Isle be back

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

Ramsey Island © Ben Hall

There’s something special about an island: a distinctly separate and self-contained land that offers an intimacy like any other. Boasting the allure of a remote nation, an island can offer a blissful disconnect from the rest of the world – even when it is located within sight of the shore. With terrain unspoilt an island’s bird and wildlife species can thrive amongst flourishing trees, plants and flowers. An evolving culture remains unique with character upheld. Be they rugged rocky atolls, bloom-filled islets or a woodland outcrop, islands also seem to enjoy their own syncopated rhythm that gently draws visitors in and leaves them feeling relaxed, refreshed, revived.

 

Of the thousands of outlying small islands and rocks that edge the coastline of the UK archipelago, only around 300 are large enough for human occupation. Many are just a few hundred feet across; some the size of a small family car. Several contain incredible an amazing diversity of birdlife and are home to RSPB (Royal Society of the Protection of Birds) reserves. Trace a map with your finger from just north of the Shetlands to the Channel Island group and from The Scily Isles into the North Sea and you’ll find must-visit islands in English, Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh territories – each distinguished by its own characteristic charm, geology and terrain.

Gasp-inducing views abound on the rounded isle of Mull in Galloway, Scotland, simply breathe deeply and suck it all in. To the west is the Solway Firth and Irish Sea, with the Isle of Man in the distance, at Scotland’s most southerly point where unspoilt countryside lies undiscovered by the tourist hordes way off the beaten track. As one of the last remaining sections of natural coastal habitat on the Galloway coast, Mull supports a wide variety of important plant and wildlife species.

Puffins at Rathlin ©Andy Hay

Gloriously remote, it is home to a frenzy of sea birds with a large cliff colony that includes guillemots, razorbills, puffin and kittiwakes. In summer, watch young birds making their first venture into the outside world while autumn brings vast swathes of migrating birds to the skies – some heading south to a warmer climate, others seeking refuge from the cold Arctic winter. Rugged mountainous trails rich in butterflies weave in and out across scrubby coastal heath and across dramatic cliff tops – if you’re new to wildlife-watching this is an epic place to start.

 

When & How: Reserve is open all year. Entrance free (donations welcome). Arrive by train (nearest railway station Stranraer 27 miles from reserve). Bus to Drummore (5 miles). By car (follow brown tourist signs from Drummore). Tel: 01988 402130, email: mullofgalloway@rspb.org.uk.

Grey seal at Ramsey ©Ben Hall

This dramatic offshore island of Ramsey in Pembrokeshire, Wales boasts rise up 120 metres from the coastal plains to provide the perfect safe-haven for breeding seabirds in spring and early summer each year. Lying a mile offshore and stretching out into the Celtic Deep, the 640-acre island is nourished by fertile waters in a designation Special Area of Conservation (SAC) that is home to a staggering diversity of wildlife. Spot whales and dolphins and large congregations of sea birds in amongst jutting rocks. Or explore dramatic gorges on a backdrop of crashing waves and spectacular sea-spray. Awash with a kaleidoscopic array of colourful wildflowers from May to September, few islands offer such rewarding shoreline walking trails through pink thrift and purple heather. Spot choughs and peregrines nesting on the craggy headland or a colony of breeding grey seals in autumn.

 

When & How: Open every day, from 1 April or Easter (whichever is earlier) to 31 October, 10 am and 4 pm. Closed for the rest of year. Return boat crossing: adults £11, children £5.50. Landing: RSPB members free. Non-member adults £4, children £2. Tel: 07836 535733, email: ramsey.island@rspb.org.uk.

Lying six-miles off Antrim’s Causeway Coast, L-shaped Rathlin Island in County Antrim, Northern Ireland is blessed with a raw, untamed beauty with wildlife at every turn even before you step ashore. On the ferry crossing across the Sea of Moyle, be sure to have your binoculars at the ready to spot the many auks, gannets and gulls that fly overhead – not to mention the seals and eider ducks that laze around the harbour or the porpoises or dolphins that frolic in alongside the stern.

the Rathlin Island coast © Andy Hay

Look out for wheatears, peregrines, stonechats, skylarks and lapwings throughout the summer and revel in the diversity of terrain in this skinny 6 x 1 mile island where jagged cliffs in the west give way to rolling lowland heath and gin-clear lakes in the east. Sunken ships and galleons lie scattered in the waters around Rathin where people have lived for at least 8,000 years (making it probably the first Irish island to be inhabited) but where the population today is just 70 people. Wildlife-watchers who make the trek to the southernmost tip of the island will be richly rewarded by corncrakes, snipe and Irish hares.

 

When & How: Open 10 am to 4 pm daily from April to the end of August. Entrance free, but donations welcome. Ferry from Ballycastle (to book tel: 028 20769299).

The RSPB has 200+ nature reserves throughout the UK from reed-fringed wetlands, shingle beaches, hills and heath-land to mountains, valleys and meadows. Many have walking trails, hiking routes, cycle trails and wildlife gardens.For more information, click here or visit www.rspb.co.uk

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