On clear days, when the horizon is a sharply-ruled line, people looking out over St Brides Bay can see the shark-fin shape of Grassholm to the west.
Often discernible is its pied appearance: dark rock one side and white guano-covered ground on the other where the island’s huge colony of gannets are nesting.
Boats approaching Grassholm upwind can smell it before they see it in hazy conditions, for the guano of generations has a powerful pong, a stench which caused one visitor to ask facetiously “Is this gannetry really sanitary?”
Lying about eight miles west of the Pembrokeshire coast it is the westernmost point of the Welsh coast and has been owned since 1947 by the RSPB, one of their oldest reserves. Home to nearly 40,000 pairs of these large diving seabirds it is the third most important gannet colony in the world after St Kilda and Bass Rock in Scotland.
Grassholm has been identified with Gwales, an island featured in the ancient Welsh folk tales called The Mabinogion, the legend stating that it was the site of a fabulous castle where the severed head of Bran the Blessed was kept miraculously alive for 80 years while his companions feasted and forgot him. It is possible to get a close quarters look at Grassholm from boats that sail there from St Justinians and Martin’s Haven, but only bona fide birdmen are allowed ashore for checks on the gannet colony. During a recent series of RSPB visits over a two week period, the Society wardens worked alongside seabird biologists from Plymouth University, counting the gannets, studying their behaviour and trying to find out what they do and how far they roam. Some non-breeding gannets range far and wide, visiting other colonies throughout the UK and beyond, and this has been verified by attaching tiny satellite transmitters to selected birds to track their every move. One recently tracked gannet flew all the way down to Cornwall, along the Channel and up the North Sea.
The gannets can be seen regularly in St Brides Bay, diving a couple of hundred yards from the shore, their black wings folded and their startlingly white plumage clearly visible from a distance. They are big birds, with six foot wing spans, whose other name is the Solan Goose, and their dive bombing activities are a spectacular sight. They are often seen around the southern coast and even up inside the Haven Waterway as far as Milford Haven and the old time fishermen around the Bay used them as a barometer of the presence of shoals. Some fishermen resented their prowess as fish catchers and there are dark stories of fish being nailed to planks so that unsuspecting gannets often broke their necks. In July 1945 the cargo ship Walter L.M.Russ ran aground on the island and sank but, fortunately, the crew of nine was rescued by Angle Lifeboat. Grassholm has a mystic presence on the horizon and an interesting story to tell.