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Many people do not realise that Britain is one of the most important places in the world for breeding seabirds. Its 12,000 miles of coastline is home to literally millions of seabirds with 60% of the world's great skuas, 70% of the world's gannets, and an amazing 90% of the world's manx shearwaters breeding here. The birds nest in colonies on cliffs, cliff tops, and islands and are literally seabird cities, with every available nook and cranny occupied with a pair of breeding birds. The sight of a seabird colony during the breeding season is one of Britain's (if not the world's) most amazing naturals spectacles. The sight, sound (and smell!) during the breeding season can be breathtaking (literally, if the wind's in the wrong direction!), and South Stack is one of the most accessible seabird colonies for visitors. South Stack is a cliff top reserve on Holy Island, Anglesey near Holyhead. It is really easy to find, go to the end of the A55, through the 'main' street in Holyhead, and follow the brown tourist signs. You reach the reserve after a couple of miles. The reserve is owned and managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The reserve consists of a large expanse of maritime heath at the top of spectacular 200 foot cliffs composed of the strangely named Precambrian greywacke stone. These cliffs are popular with rock climbers outside of the seabird breeding season (I don't fancy trying it myself!). The heath is a special environment in its own right. Quite rare in Britain now, the heath at South Stack is home to some special wildlife including adders and the rare silver-studded blue butterfly. In summer, the ground is a riot of colour, with heather, gorse, and loads of salt resistant flowers such as thrift, sea campion and kidney vetch, creating a display to dazzle the senses. South Stack is worth visiting for this alone. The heath is also home to Britain's rarest crow, the chough. This red billed, red legged crow is supremely acrobatic and can usually be seen performing aerial manoeuvres over the cliff tops whilst calling its onomatopoeic call. There are paths from the car park, through the heath, then along the cliff top to South Stack lighthouse. Care is needed as the cliff tops are not fenced and the path veers close to the edge in parts (not recommended for those scared of heights). South Stack lighthouse is a working lighthouse that is open to tourists during the summer. There's a small charge to enter, but this includes a guided tour of the lighthouse up to the light room where spectacular views across to Ireland can be seen in clear weather. The guide will also give you lots of information about the history of the various lighthouses that have been on the site since 1809 (there's also a ghost story to be heard!). One point to note is that, to get down to the lighthouse means descending 400 stone stairs (not too much of a problem, until you go back up, phew!). There are several benches to catch your breath along the way, but this walk should only be attempted by people who are reasonably fit. The RSPB operate a visitor centre at South Stack in a strange white structure called Ellin's Tower. This is strategically placed on the cliff edge and has telescopes and cameras trained on the breeding birds. RSPB volunteers are always on hand (during the breeding season) to offer help, and advise you of what you're seeing. As well as viewing from the tower, you can get closer to the birds along the network of paths. It's when you get close that the activity, noise, and smell hits you. The seabird city is as active as a human city with constant comings and goings, occasional violence (altercations over 'turf'), and even the odd murder when a marauding peregrine falcon swoops in to take a young bird straight from the cliffs. Puffins breed here in small numbers and can often be seen on the sea as well as on the grassy parts of the cliff. Razorbills and guillemots are much more common here, also breeding are kittiwakes, fulmars shags (stop sniggering, it's a type of cormorant!), as well as loads of gulls (be careful you don't get crapped on!). Gannets can often be seen plunging from height, reaching 60 mph, before diving under water in search of fish. If watching away from Ellin's tower, binoculars are advisable as you don't get that close to the birds. As well as watching the birds, South Stack has other wildlife that can be seen too. Grey seals are common off shore, as are harbour porpoises. If you're lucky, you could even get a glimpse of a bottle-nosed dolphin. After all this excitement, you're bound to be hungry. Luckily, there's a café at the top of the hill which serves reasonable food. There's usually an ice-cream van parked at the top of the lighthouse steps too. As you can see, if you're interested in wildlife, geology, maritime history, or just like spectacular walks, South Stack has something to offer you. I visit here at least once or twice every summer and can thoroughly recommend it. If you want to know more about the reserve, the RSPB's website has lots more information at : http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/s/southstackcliffs/index.asp
Nature Reserves in Wales.