St Brides Haven snorkeling


Gorgeous little cove, the white sands and views reminding me very much of a Hebridean island beach. St Brides Haven is one of best spots for snorkeling in Pembrokeshire, if not Wales – head out for the reef protecting the cove for superb snorkeling in a kelp forest with  lobsters, crabs, wrasse, pollack and dogfish and if you’re lucky a seal. You’ll also enjoy yourself investigating the sandstone rock-pools around the cove, including gem and dahlia anemones.

Image: David Smith [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The last viable colony of black rats in Britain


The Shiant Isles in the Hebrides have the dubious distinction (as of 2015) of being home to what is probably the last viable colony of black rats in Britain, which has almost become extinct in the UK due principally to pressures from the also invasive brown rat.

The RSPB is current engaged in programme to to erradicte the black rat from the Shiant Isles, where some 3,600 live – the number increasing significantly in the months when more food is available (chicks and eggs). This will hopefully  encourage Manx shearwaters and storm petrels to breed on the Shiant Isles.

Charlie Elder sets out to find these unloved animals before they are erradicted, paying them a curious homage in his amusing Few and Far Between: On The Trail of Britain’s Rarest Animals (2015).

After noting that the black rat has been with us in Britain for longer than the rabbit, he sails to the Shiants and finds his prey:

An hour passed and the light was beginning to dim, when something moving from left to right at the top of the rocks caught me by surprise: a tantalising glimpse of tail disappearing between clumps of sea pink. I held my breath. Could this be one? There are no land mammals other than black rats on the Shiants, so it had to be. Please let me see you, little fellow, I whispered to myself. I was downwind and motionless, though close enough to have been spotted. Would it dare break cover for the sake of a free meal? Nothing stirred for a while, until . . . There! It sprinted to a new hiding place well above the bait –a rat, no mistake. Several minutes went by before it appeared once more, scampering down the face of the rock and dodging behind a piece of old tarpaulin lying next to a rusty boat winch. Black rats are known for their climbing skills, nevertheless the ability to descend slippery vertical stone head-first at such speed, without falling, was extraordinary.

Later noting:

There is no record that I am aware of for the ‘longest journey in Britain to see a rat’, but I feel fairly confident that my trip from Dartmoor to the Hebrides could lay claim to the title.

Photo of “Shiant Isles” by Tony Kinghorn. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Skomer Island


Approximately half the world’s population of Manx shearwaters nest on Skomer and its “sister” island of Skokholm with an estimated  total of 310,000 pairs on Skomer itself and 40,000 pairs on Skokholm, making this the world’s most important breeding site for the species. The birds usually nest in rabbit burrows. The two islands are also home to the largest colony of puffins in southern Britain (10,000 breeding pairs), many likewise nesting in the burrows created by the large population of rabbits.

BBC Radio 4’s Living World visits Skomer Island off the south east coast of Wales and home to thousands of seabirds.

There are 25,000 guillemots packed together on the cliffs, no other bird breeds in such close proximity to its neighbours. Fights and squabbles constantly break out, but friendships and pair-bonding are very strong. They keep the same mate for life and produce one chick a year. The fledgling has to leap from the sheer cliff face into the sea below to find its dad, surrounded by thousands of others, and try to avoid being eaten by predatory gulls. Each year each guillemot pair comes back to exactly the same place on the cliff ledge and they defend it vigorously.

In the early decades of the 20th Century there were 100,000 guillemots on Skomer but numbers plummeted to just 2000 after the second world war, probably due to oil pollution in the sea. Now numbers are slowly recovering but the increase in storms may be a problem for them in the future. Listen

Image of puffins on Skomer by Skomer-WickLand” by SkrrpOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Grassholm Island


Located 11 miles of the coast of Pembrokeshire, Grassholm is home to more than 39,000 breeding pairs of Gannet, representing around 10 percent of the world population – the third largest Atlantic gannet colony in the UK (behind St Kilda and Bass Rock). The island is also the westernmost point in Wales.

Image: Gannets on Grassholm – – 174369″ by dave challender. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Ivell’s sea anemone – Britain’s most recent extinction

Ivell’s sea anemone (Edwardsia ivelli) is the only know endemic animal to be known to have gone extinct (probably) in Britain in modern times. It has not been found since 1983 despite detailed searches at its only known site, Widewater Lagoon in West Sussex.

