Anyone spending two weeks in Wales cannot fail to notice the wildlife around them; especially in Pembrokeshire which has its own National Park covering most of the beautiful coastline. Wales may at first seem to be a wilder place than much of England, with moors, high cliffs, hills and lots of sparsely populated countryside. In actual fact the Wales we see is just as human-manufactured as the rest of Britain; the moors were made by deforestation, almost all of its countryside is grazing land or agriculture with little space for extensive woodland (a noticeably absent habitat). Indeed the only parts which seem to be much as they were before humans arrived are those bits we cannot access – the coastal cliffs; which is why they are a National Park and still a jaw-droppingly lovely home for nature. To be fair Wales is a more verdant and lush land than England due to its climate of near-constant rain; this benefits lichens, mosses, grasses and anything that lives in or relies on fresh water.
I did not see as many Red Kites as I had hoped but I managed to see a few on my first day, soaring in spirals above the fields looking for all the world like large paper cut-outs with their ever-twisting forked tail. This is also the place where Ravens and Buzzards retreated when persecution and egg collecting threatened them in the last century; both birds are still abundant and fit very well with the rugged country in which they live. It is easy now to take Buzzards for granted, they are certainly not as impressive as Kites, yet they are no less important and their wild mewing calls drifting up the valley in which I was staying was somehow reassuring. Ravens are splendid birds and a particular favourite of mine, in my native Sussex they are still thinly scattered (but increasing) so imagine how I felt when on Skomer island nineteen of these huge black crows flapped into view at the same time. They were also near-constant companions along the coast and the days were few when I did not see or hear one of these onyx emblems of wildness.
Staying with birds, Gannets were a regular sight out to sea; they drifted leisurely past the headlands on stiffly held and extremely long wings, often gliding inches above the swell – the ones I saw will have bred on Grassholm rock just visible on the western horizon. A similar but unrelated bird is the Fulmar, essentially Europe’s smaller version of the Albatross, it has stiff blade-like wings akin to a Gannets but differs in its distinctive tube-nose which enables it to have an exceptional sense of smell – unusual amongst birds. These ‘foul-gulls’ (as their name means in Norse) were present on many of the beaches I visited nesting on cliff ledges – the young were now nearly full grown. Also making use of cliff ledges to breed were Peregrines; I saw four of these fantastic falcons diving and gliding in the strong updrafts of the cliffs at Strumble head. One shot upwards in front of me at a near vertical angle from below the cliff then twisted and dived back down again in an arc with wings folded – the whole procedure was executed without a single flap.
I had plenty of time for exploring the rock pools and strandline of the many wonderful beaches that are numerous in Pembrokeshire, the coast here faces the open Atlantic so many interesting things can be chanced upon after a storm if you trawl the beach. I was most pleased to be surprised by my first sighting of a live By-the-wind-sailor (or Velullia); these strange things are nomads on the surface of the ocean, catching the winds with a small stiff sail-like structure on their upperside. Technically a conglomeration of many minuscule Zooids rather than one creature, it superficially resembles a jellyfish and has a soft body with tentacles that are a striking aquamarine blue. On one beach I came across many fragments of shell that looked rather like bone-china with lines of pinpricks, they were in fact the shattered tests of an echinoderm called the Sea-potato. These brown lumps live buried in the sand and are rather like sea-urchins but with all their spines swept flat in one direction rather like a comb-over.
Crabs were, as expected, common in the rocks and strandline but it was a few dead ones I found that proved more interesting than their living counterparts. Edible crabs are very familiar as the big orange and black ones with the ‘pie-crust’ edge to their carapace, the big adults live far out in the deeps but juveniles can be found closer to shore – I have never found a live one but in Wales I did come across a remarkably intact and very small dead one. A much odder species of crab is one I found several corpses of amongst washed up seaweed; with stupidly long claw arms and a long spike between their eyes Masked Crabs do look far too much like aliens to be allowed. Also in the strandline of Freshwater West beach were a cluster of one of my favourite crustaceans (yes I have favourite crustaceans); Goose Barnacles. So named because gullible yokels with over-active imaginations thought that these stalked barnacles transformed into Barnacle Geese (don’t ask me why they made this connection) – they don’t by the way. Instead they live a pelagic life drifting with the currents attached to a piece of flotsam whilst dredging particulate food from the sea with their specialised legs (you couldn’t make that up). I actually found this cluster attached to an old blue Croc, which I thought was rather amusing. Closely related to Goose barnacles are the aptly named Buoy-making Barnacles, of which I found a few examples on the beach – the name is apt because they form their own raft out of a secreted organic foam upon which they float the seven seas.
Behind the sheer black cliffs thrive many species of coastal plant, at this time of year the most showy and attractive was the Heathers and Gorse. Ling (common heather) was present in tightly-packed swathes of varying shades of pink and purple, it stretched back from the precipitous edges of the cliffs up to the feet of the craggy tors and was host to hundreds of energetic honey and bumble-bees gorging on this seasonal feast. Scattered randomly throughout the Ling was the much more intensely purple Bell-heather sporting its berry-like clusters of lantern shaped flowers – combined with the egg-yolk yellow of stunted Gorse this floral passion of colour and heady haze of pollen and scent was simply spectacular. On one walk along a heather thick section of coast I found a very fat and very green Emperor moth caterpillar just on the edge of the path – it must have been close to pupating and I longed to see it hatch out into the marvelously patterned and attractive adult moth which I have yet to see.
I actually managed to take my moth trap on holiday to Wales and I set it up on three nights over the two weeks I was there; in total I managed to catch 22 new species (for me obviously, not new to science!) and the numbers of individual moths caught put the records for my garden to shame. Highlights of the moths (in beauty of wing and prettiness of name) include the Lackey (a small but fat orange guy with a large furry head), the Lychnis (a crazy name but it has lovely wing patterns), the Pebble Hook-tip which looked like a delicate piece of origami, and the wedge-shaped Gold Spot showing off its very gold and shiny spot. I also found the impressive purple-black Old Lady moth in a mill, caught several Vestals (great name and with a geometric look), an Orange Swift which was truly very orange with a delicate pattern, a subtle and demure moth called rather nicely a Brussels Lace was also in my trap and lastly I caught a moth I have been wanting to see ever since I saw it in my book – the Angle Shades – which has unusual creased wings when at rest and gorgeous, striking green and creme bold patterning.