite a breeze at the top.

As it is a sunny day we have carried out slow worm monitoring, butterfly transects and butterfly canopy trapping. Tomorrow we are doing the annual wild leek count, a lot less frantic than the annual gull count which we carried out in May. Gull parents are very protective and so donned with hard hats (very important) overalls (just as important if you want clean clothes), tally counters and spray paint we braved the gull colony to count the number of nests so we knew how many breeding pairs there were. Amazing but not for the faint hearted.  This afternoon we have a party of school children coming to stay. This is the really fun part running round the island on treasure hunts, bug hunts and survival activities - all in the name of education. The best part though are the ghost stories we tell them down in the Victorian underground ammunition pits at night. This certainly stops them from leaving their dormitories at night.

Our food and post will arrive on this trip which is great because we only have a main grocery shop sent to us once a month and fruit and vegetables are sent out about once a week. We have started our own vegetable patch however  which is great. Of course with no postman to deliver our mail the post arrives sporadically and is dependent on boat trips. This means sometimes we can get it delivered it daily but at other times we may only get mail once a week especially during the winter.

With no cinema or pub for entertainment we do have a TV on the island, a pool table, table tennis table and lots of games plus of course it is a perfect place for barbecues and beach fires. It is important to be able to entertain yourself here but with such a great place to explore evenings are easily filled.   

Updated information February 2017:

Life in Flat Holm changes from year to year and now we no longer have chickens or commercial sheep our daily duties have changed a bit. But it's still lots of hard work and fun! Our newly renovated Lighthouse Keepers Cottage will be open for short stays this summer and we can't wait to welcome our first paying visitors to stay. We are also hosting he RSPB Big Wild Sleep Out again in July so that will be a lot of fun.

To find out more about life on the island right now and what we offer visit:


Updated information March 2020:

We have been incredibly fortunate to be granted a Development grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund for an 18 month development phase for our project ‘Flat Holm: A Walk Through Time’ which started in January 2018. We plan to restore and stabilise some of our rich heritage, engage with visitors on the island and bring the story of Flat Holm to the public on the mainland.

First published in CJS Focus on Coast & Marine Environments in association with The Marine Biological Association and Marine Conservation Society on 21 August 2006

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