From Few and Far Between: On The Trail of Britain’s Rarest Animals by Charlie Elder. An excellent and amusing read,

“It was the summer of 1972, and Oxford zoology graduate Richard Ivell had risen early, eager to press on with his research. He stepped into his backyard to sort through several buckets of mud and brine collected the day before. These thick, stinking sections of sediment dug from Widewater Lagoon in West Sussex provided raw material for his master’s thesis on the ecology of brackish environments. Sandwiched between land and open sea, lagoons are vulnerable and yet hostile habitats, where fluctuating temperature and salinity test life forms to the limit. Landlocked Widewater, a shallow stretch of water running for nearly a mile next to the A259 near Worthing, provided the perfect place to study. Bordered by the back gardens of houses to the north and beach huts to the south, the narrow basin is kept topped up by rainfall and by the sea that percolates through its shingle banks during high tides. Various kinds of prawns and cockles live within its confines, and some of these creatures would have been scooped up in the samples Richard had collected just a couple of metres out from the seaward edge. The mud had settled overnight within the buckets, each surface a dark brown disc submerged under a lens of clear salt water. In the quiet, life had stirred.

Forty years later, the memory is still vivid, as Professor Ivell told me on the phone from the animal biology institute in Germany where he now works. Peering over the rim of one of the containers, he couldn’t believe what he saw. ‘In the stillness, small anemones had emerged and their lightly banded tentacles were spread out flat against the sediment. The thing I remember is how beautiful they were, and how fragile, like tiny flowers in a desert. It was quite amazing to see.’Unable to identify the small burrowing species, he showed a colleague at Oxford University, Richard Manuel. If the catchphrase among Anthozoa taxonomists is ‘know thine anemone’, then Dick was the person to ask. An expert in such marine life, he realised that these specimens, no more than a couple of centimetres long, buff coloured with twelve transparent tentacles, the outer nine marked with cream bands, were new to science.”

Robert Macfarlane at Cape Wrath


Cape Wrath s the most north-westerly point in the mainland Britain. Robert Macfarlane described arriving at the cape in Wild Places.

I looked out to sea and watched the waves build as they approached the land, curling up out of the water along their length, like flicked ropes. The air above the sea was live with scores of birds: fulmars planing the wind in white curves, stubby guillemots like winged cigars, whirring along just above the waves, gulls making their weightless turns and angles, and giving their quick cries. So much life was at work in this place! I picked out one fulmar and followed its motion for a few minutes, watching the laterals of its gliding wings, wondering what sort of pattern its complex flight-path would make if it could be plotted. Out of sight to the east were the Clo Mor Cliffs, home to a far bigger seabird colony: tens of thousands of puffins, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes.

Duddon’s natterjacks

BufoCalamita Sand
To the north of Morecambe Bay lies the little visited Duddon estuary with its spectacular views of the Lake District. Large numbers of waterbirds winter here and there is also an internationally important breeding population of Sandwich terns . Remarkably,  the estuary also supports 20-25% of all natterjack toads in Britain, whose national population has fallen by as much as 80 percent in the last 100 years. BBC Radio Four’s  Living World  visited the beach at Haverigg on the estuary’s northern shore  to meet the natters.

On the night of the recording, Lionel joins William Shaw, Cumbria Conservation Officer with the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, on the dunes at sunset. As the sun dips below the horizon, they catch the first calls on the breeze. The natterjacks are emerging from their burrows to sing their deafening lovesongs. Picking their way by torch-light, Lionel and Bill discover toads massing in the pools, on the sand and in the grass. Toad-on-the-sole is something to avoid; Bill confesses that this was his first mortifying experience with a Natterjack many years ago. The Natterjack toad is much smaller than the common toad with a bold yellow stripe down its back. They switch their torches off. Soon a ratchet sound starts up cranking up to the full-on mating call. Irresistible. [Listen]

Whitby’s whalebone arch

Whitby - Whalebone Arch and View - - 679544
The whalebone arch in Whitby commemorates the Yorkshire town’s historic link with the whaling industry. The bones are from a Bowhead whale which was killed under license by Alaskan Inuits, and unveiled by Miss Alaska in 2003. The presence of whales in Britain


In 1753 the first whaling ship set sail to Greenland and by 1795 Whitby had become a major whaling port. The most successful year was 1814 when eight ships caught 172 whales, and the whaler, the Resolution’s catch produced 230 tons of oil. The carcases yielded 42 tons of whale bone used for ‘stays’ which were used in the corsetry trade until changes in fashion made them redundant. Blubber was boiled to produce oil for use in lamps in four oil houses on the harbourside. Oil was used for street lighting until the spread of gas lighting reduced demand and the Whitby Whale Oil and Gas Company changed into the Whitby Coal and Gas Company. As the market for whale products fell, catches became too small to be economic and by 1831 only whaling ship, the Phoenix, remained.

Watching dolphins at Chanonry Point

Leaping dolphin, Chanonry Point

Chanonry Point on the Black Isle is famous as one of the best places in Europe for watching dolphins from the comfort of land. These bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) can often close to the shore, especially after low tide, when they come in to fish in the strong currents. In fact BBC wildlife presenter Simon King has described Scotland as “one of the best land-based dolphin watching hot spots in the world”. It is also a top spot for seal watching. Note the nearby Dolphin and Seal Centre in North Kessock is now closed as of 2015. 


