Birds, Butterflies and Beauty: Flat Holm, a short trip to a Jewel in the Channel

August 18, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Flat Holm LighthouseFlat Holm Lighthouse What a day, what a fantastic day! If you're someone who loves being outdoors, if you love birds, butterflies, all types of nature, if you happen to be in the vicinity of South Wales and you've not visited the island of Flat Holm previously - you really must pay a visit and do so, I guarantee you will not be disappointed!

NB: Please note that this is the longer blog version of my trip to Flat Holm island. I hope to eventually draft several shorter and specific blog posts which I will link to here when and if they are released.

In a nutshell... Flat Holm is stunning!

A tiny speck, approx 600m by 600m in size, 6 miles off the coast of Cardiff, South Wales, in the middle of the Bristol Channel, Flat Holm is brimming with life, even in late summer.  I took a short afternoon trip to the island recently, primarily looking for shots to add to my butterfly collection, and thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience.

My day started with an early morning call to Bay Island Voyages to check if the single remaining place indicated on their www site for the 3:00pm trip to Flat Holm was still available. It was, so with the £32 payment duly processed, my position on their [very fast] boat was promptly secured.  It is worth noting here that the staff at Bay Island Voyages were excellent, and my customer journey from the initial booking process through to the actual trip itself was first-class.

Cardiff BayCardiff BayThe two small islands of Flat Holm (my destination) and Steep Holm are just about visible in the Bristol Channel Of course, other companies offer trips to Flat Holm, but I was extremely happy with Bay Island Voyages, and would certainly recommend them to anyone considering a trip across.

With not too far to travel for my day out, I arrived early at Cardiff Bay and took the opportunity to grab a few snack items from Greggs, and to kill 30 minutes I decided a trip on the Cardiff Bay big-wheel and an attempt to capture the views across the bay towards the Bristol Channel was in order.  You can just about make out Flat Holm and its larger neighbour, Steep Holm, in the distance out in the bay (clicking on the image opens a larger version, Flat Holm is on the left, Steep Holm on the right).

Snack finished, shots taken and the big-wheel trip completed, at around 2:30 I headed down to the small dock area to meet the staff of Bay Island Voyages, my fellow passengers and prepare for the trip.  It's lovely to meet strangers who all share a common interest; everyone started to chat, sharing our excitement about the forthcoming trip to Flat Holm, and soon the 12 of us were all kitted out in life jackets and given instructions for the journey. Bay Island Voyages boat to Flat HolmBay Island Voyages boat to Flat HolmWhat a craft - two outboard 250cc Mercury engines, the thing flies across the waves, great fun!

Essentially... the boat used to get across the channel is fast, very fast, so sit tight, feet pressed firmly on the ground, and hold on!!  This didn't surprise me at all, as this is the beast we were travelling on.  What a totally thrilling experience traveling on this boat was.  OK, for those used to such travel it may be the norm, but for myself, who had until that point never set foot on such a craft, it was an exhilarating experience.  I have no idea how fast the boat travels through the waves, maybe someone reading this can enlighten me by sending me a tweet or dropping a comment on here, but by heck it sure was a rate of knots (see what I did there!!).

A little about Cardiff Bay Barrage

Once on board, leaving the dock, we ventured out into the bay itself.  Slowly of course as the speed here is governed by maritime law etc, and we set off for Flat Holm.  In the dock at Cardiff Bay BarrageIn the dock at Cardiff Bay BarrageThe water level prior to the dock being lowered. Of course, anyone who has visited Cardiff Bay previously will be familiar with the Cardiff Bay Bararge: a tremendous engineering accomplishment, and something that is a fascinating element of the travelling to Flat Holm experience.  The barrage comprises (I think) three docks that separate the always constantly maintained level of water in the bay area itself, from the huge - sometimes 13m tides (yes, you read that correctly, that's a tide, a swing in water levels of 42 feet) of the Bristol Channel.  I think the Bristol Channel has the 2nd or 3rd highest tidal range of anywhere in the world, though I am sure a quick search on Google will confirm this. Cardiff Bay Barrage - water level loweredCardiff Bay Barrage - water level loweredleaving the dock, water level some 20' lower.

You enter the dock, moor up, the gates close and you wait.  On the day of my trip the water level in the bay was around 20' higher than the channel tide, and so we dropped that amount in a matter of minutes, very impressive and quite an experience.

