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The Pembrokeshire National Park covers 240 square miles along the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales. It was designated as a national park in the 1950s and is unique compared to other UK national parks in that it is mainly made up of coastal habitats.
But that isn’t to say it’s not diverse, as many animals and plants call this area home in habitats ranging from rocky shorelines to sandy beaches and estuaries to rugged cliffs. Of course, being on the coast, one of the main attractions is the array of seabirds, including razorbills, puffins, and kittiwakes.
On top of this, the area is famed for its populations of Atlantic gray seals; it’s thought there are around 5,000 along this coastline. To properly experience them, visitors can take a seal tour on one of the organized boat trips. Other marine life can also be spotted on these tours, including the beautiful bottlenose dolphin.
Under the waves, there’s even more opportunity to explore the marine life, with snorkeling and diving among some of the most popular activities here. Or you might take a boat trip to the islands of Skomer and Skokholm, which are considered important wildlife sanctuaries home to some rare and elusive creatures like the pygmy shrew, the porpoise, and the bank vole.
However, if you would prefer to explore this ancient coastline, which has been inhabited by humans since prehistoric times, on foot, then there are many hiking trails, including the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. This path runs for 186 miles and offers the chance to see a variety of landscapes and wildlife habitats.
As I have mentioned, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park dates back to ancient times, and its history is one of the reasons that so many people are keen to come here. You’ll find the landscape littered with castles, Iron Age forts, and various ruins evidencing humans here for thousands of years. There are also the megalithic tombs such as Pentre Ifan. While today, only the bare bones of the tomb remain, this was once an important burial ground.
Types of Wildlife to See
If you head out to Skomer Island, then you’ll be able to visit one of the few locations in the UK where puffins can be seen in the wild. Breeding season falls between May and July which is one of the best times to see them in action.
Other seabirds are common around this rugged coastline, including the chough which is a unique looking bird with dark plumage that forms a stark contrast with its red legs and bill. They’re normally spotted around the grasslands near the coast and if you look towards the cliffs, you might even see raptors like the peregrine falcon and red kite soaring overhead in search of prey like small mammals and rodents.
Guillemots and razorbills are a common sight here particularly on Skomer Island. During the nesting season that falls between April and May, they are particularly active.
Staying in the skies, Pembrokeshire National Park is also home to a wonderful array of butterfly species, some of which are perfectly adapted to the conditions here, like the marsh fritillary; one of the more brightly patterned species from this family. However, sadly, this species has declined in number, although the park is making conservation efforts to improve its marshland habitat.
Around the coast of Pembrokeshire is a glorious abundance of marine life, including Atlantic seals, porpoises, and bottlenose dolphins. In the estuaries, you may be treated to an otter sighting, and these aquatic mammals can also be seen along the inland rivers, including the western and eastern Cleddau rivers.
If you take the opportunity for snorkeling, you may be able to spot basking sharks in the summer months. These sharks are characterized by their large mouths, which allow them to feed on plankton as they swim. Under the water, there is also a diverse range of fish species, including wrasse, mackerel, various species of rays and even the iconic ocean sunfish! However, if you prefer to stay on dry land, the rockpools around the coast have just as much life, including crustaceans and sea anemones.
Pembrokeshire isn’t just about the coastal and marine life, the area also houses woodlands where many bird species, including various tits, the nuthatch, thrushes, and the greater spotted woodpecker. Moving over to the meadows and grasslands, you’ll find many flora species, including rare orchids like the lesser butterfly orchid.
Best Time to Visit
Between March and May, Pembrokeshire National Park comes alive with wildflowers and rare orchids, making this the ideal time for flora lovers to visit.
It’s also an excellent time for bird watchers as many migratory species are beginning to return. What’s more, it’s the breeding season for a lot of birds, which means heightened activity from species like puffins and razorbills. Head to Skomer Island for the best sightings.
As summer comes around, Pembrokeshire welcomes an abundance of marine life, including the basking sharks which call these waters home in the warmer months between June and August.
This is also a brilliant time to take a dolphin boat tour, and the seals are also much easier to spot. Marine trips at this time allow for better sightings owing to calmer waters.
Moving into the later part of summer, up until September, the Arctic gray seal pups begin to appear along the coastline.
For butterfly fans, this is the best time to spot these beautiful insects in the grasslands and meadows which they frequent.