While bottlenose dolphins can be seen off the point throughout the year, the chances of seeing them increase when their food supply increases, the peak times being when salmon are returning towards the two main rivers (the Ness and Beauly) which feed into the Moray Firth. The salmon come in with the tidal current which, once the tide starts to come in, can be extreme. If planning a trip, find tide details and pick days with midday low tides with the largest difference between low and high tide (spring tides, avoid the neap tides). An unofficial “jungle telegraph” system operates round the Rosemarkie campsite and point in June and on into August with details of the latest sightings only a brief conversation away. The University of Aberdeen operates a more formal range of surveys throughout the year from their field station based just along the coast at Cromarty, supported by funds from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. While the Point is regarded by many people as the best place to watch the dolphins from land, licenced boat trips do run from Cromarty and Avoch.

Photo from Geograph: © Copyright Craig Wallace and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Nessie the Albatross

Nessie the Albatross

Nessie the Black-browed Albatross which took up residence on the gannet island colony of Sula Sgeir, 8,000 miles away from his natural breeding grounds. The bird is thought to have first arrived in Scotland after being blown off course in the South Atlantic in 1967. For many years it was the only known albatross in the northern hemisphere. BBC News

Photo by John Macfarlane and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Robert Macfarlane’s favourite trail

Rhenigidale path

Robert Macfarlane describes his favourite trail in this article here. It goes from the the town of Tarbert to the village of Rhenigidale on the Isle of Harris.

Along the southeastern coast of the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides runs one of the most beautiful paths I know: an old green track, only six miles or so long, that joins the town of Tarbert to the village of Rhenigidale. Two summers ago I spent a week walking across Lewis and North Harris, camping in shielings and fishing in lochs as I went, finally reaching Rhenigidale, where I slept in the little white-walled youth hostel.

The next morning, I followed the green track west to Tarbert, contouring first above steep-sided sea coves and then dropping into a glen called Trollamaraig in which a dwarf forest of willow, aspen, honeysuckle and foxglove flourishes. Then it was up, steeply up, zigzagging the east face of a hill called the Scriob until the path eased and led me between two peaks — Trolamal and Beinn Tharsuinn. On that clear day the landscape to my west was wonderfully visible, laid out like 
a map: an intricate weave of moor, crag, scarp and shining lochans. A storm blew in and over, and I walked the final miles along shining tracks 
and under rainbows.

Photo “The Rhenigidale path looking back down the route of ascent.” © Copyright Jimmy Hill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Geograph

Ancient footprints at Formby

The peat and clay beds at Formby have an interesting story. Coastal erosion in the form of storms regularly expose new layers revealing footprints of humans and animals including red deer, aurochs, wolves, oystercatchers and common cranes.

About 7500 years ago a series of sand bars or barrier islands developed along the coast off Formby Point, resulting in an intertidal lagoon between them and the shore.  For 3000 years, animals, birds and people left their tracks along the muddy shoreline. Some were baked hard by the sun, each tide covering them with a thin layer of sand and silt.  Then about 4500 years ago the shoreline moved westwards, sealing in everything. (dedicated website)

The prints are quickly worn away and so researchers, including my father as a volunteer, have to work fast to record them. The study has found that most prints were made by children with a smaller number of women and relatively few adult males. The adult males were often found in the same areas as red deer – presumably hunting them – while women and children may have been on the mudflats collecting shells or looking for nesting birds. See video 6,000 year old footprints in the sand.


Excellent selection of wildlife articles on the Sefton coast

Birkdale beach by Jean Sprackland

Strands – A Year of Discoveries on the Beach

The Birkdale coast was intimately portrayed in Jean Sprackland’s Strands – A Year of Discoveries on the Beach (2012) as the poet explores her local beach for a year before leaving for London, weaving a tale of shipwrecks, natterjack toads, neolithic footprints, jellyfish and strandline findings. This is a celebration of beachcombing which turns up everything from mermaid’s purses to buried cars.  She writes in the introduction to the book:

Of all the British coastline, this is hardly the prettiest or the most unspoilt: its sands are not the most golden, and there are no rockpools or hidden coves. Neither is it the most dramatic: no pounding surf, no rugged cliffs. Low tide can take the sea nearly two miles from shore. Stand on the beach at Ainsdale, on any reasonably bright day, and you can see the offshore wind farm in the Mersey estuary. Turn and face the other way, and there are the familiar Blackpool landmarks: the tower, the rollercoaster. But in really clear weather the bigger picture is visible: the southern fells, the Clwyddian hills, the pale but unmistakable shape of Snowdon. This is a place of big skies and lonely distances, a shifting palette of greys and blues; a wild, edge-of-the-world place.

For a general natural history and historical guide to the coast see Sands of Time Revisited (2009). Difficult to find outside Merseyside but highly recommended.