Magazine article Geographical

Isles of Scilly: Despite Suffering Regular Batterings by the Atlantic Ocean, the 200 or So Low-Lying Granite Islands and Rocks That Form the UK's Smallest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and England's Most Westerly Point Are a Haven for Hundreds of Unusual Plant and Animal Species. but, as Natalie Hoare Discovers, the Threat of Sea-Level Rise Is a Real Cause for Concern

Magazine article Geographical

Isles of Scilly: Despite Suffering Regular Batterings by the Atlantic Ocean, the 200 or So Low-Lying Granite Islands and Rocks That Form the UK's Smallest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and England's Most Westerly Point Are a Haven for Hundreds of Unusual Plant and Animal Species. but, as Natalie Hoare Discovers, the Threat of Sea-Level Rise Is a Real Cause for Concern

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Conversation among the few passengers aboard this small Twin Otter aircraft are brought to an abrupt end by the sound of its twin propellers coughing and spluttering into action. After the pilot casually leans one arm over his seat and gives us the safety brief-'lifejackets are under the seats, emergency exits are just there'--we're up and away, leaving the grassy windswept airstrip on Land's End far behind.

Fifteen minutes later, I catch my first glimpse of the oval-shaped archipelago of granite looming out of the Atlantic Ocean below. It's a swelteringly hot day and there's barely a cloud in the sky as we touch down on St Mary's, the largest and most populated of the five inhabited Isles of Stilly. As I step off the plane, my senses are reeling, trying to comprehend the heat, the exotic vegetation dotted about and the spectacular panorama of neighbouring islands; not more than an hour ago, I'd been wedged inside a noisy train from London, staring out the window at a gloomy overcast sky.

Absorbing the exquisite blues and greens of the isles' sheltered 'inner circle' and their sparkling white beaches, it feels as if I'm somewhere in the Mediterranean rather than on the rain, wind--and tide-shaped rocks that form England's most westerly point.

MILD AT HEART

The 200 or so islands, islets and rocks that make up the Isles of Stilly share the same latitude as Newfoundland, but that's where the similarities end. Looking around at the practically empty beaches and subtropical plants, it's baffling to think how the latter might have come here in the first place and, more importantly, how they can survive.

It's all down to Scilly's position at the end of the North Atlantic Drift, a branch of the Gulf Stream, explains Rosemary Parslow, natural historian, author of The Isles of Stilly and lifelong devotee of the isles (she even named her three children after various islands).

'The ambient temperature is milder here than on the mainland, although it's not quite as warm as it is in, say, Cornwall', she says. 'You occasionally get snow and very occasionally get a frost, but otherwise, a lot of plants can grow throughout the winter because the temperature is just above the ground temperature they need [to survive].This is why the flora here is rather special. And it isn't just the flora--it's everything related that that supports'.

The warm climate was seized upon by early entrepreneurs, who established a once flourishing flower growing industry. By the turn of the 20th century, more than 40 tonnes of flowers were being shipped to markets in London several times a week.

'Daffodils were one of the major economies on the island for a long time. Because of our geographical position, the sandy soils are heated up in the sun and the bulbs flower here before Christmas[explains David Mawer, senior conservation warden at the Isles of Stilly Willdife Trust. 'That gave us a real advantage'.

Flower farming has had a significant impact on the landscape's character. Narrow fields with high hedges designed to protect the fragile flowers from the full force of the Atlantic can still be seen. Interestingly, these features have also boosted wildflower biodiversity.

'Some of the plants that migrated into the bulb fields presumably from arable fields, heaths and sand dunes--were very receptive to the methods used to cultivate flowers, taking up residence among the bulbs,' says Parslow. 'So you have this whole suite of plants that are hardly found at all in mainland Britain, some of which have even gone extinct because of the decline of arable weeds'.

Away from the cultivated fields, the rich mixture of wild lowland heath, rugged coastline, sparkling white sandy bays, dunes and saline lagoons give this AONB (which encompasses 'all the islands and islets above mean low water that together form the Isles of Stilly') a very wild feel, making it an absolute pleasure to explore, as the 125,000 tourists that make the 45 kilometre journey by boat, plane or helicopter each year would attest. …

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