In autumn the birds that migrated in the spring are starting to come back, so there’ll be lots of activity in the skies around Pembrokeshire national park. In the woods, the bird species are preparing for winter, so be sure to catch a glimpse of thrushes and tits as they gather food.
This is also another excellent opportunity to spot the seal pups whose numbers are continuing to grow.
If you want to experience Pembrokeshire Coast National Park when it’s a little quieter, then winter is always a good time to visit. But while there are fewer tourists, the wildlife is still very active.
In the estuaries, waterfowl are becoming numerous, in particular the Canada goose. Otters are still playing here and can also be seen further up the river throughout winter. However, they tend to be more active at dawn and dusk.
Other Times to Visit
No matter what time of year you visit Pembrokeshire, there will always be plenty to see. For example, even when things are quieter on the wildlife front, there are still numerous coastal paths offering views of the breathtaking landscape.
However, if you are going to visit in the peak season, it is advisable to book any excursions or accommodation well in advance as things can get quite busy. Moreover, even in summer, the weather isn’t always predictable so be sure to pack appropriate clothing. If you want to check out the rock pools, you’re better off visiting during low tide as this provides a better chance of spotting different creatures.
What to Explore?
- Skomer Island: If you want to see the famous Pembrokeshire puffins then Skomer Island provides one of the best opportunities. It’s thought that there are more than 45,000 here at the last count, and activity is heightened during the breeding season between April and May. Here, you can also see other seabirds like razorbills and Manx shearwaters.
- Skokholm Island: Another excellent location for spotting seabirds is Skokholm Island where puffins can also be found, although not in as large numbers as Skomer. However, there is a good population of lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls.
- Boat tours and wildlife tours: One of the best ways to see the marine life at Pembrokeshire is by boat and there are many daily tours going out onto the sea. There are also lots of wildlife centers dotted about the area which provide visitors with a plethora of information and some run guided tours.
- Hiking: Pembrokeshire National Park is excellent for hiking, and there are lots of coastal and inland trails to choose from, including St David’s Peninsula Circular Walk which offers a great chance to spot marine life from above. Strumble Head Circular is a slightly challenging hike running just over 7 miles but takes you through various wildlife habitats and includes many historic buildings. Hike around the Marloes Peninsula for the best chance of spotting seabirds.
- St Govan’s Chapel: A unique chapel that is built into the limestone cliffs, St Govan’s is a small yet impressive building. Its open 24 hours, so visit when you feel like it, and be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the birds of prey that can be seen circling here.
- Explore the coastal wildlife: The wildlife along the coast in Pembrokeshire is one of the biggest attractions, so be sure to check out the cliffs and caves, which are home to various species, including the famous seals. Spot waterfowl and aquatic insects along the Castlemartin Corse or search the coastal rock pools for interesting marine creatures. If you’re a bird lover, then the sandy and rocky habitat of the Freshwater West is a prime opportunity to spot kestrels.
- Take a nighttime wildlife tour: Some of the best wildlife in Pembrokeshire can only be seen after dark, including the barn and tawny owls, as well as the greater and lesser horseshoe bats.
How to Get There?
- If you’re traveling by train then you can use several train stations including Haverfordwest, Pembroke, or Tenby.
- Local car rental is simple with well-known companies like Enterprise as well as several independent companies.
- The National Express is a nationwide coach service that runs several services to Pembrokeshire National Park, typically from major cities like Manchester and London.
- Pembrokeshire County Council offers various bus services that can be used to get around the park once you are there.
- It’s easiest to travel by car to Pembrokeshire National Park, however, this can be a long journey from outside Wales.
- Once you are in Wales, the M4 from Swansea or Cardiff offers the most direct route.
- A roads towards the national park are clearly signposted, although it’s always good to have a map or GPS device.
- There are several entry points to the park and there are several car parks, most within 10-15 minutes walk from the action.
- The nearest airports to Pembrokeshire National Park are in Cardiff and Swansea.
- From the airport, you can either rent a vehicle or use the public transport options I discussed above to access the national park.
Walking & Cycling
- Walking or cycling are some of the best ways to get around Pembrokeshire National Park. With more than 200 trails, walking allows you to properly explore.
- If you are staying near the national park, there are several cycle routes that take you directly into it. This is a wonderful eco-friendly option for travel.
- For a more in depth experience, you might choose to go on one of the guided walking tours, which give details about the local wildlife as well as conservation projects designed to protect and maintain the area.