Living off the Scilly Land

For my final major project at university, I am journeying to the Isles of Scilly for a photography project on this wildly diverse archipelago. My focus is currently the unique wildflowers of the islands, some of which are not found anywhere else in the UK such as the dwarf pansy. However, to broaden my understanding of Scilly (and also because it recently snowed there which has made me question my chances of seeing wildflowers next month), I have been researching how the first human residents used the land and its resources, which in some cases are vastly different ways to today.

  • During the Neolithic period, tribes were known to mark their presence on the islands using large stone monuments known as megaliths. These were for ritual or territorial purposes.
A megalith at Castle Down, Tresco (Source: The Megalithic Portal)
  • Wars and disputes subjected the inhabitants of Scilly to poverty and famine. One method of surviving such lean times was to forage seaweed. In 1684, production of soda ash from seaweed began, a material used to make soap, bleach and glass for the mainland. This practice lasted well over a century, and must have had disastrous impacts on wildlife.
  • The Bronze Age saw the first permanent populations arrive from west Cornwall. They fished, farmed, hunted and scavenged all sorts of foods to make their living. Birds such as razorbill, guillemot and even ravens and swans were hunted for their meat. Seals and the occasional whale were hunted to supply oil used for lighting.


  • Fishing was a vital source of food all year round, and once caught the animals were dried by the wind or salted for preservation. A vast amount of limpet shells suggests they may have been used as bait, and scallop shells to hold lighting lamp oil.


  • By the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, red deer had disappeared and dogs and rabbits were introduced. The birdlife grew in variety, suggesting the environment was changing. New bodies of water attracted fowl such as bittern, heron, snipe and more excitingly, evidence of chough. Remains of what are believed to be these birds and dating back to the 2nd century AD were discovered on St Martin’s.


  • The Duchy of Cornwall was established in 1337, when the title of Duke was granted to the Black Prince. Payment for a ledger dating from that year was 300 puffin, giving the impression that these coastal birds were a lot more abundant than in modern day. The puffin was highly valued, considered a fish instead of fowl, which allowed it to be eaten during Lent. Five hundred years later, although the monetary value of Scilly hadn’t been altered, the exchange rate for puffin had surged by 600% to fifty birds.

Incidentally, all of my photos in this post were taken in Scotland, but here’s hoping next month I’ll be capturing some Scillonian versions!

A Grand Day Out

On my first day off, I decided to cram in as much natural history as I could. First I went to Bristol Zoo for a spot of nostalgia. Going to the zoo was a thing of great excitement when I was younger – though half the time I was equally excited by the gift shop as by the animals – so considering I’d heard some good things about the Bristol Zoological Society and their conservation programmes, I made the chilly walk over to Clifton.

Unusually for me, I was drawn to the reptile house. Perhaps that was partly so I could warm up, but I also fell in love with the blue poison dart frogs. I’d seen them on TV before, but as is often the case, the screen dilutes the real wonder. Shocking azure and midnight blues and black speckles, with a perfect sheen across their skin. Lacking webbed toes, these beautiful frogs aren’t strong swimmers and instead frequent leaf litter or nooks and crannies in boulders. As their name implies, poison dart frogs release toxins from their skin, so don’t taste half as good as they look.

Other reptiles also caught my eye. There was the mountain chicken frog, so named because of its likeness to poultry when eaten, and the Chinese crocodile lizard that was locally known as the “lizard of great sleepiness”. I was also privileged enough to watch a face-off between a male turquoise dwarf gecko and an olive-coloured female. The pair were rather nonchalantly standing on a vertical wall of the tank, gazing intently at one another. The male twitched his tail and turned his head sharply to the side, perhaps displaying his beautifully chiselled cheekbones in an attempt to woo the female. I watched them with my neck at a unique angle for ages while they continued to stare at one another, until eventually the female headed back down the wall, obviously unimpressed.

I ate lunch on a bench overlooking Bug World. Almost immediately I was joined by a menagerie of birds trying to catch my eye; woodpigeons, blackbirds, and a particularly plucky starling. Just as I was admiring his beautiful plumage, he tried his luck and flew up, snatching a loose prawn from my sandwich. Before I’d even blinked it was down the hatch, leaving a smattering of mayonnaise on his bill. I doubted he’d been introduced to seafood before, and began to worry how he’d digest it. Then I remembered that the starling had in fact stolen from me, and I knew the resilience of urban birds was quite astonishing. The starling perched on the wall behind me, burbling for a while with head twitches this way and that. I finished the rest of my lunch in peace and he heartlessly left.


After a loop of the zoo, I headed back into town. A man sat playing the accordion with a huge and very contagious smile plastered across his face. Opposite him was another man selling the Big Issue, rather begrudgingly wearing a Santa hat. Lights led the way up Queen’s Road, with shoppers dashing around laden down with bags.

It was undoubtedly winter. There was a chill that tightened my lungs when I gulped the air and my ears were moaning, wondering where my hat was. It had been consistently cold all week and there was a definite hint of trepidation in the air. Snow was waiting in the wings, I was sure of it.

When I reached the museum there was a Pliosaurus waiting for me; a large, blue poster flapping seductively. I couldn’t resist and hurried in. Meandering through an army of taxidermy, I gazed at okapi, kakapo and kingfishers, as well as a sea of dinosaur bones that included miniscule prehistoric teeth laid out in perfect rows. There was also Bristol’s very own dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus, which stood no taller than a Labrador but roamed a tropical habitat during the late Triassic period, 210 million years ago.

After a slice of bakewell cake in the café and customary browse through the shop, I headed back out into the quickly darkening afternoon. As I was trying to make my neck as short as possible in the biting air, my eye caught on £3 bookshop and I veered sharply to the left without a moment’s hesitation. Bristol was amazing! Every wall was lined with books, every one brand new and three pounds or cheaper. I purchased a copy of Moby Dick, but had a sneaking suspicion I’d be back before next week was up.