Even people with no interest in birds can find themselves enjoying the sight of Britain’s largest seabird patrolling the waters off the Pembrokeshire coast and diving spectacularly into the sea to catch their prey.
It is a memorable experience to watch the large cruciform shapes of gliding and plummeting gannets, with their sparkling white plumage and long black-tipped wings. With a body the size of a goose and a six-foot wing span, their presence in St Brides Bay, and other locations round the Pembrokeshire coast, can not be missed, particularly as they are so numerous, some 70,000 pairs nesting every summer on Grassholm island about nine miles off the west coast.
They nest so closely together on the rock that on clear days their massed white plumage make Grassholm look like an iced cake on the horizon from the vantage point of the cliffs overlooking Newgale beach. By taking advantage of the many tourist boat trips which are available round the island, visitors can see the gannets at close quarters, although the experience has its drawbacks, one of which is the strong odour given off by the colony, which caused one witty watcher to ask: “Is this gannetry really sanitary? Adult gannets are a yard long and weigh about 7-lbs and at close quarters observers can appreciate their beautiful plumage, their yellow-buff head and their dagger-like blue beak. First cousins to pelicans they are far more elegant and graceful than those clumsy birds, and their breakneck dives after they have spotted their prey beneath the surface from a hundred feet up, are cushioned by air-sacs like bubble-wrap in their head and neck as they hit the surface at about 70mph, their forward-facing eyes providing binocular vision which offers unerring aim. Years ago fishermen who resented their toll of the shoals in the area often resorted to the mean trick of tying a fish to a plank to operate a cruel cull of their avian competitors. Local fishermen often camped on Grassholm in the summer to be nearer the rich fishing grounds where they used to drop their lobster and crab pots, often baited with gannet meat.
The gannets catch mackerel, pollack and seabass and can be seen all the year round off the coast and even up the tidal estuaries of Pembrokeshire following the shoals on which they feed. Grassholm is one of the largest gannet colonies in the UK, outnumbered only by the huge populations at St Kilda and other parts of Scotland. The gannet, also known as the Solan goose, was a food source in olden days, and the fishermen of Marloes and Dale used to collect them and their eggs for food, a practice which still goes on at Ness in Scotland to this day. Its feathers were also prized as down for stuffing mattresses and eiderdowns years ago. The gannet’s voracious appetite for fish has caused its name to become an uncomplimentary label for human gluttons.