An Island of one's own - the story of the sisters who bought Looe Island

Hebridean sheep amongst coastal grassland on Looe Island nature reserve

Hebridean sheep amongst coastal grassland on Looe Island nature reserve - Credit: Claire Lewis

Sisters Babs and Evelyn ‘Attie’ Atkins had always dreamed of owning their own island, and back in 1965 they chose Looe Island, a mile off the South Cornish coast, an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is now Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s only marine nature reserve.

The sisters lived there fulltime, with Babs there on her own much of the time. When Attie passed away at the age of 87 her elderly sister Babs was offered a multi-million-pound deal to turn the island into a theme park. She refused and instead chose to bequeath Looe Island to Cornwall Wildlife Trust to ensure the protection of the wildlife and continued wild beauty of the place.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on Looe Island Nature Reserve by Claire Lewis

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on Looe Island Nature Reserve - Credit: Claire Lewis

The trust has been looking after the Island since 2004 and work continues to protect and enhance this marine nature reserve. A natural sanctuary for sea and woodland birds, the waters around the island are also teaming with wildlife. 

Looe Island is home to many nesting birds such as cormorants, shags and oystercatchers. It also has the largest breeding colony in Cornwall of the majestic great black-backed gull. With a wingspan of around 1.5m, this species uses its size to its advantage robbing other sea birds of their catch as a means of obtaining food. 

A grey seal called Brittany Big Eyes poses for the camera by Claire Lewis

Brittany Big Eyes the grey seal - Credit: Claire Lewis

The nature reserve is also home to grey seals. With adult males of around 2m long and weighing over 200 kg they are Britain's largest mammal. These spectacular creatures are often seen from the island to the delight of visitors. 

Looe Island has been the home of ground-breaking seal research over the past 21 years and the 100th survey was celebrated in 2019. Led by Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust, this citizen science project was developed in partnership with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Looe Marine Conservation Group to discover the secret world of the island’s seals.
Abby Crosby, Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Marine Conservation Officer organised the very first trial survey.

'Ten years ago, so little was actually known about Looe’s charismatic seals. But today, 100 surveys on, a whole world has been opened to us and all thanks to the dedication of local volunteers. Now we understand this population of Atlantic grey seals better, we can work together as a community to conserve them, protecting their future which is so important for Looe’s ecotourism industry.'

View of Looe Island with spring flowers from Horestone by Paul Lightfoor

View of Looe Island with spring flowers from Horestone - Credit: Paul Lightfoor

Conservation work by the trust since those early days has included the introduction of a flock of Hebridean sheep, the creation of wildflower meadows, woodlands, and clearing the shrub, with the help of volunteers.

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Trips to Looe Island run from Easter to the end of September. The visit starts with a boat trip from Looe’s bustling fishing harbour. Once landed on the island visitors are greeted by a resident Cornwall Wildlife Trust warden and learn about the fascinating nature and history of the island. 

The story of the Atkins sisters and their island can also be found in two books written by Evelyn called We Bought an Island and Tales from Our Cornish Island. A onetime haunt of smugglers, its known history includes a Benedictine chapel built in 1139, of which only a few stones remain.

During the three-hour stay visitors also discover how the island is run without services such as mains water, electricity from the grid and shops. After the guided walk, which includes a tour of the self-sufficiency fruit and vegetable plots, there is one hour to independently explore the island or join the warden for a picture show in Jetty Cottage.

View of Looe Island with spring flowers from Horestone by Paul Lightfoor

View of Looe Island with spring flowers from Horestone - Credit: Paul Lightfoor

Spring visits offer the chance to witness seabirds breeding along the dramatic coast and also to enjoy wonderful displays of wildflowers, while those opting for a summer walk can expect the nature reserve to be alive with insects and the 15 different species of butterflies recorded on the Island. 

As well as the walks, there is also the opportunity to stay on Looe Island for three-night short breaks in bell tents and enjoy all the peace and tranquillity of this special location.

Find out more at cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/looeisland