Heading out across the Bristol Channel was exhilarating, a memorable experience indeed and we arrived at Flat Holm in just 12 minutes.  The thing flies across the waves, for someone who hadn't experienced this mode of travel previously, it really was great fun!

Arriving on Flat Holm

Pebbled Beach on Flat Holm Pebbled Beach on Flat Holm The boat reversing, pulling the jetty safely back to the top of the beach. We were met at the island by the full-time warden and several members from the team of volunteers, disembarking on a mobile jetty which had been wheeled down from the top of the pebbled beach, to the water level.  Interestingly, once we had all started to make our way to the top of the beach where the steps led up to the main pathways, the team had attached a rig to the front of the boat which was now reversing out into the bay, simultaneously pulling the mobile jetty back up via a pulley system to the top of the beach. Straightforward and efficient ingenuity at its finest!

Heading up the steps towards the path, Jenny, one of the knowledgable island volutneers, provided us all with a brief introduction to what we could expect to see during our short visit, and what we should/shouldn't do whilst on Flat Holm.   Juvenile Lesser Black Backed GullJuvenile Lesser Black Backed GullVery low numbers of gulls contract botulism.
It is always prudent not to venture too far off off the sometimes difficult to find tracks or too close to any 'edges', as many of the cliffs on Flat Holm are pretty sheer and can appear from the bracken and copious plants as if out of nowhere.  The usual care should be taken and anyone familiar with our coastal islands will be aware of the dangers accompanying their visit.

On the path heading towards the museum and lighthouse we passed several juvenile Lesser Black Backed gulls looking worse for wear, hardly moving as we  approached.  Apparently there are a very small number of juveniles who succumb to the botulism bacteria.  This is apparently contracted by the juveniles as the parents feed at many of the land-fill sites situated locally on the coastal mainland.  Sad to see of course, but encouraging to know that only a small minority of birds fall fowl to this unpleasant killer bacteria.  More information on botulism on Flat Holm which was particularly problematic for the LBB gull colonies during the 70's - 90's, can be found online.

Mid August is late in the year for the lesser black backs to be rearing their young, and though there were still plenty of gulls about, only a few adults were in guardian mode, skwalking loudly and mobbing us as we walked close to their young.  Apparently if one visits in June, the team provide hats for visitors to wear, not so much for the inevitable guano projectiles, but in case of physical contact from one of the aggressive adult birds which could easily result in significant injury.  Hitchcocks', the Birds, springs to mind!

Weston Super MareWeston Super MareThe pier at WSM With all the visitors gathered at the museum, shop and pub area, this is also the time to pay the landing fee of £5.00 after which the warden provided additional information about the island, its buildings, Marconi, and history etc, after which visitors can choose to remain with one of the volunteers to be accompanied on a short tour around the exterior of the lighthouse and some of the many buildings and gun abatements located around the perimeter, or you are free to wander around the island as required.  I stayed for a short time with some of the guests and Jenny, then ventured out to explore further.

Being a pretty small island, it is easy to walk the circumference in little time. This allows for plenty of stops, note-taking, Collins complete reference book look-ups, and return visits to places spotted on the initial foray.  Fabulous views in any direction are to be seen almost from anywhere on the island, and I found myself stopped for refreshments on the cliffs at the South end, from where the town of Weston Super Mare and its pier could easily be seen.

Lesser Black Backed GullLesser Black Backed GullFlat Holm isnald has a colony of over 1,000 lesser black backed gulls. Plenty of birdlife is apparent, and I spotted several Meadow Pipits, and what I thought was a Linnet though these are usually seen in groups so I was unable to confirm this.  I did keep a keen eye for the Peregrine Falcon that has beed there this year, alas despite my sitting for 25 mins with binoculars peering out at its known location, I wasn't able to spot it.  There's always next time.  As ever though, there are always hundreds and hundreds of gulls to be seen along the coast and around the various cliffs. The island interior is mainly wild plants, long grass  and bracken, and the remnants of lesser black backed gull nesting sites are everywhere.

In peak breeding season (June) the Flat Holm colony of lesser black backed gulls comprises over 1000 nesting pairs, hence the provision of hard hats during this period.  It is easy to spot the remains of lesser black backed meals, the bones and skeletons of their prey are everywhere, and they do appear to be voracious hunters, scavengers and apart from the Peregrine Falcon, and single pair of Greater Black Backed gulls that bred during 2019, they are one of the islands apex predators!  Lesser Black Backed Gull adultLesser Black Backed Gull adultMean looking lesser black backed gull, giving me the eye!

