Exploring Pembrokeshire wildlife

South Wales Wildlife
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South Wales Gardens, 30 January 2012

The south-west corner of Wales is a must-do destination for rock climbers, a great place to go sea kayaking, and home to one of the UK's best long-distance walks. The Pembrokeshire coast path calls for a total of 6.6 miles of ascent over its 186 mile length. That's a lot of up and down, especially when you consider that Everest is less than 6 miles high, but there is plenty to see along the way. 

The climbers come for huge stretches of gorgeous natural sandstone and limestone cliffs and sea stacks. The kayakers come for the surf, the spectacular touring, and the tidal rips. The walkers come to wander the coastal path, look out over clear (but very cold) blue sea, and holidaymakers come to relax somewhere that feels a long way from city life. All visitors get the chance to see some amazing wildlife up close. 

Without doubt, the stars of the show are the seabirds, and in particular the puffins. The best place to get up close to these wonderfully clownish birds is Skomer Island, just off the tiny town of Martin's Haven. About 12,000 puffins come to nest on Skomer every summer along with huge numbers of shearwaters, razorbills, gulls, and guillemots. The whole island is a carefully protected nature reserve but visitors can come out for the day by boat or take a sea tour around the island on days when the weather isn't too wild. 

The puffins know they have little to fear on Skomer so they have no qualms about waddling across the paths and going about their business within a few feet of human observers. Whatever you do, don't forget your camera. 

Wander along the Skomer paths, take a boat trip around nearby Ramsey Island, or spend enough time walking the coastal paths and you'll probably spot grey seals basking on the rocks. The Pembrokeshire population is estimated at about 5,000. Come any time from August to December and you might be lucky enough to catch sight of white seal pups swimming or resting with their larger, darker parents. 

Bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises are also pretty common, especially further north around Cardigan bay- look for disturbances in the water or leaping fish, which are often signs of a pod on the hunt. Strumble Head is particularly well known as a porpoise watching spot. Basking sharks and killer whale sightings are reported occasionally and minke and fin whales (which can be more than 85ft from tip to tail) can also be seen from the Pembrokeshire cliffs. 

A 2011 study by the Sea Trust reports that fin whales are returning to Pembrokeshire every year, in greater and greater numbers. That's good news for wildlife enthusiasts and definitely good news for the fin whale population, which is currently classified as endangered. August is the best time to go looking for them.  

Although most of the wildlife spotting opportunities are concentrated along the coast, there is plenty to see inland as well. Pembrokeshire has far more than its fair share of castles, ancient chapels, stone age monuments, established broadleaf woodlands, and meadows. The meadows are particularly notable for insect life. Butterfly Conservation Wales lists 28 different species that can be seen along the Pembrokeshire 'Butterfly Coast'. Look out for the lovely common blue, the clouded yellow, the orange tip (a personal favourite), and the spectacular peacock. 

The inland waterways are also home to an unusually healthy otter population. Unfortunately there are very few places in the UK where it is possible to see otters in the wild, particularly outside of Scotland's more isolated coastal areas. Pembrokeshire is one of the best. For the best chance of spotting these elusive animals walk along the shores of inland lakes, pools, and rivers close to dawn or dusk.  

Jess Spate is a Cardiff-based climber and a wildlife enthusiast. She writes for South Wales Parks and Gardens

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