Field Guide: Pembrokeshire Coast

From puffins to basking sharks, walkers along Pembrokeshire’s clifftops can get a dramatic view of some of the marine world’s most iconic animals without ever having to get in a boat. Pembrokeshire Ramblers’ Nigel Lee shows us what to look out for and when.

Pembrokeshire 

Exploring the Pembrokeshire coast on foot is an amazing sensory experience, according to Nigel, Countryside Officer for Pembrokeshire Ramblers. “The light levels are fantastic, often clear and sparkling,” he says. “And because the water quality is also very good, you can look down from high up on the cliffs and make out an amazing variety of marine life – including sometimes seals, porpoises and dolphins.”

From soaring clifftops to pristine sandy bays, coastal heath to semi-natural oak woodland, Britain's only coastal national park has what Nigel describes as a “remarkable scenic pallet”. And nowhere is this diversity of habitat better demonstrated than at the Stackpole estate on the south coast. 

Chough

Chough

Unlike other members of the crow family, the chough has a distinctive red bill and red feet, as well as a high-pitched 'chi-ow' call. Around 60 pairs nest on the Pembrokeshire cliffs and they can be seen in acrobatic flying displays, wheeling and tumbling through the sky. They feed on insects found on coastal grazing land.

Teasel

Teasel

A tall, spiny plant with egg-shaped green and purple flowers, teasels are a common sight in damp and marshy ground throughout July and August. They are a popular food source for bees and birds then – when the spent flower heads turn brown – they are often picked and dried for use in flower arrangements. Spiky teasel heads were once used to comb woollen cloth.

Puffin

Puffin

This diminutive and much-loved seasonal visitor, with its large multi-coloured beak, nests in clifftop burrows where it hatches a single egg in June. It feeds mostly on sand eels and there are over 6,000 breeding pairs on Skomer island alone. By the end of July, most will be departing again for a life far out to sea.

Crab

Hermit crab

Unlike most true crabs, the hermit crab has a soft abdomen that makes it vulnerable to predators. So instead, it finds protection inside an abandoned shell of a periwinkle, whelk or snail, carrying it around and even switching to a larger one when it outgrows it. Look out for them in rock pools and the intertidal zone.

Porpoise

Harbour porpoise

This small, dark grey cetacean is found in significant numbers off Britain's west coast, favouring shallow waters and estuaries where it often feeds in sociable groups. It has small, triangular dorsal fins and no noticeable beak (unlike dolphins). Also known as a common porpoise, it surfaces often and makes a loud, blowing noise as it exhales, earning itself the nickname ‘puffing pig’.

Kittiwake 

Kittiwake

A medium-sized gull with a grey back and white underparts, kittiwakes are strictly coastal birds. From spring to August, they can be seen off the Pembrokeshire cliffs, where they nest in large numbers. They often inhabit narrow ledges on seemingly vertical cliffs, next to guillemots and razorbills, where their raucous chorus can be deafening.

Thrift

Thrift

Also known as sea pink, dense clumps or mats adorn the raised banks and stone walls beside the Pembrokeshire Coast path throughout the summer. With tiny green leaves and starry pink flowers – popular with insects and beetles – this native perennial is hardy and salt-loving, and has been used dried as an antibiotic and for treating obesity.

Shark

Basking shark

Despite its massive size, averaging over 20ft long and weighing around six tons, our second largest fish (after its cousin the whale shark) is in fact entirely harmless, since it feeds on vast amounts of plankton that it filters through its huge mouths and gills. Generally slow moving, its dark shape and protruding dorsal fin make it a memorable summer sighting.