For centuries, the tiny island of Lundyand its wonderful flora and fauna have – just about – survived the ravages of pirates, profiteers, rodents and rampaging rhododendron.
But the futures of rare birds and plants, plus the livelihoods of the hardy humans who live on this windswept hunk of granite off the Devon coast, are being put at risk by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Landmark Trust, which manages the island, has launched an urgent fundraising appeal, warning that Lundy’s way of life was at peril and vital conservation work was on hold because of a disastrous loss of income.
Lundy’s wellbeing depends to a large extent on the day trippers who travel over on the supply boat from spring to autumn. But lockdown forced Lundy to close at the end of March. Most of the staff were furloughed and the 3-mile (5km) long island remained shut for for 14 weeks.
The island is now open but social distancing rules mean that only 90 day trippers rather than 250 can visit daily.
Derek Green, the Lundy general manager, said he was deeply worried. “It’s a desperate state of affairs,” he said. “If we don’t raise the money, the island’s future is in jeopardy. Losing three months of income at our busiest time has been disastrous.”
Green, who has been on the island for 17 years, said Lundy needed GBP300,000 to take it through to next spring. “We’re appealing to anyone who loves Lundy to help us out. If we can get to the start of next season and life returns to normality we may be OK. Lundy has faced lot of challenges over the years but we’ve never had to face a pandemic.”
For hundreds of years the island’s strategic position 12 miles off the coast made it a perfect hideout for pirates, who would pillage ships heading into English ports.
Others who have tried to make a quick buck out of Lundy include the 18th-century north Devon MP Thomas Benson, who was paid to deport convicts to north America – but dropped them off 4,000 miles short on Lundy.
More than 100 years later, a businessman called Martin Coles Harman bought the island and declared himself king of Lundy. He was fined by the House of Lords for setting up his own currency, with “half puffin” and “one puffin” coins.
A new chapter in the island’s history began in 1969 when the late Jack Hayward, the former owner of Wolverhampton Wanderers football club, bought Lundy and donated it to the National Trust, who leased it to the Landmark Trust.
Since then, Lundy has enjoyed five decades of stability. It became the UK’s first-ever marine conservation zone and is a special area of conservation and a site of special scientific interest. Just months before lockdown, celebrations took place to mark the 50th anniversary of Lundy being handed over to the National Trust.
Conservation projects over the five decades included eradicating rats from the island, which the Landmark Trust says resulted in the tripling of seabird numbers. From a low of just 13 individuals at the turn of the century, there are now more than 400 puffins on Lundy and numbers of Manx shearwaters rose from 297 breeding pairs in 2001 to more than 5,000 by 2018.
Dean Woodfin Jones, the Lundy warden, said conservation work that had been paused or reduced because of the financial crisis included eradicating the invasive rhododendron. Keeping the cliffs clear is an expensive and painstaking job that needs specialist climbers, but has allowed the unique Lundy cabbage to make a comeback.
He said that if biosecurity measures were cut, there was a danger that rats, which can swim in from passing boats, could also creep back.
Woodfin Jones said: “Lundy is home to a host of rare and ecologically significant plants and animals, including nationally important seabird colonies, endemic plants and insects and endangered marine life. Every donation we receive will safeguard the island’s future, protect its wildlife and ensure specific conservation projects which have progressed over the past 50 years are not undone.”
Then there is the human cost. The permanent human population is already down from 28 to 24. Lundy supports a further 15 jobs on the mainland and works with around 200 local businesses and suppliers in north Devon.
Woodfin Jones, whose tasks over the last 24 hours have included helping get a visitor airlifted from the island after he suffered an ankle injury and showing a volunteer how to count seals, said: “A lot of people are scared they may lose their jobs and have to leave the island, leave the Lundy family.”