I did wonder if this beauty, peering directly at me through the long grass was even considering a little piece of me for dinner!! I find them majestic, even beautiful and graceful birds, but by golly they do look mean.   It should also be noted that during the busy nesting season, many of the paths on the island are closed off to the general public which serves to minimise disturbance to the gulls, as many of the nests are actually situated on the paths or at least very close to them.  The wardens and volunteers will provide details of routes that can be safely taken and any paths that are temporarily closed off.  I was fortunate as by the time I visited (mid August) all of the paths had been reopened allowing the complete circumference to be walked.

For my trip though, I was also on the lookout for butterflies - this being my current photography focus of interest - and for anyone who may be interested, my butterfly gallery can be found by clicking here.  I am not the best at butterfly ID, and always use one of the experts I follow on Twitter to help with my ID's (@MothIDUK being one of the significant experts) but I managed to capture some shots of 4 species, namely: Gatekeeper, Painted Lady, Red Admiral and Common Blue.

GatekeeperGatekeeperFlat Holm Common BlueCommon BlueBeautiful light Red AdmiralRed AdmiralLate summer worn wings on this Red Admiral Painted LadyPainted LadyOn one of the paths across Flat Holm

I am sure there are many more butterfly species to be found on Flat Holm, it's just that this newcomer to butterfly spotting and their photography needs to gain some experience.  Hopefully I will be able to capture more species on my next visit - which may even be an overnight stay. Flat Holm can cater for families in the separate and newly renovated farmhouse, or for up to 24 individuals in shared dormitory style accommodation,  There is also an area set aside for anyone who prefers to camp out.  My feelings are that the prices are extremely low; I believe to camp overnight is £12 and to stay in the dorm accommodation is around £20.  Fantastic value, and is certainly something that I will be doing next season.   

Landscape on Flat HolmLandscape on Flat Holm
Newly rendered lighthouse

On a good weather day, the views from anywhere on the island, and the vista of the actual island itself are quite stunning.  This is the tranquil location where I sat for almost an hour trying to spot the elusive peregrine falcon, looking out for other bird species along the cliffs, and for the many butterflies basking on the rocks at the top of the cliffs adjacent to where I took this shot.  I managed one shot of a basking Painted Lady, but won't be posting it here due to, well... shall I say... photography errors and inadequacy on my part :)

In the distance on the top-image-left, is the fully functioning and operational lighthouse, which is operated and maintained by the coast guard I believe, and not by any of the staff on the island.  

The impressive lighthouse has recently been re-rendered and painted both inside and out, and looks quite resplendent in its dulux brilliant white glory.  Jenny, one of the Flat Holm volunteers, did mention during her short tour that they don't have the keys to the lighthouse otherwise we may have been privy to views from the top! Now that would have indeed been a sight to behold, though the climb to the top would have been quite an achievement!

Decommissioned fog horn There is also an aged fog horn which is no longer in use, though I will admit to not listening close enough and thereby not obtaining any useful information as to when this was decommissioned. I do recall a mention though that the roof of the building on which it is situated, is currently in a state of disrepair and being held up by strengthening beams and so visitors are not able to get a close look.

If you look closely I believe I also inadvertently caught one of the more colourfully dressed volunteers on the roof of an adjacent building, possibly carrying out repair work... sorry about that whoever you are sir/madam, but you did brighten the photograph!! :)

All in all, a superb day out on a beautiful island. A day I enjoyed immensely, and an island I certainly plan on visiting again.

Camera Gear

For anyone interested in the camera gear used to capture the images on my trip:  

  • Camera: Sony Alpha a6300
  • Lens 1: Most of the shots were taken with the Sony OSS 55-210mm
  • Lens 2: The landscapes and wider view shots were taken with the Sony OSS 18-55mm
  • iPhone6s: One shot of the barrage lock, and the vivid shot of the lighthouse were snapped with my iPhone6s 

If you were brave enough to read all this, and managed to get this far without getting bored, I owe you my gratitude and sincere thanks.  If you have any questions please feel free to contact me, and also let me know if you enjoyed this blog by maybe leaving a tweet @StraightTall, or by leaving a comment here on the blog itself.

For editorial comment, reporting errors or any inaccuracies, please do let me know by contacting me at my email address, which is [email protected]


No comments posted.

January February March April May June July (1) August (2) September October November December
January February March April May June July August (3) September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December