Exploring the Welsh Coast


The coast of Wales offers some of the United Kingdom's most fascinating coastal flora and fauna. The offshore islands of Grassholm, Skomer and Skokholm play host to some of Britain's largest seabird colonies. Grassholm is famous for its large colony of breeding Gannets. Over 30,000 pairs nest on just 2 acres of rocky island, making it the second largest gannetry in the British Isles. With so many Gannets it doesn't leave much space for other birds, but a few Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes manage to find enough space to nest. The immense size of the gannetry makes it a colony of international importance. As a result, visitors can only land on the island after the 15th June so as to not disturb the birds whilst they are incubating. Good views of the colony can also be had from the sea throughout the breeding season.

One kilometre off the Pembrokeshire coast is the island of Skomer. Established in 1959 and run by the NCC, this 413ha rock supports one of Europe's largest Manx Shearwater colonies, with over 100,000 pairs breeding each year. The birds spend the daylight hours out at sea feeding and return to the colony in the hours of darkness, when they are safe from the predatory gulls that also breed there. Skomer also has the usual cliff-nesting birds and Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots are all present in good numbers. Short-eared Owls are a speciality of Skomer, with a couple of pairs breeding regularly. Mammals are also a feature of the island. Skomer has its own race of Bank Vole, and Grey Seals are numerous.

Dwarfed by Skomer, Skokholm (meaning 'wooded Isle' in Norse) is only 100ha, but has a very successful breeding colony of Storm Petrels, numbering somewhere around the region of 6,000 pairs. Like the shearwaters, these birds are only present at their breeding sites after dark. In common with the other Pembrokeshire islands, Skokholm has numerous breeding pairs of auks.

Access to the islands can be tricky at times. Grassholm in particular is inaccessible except in very calm weather. Boat services to the islands run from Martin's Haven on the Marloes peninsula. Details about times etc can be got obtained from the Dale Sailing Company (0646 636349).

Ramsey Island is situated one mile off the coast of Pembrokeshire, near St. David's. This 253ha island is owned and managed by the RSPB and is a breeding stronghold for Choughs. Up to ten pairs can be found nesting on the cliffs around the island, and the majority of the birds are resident so can be found on the island all year round. The beaches and caves of Ramsey are the Welsh stronghold for Atlantic seals. Between late August and mid-November, over 400 pups are born. Visiting is by boats that depart from the Lifeboat Station at St Justinians near St. David's. They run between April and October, but visitor numbers are limited to 40 per day to keep disturbance to a minimum.

If island hopping isn't your scene, the mainland coast has plenty to offer. South Stack Cliffs on Anglesey is another RSPB reserve situated in the extreme northwest of Wales. The area, covering 316ha, consists of high cliffs, caves and numerous offshore stacks. The species found are similar to those of the Pembrokeshire coast in the south, with several pairs of Chough, and one or two pairs of Peregrines. Thousands of Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Puffins and the occasional pair of Black Guillemot use the cliff ledges. The visitor centre at Ellin's Tower gives excellent panoramic views of the cliffs and nesting birds. Also, a CCTV system relays live pictures of the seabirds from April to August when the birds are present. Other good seabird colonies can be found at Newquay and Lochtyn, where Chough and the usual auks breed.

Red Kites breed inland throughout central and west Wales and can often be encountered anyway along the west Wales coast. Winter can often be the best season as they leave there breeding sites and search for carrion.

During the winter months, many seaduck, grebes and divers frequent the whole coast of Wales. Large flocks of Common Scoter favour Cardigan Bay, Cardiff Bay and Llanfairfechan. These flocks often contain Velvet Scoters and Scaup, whilst Eider and Long-tailed Ducks are also regular features. The area of sea around Llanfairfechan and Bangor is also renowned for its regular Surf Scoter, and the flock regularly includes a Black Scoter.

The coastline between Newquay and Barmouth is a favourite haunt of divers, in particular Red-throated, and Purple Sandpipers winter along the rocky shore at Aberystwyth. Winter raptors are regular at certain sites. Hen Harrier, Merlin and Short-eared Owl can be found at Ynylas and Borth Bog throughout the winter months. They can also be observed at the RSPB reserve of Ynys-Hir where a small flock of Greenland White-fronted Geese also winter, as do many other wildfowl and waders.

Great Orme is another prime site in winter, in particular for waders, with Slavonian and Red-necked Grebes offshore, and mixed flocks of Snow Bunting, Twite and the occasional Lapland Bunting and Shore Lark.

Seawatching from coastal promontories during spring and summer can be rewarding, particularly for unusual shearwater species such as Sooty and Cory's, as well as Gannets, Pomarine and Arctic Skuas and Storm and Leach's Petrels. Land migrants often contain good numbers of Pied Flycatcher, Common Redstart, Wheatear, Whinchat, Wood Warbler and Ring Ouzel, all of which breed in the vicinity. Some of the best sites for seawatching and migrants can be found at Strumble Head, Gold Cliff, Aber Dysynni, Pont Dinllaen, Morfa Mawddach and Sker Point.

Written by: Steve Portugal