Ynys Dewi/Ramsey Island: Everything you need to know
The second largest of Pembrokeshire's many islands, Ynys Dewi/Ramsey island is a spectacular offshore island, blessed with a legendary history that's as dramatic as its landscape. Find out more about beautiful Ramsey including its wildlife, history, and when you can visit!
Welcome to Ynys Dewi/Ramsey Island
Off the coast of the northern tip of St Brides Bay, around a kilometre from St David's Head across a perilous stretch of water known as the Ramsey Sound, sits Ramsey Island Nature Reserve. An enchanting mix of rich history and dramatic and unspoiled landscape, the island is home to a variety of sea birds and boasts one of the largest Grey Seal colonies in the UK.
Like many places in Wales, the island has two names, one in Welsh and one in English that have unrelated meanings. In Welsh it's known as Ynys Dewi, translating roughly as David's Island or David Island, and was named after the Patron Saint of Wales, who had close links to the island and surrounding area. In English, it's known as Ramsey Island however it's not as clear where this name originated. Sadly it has nothing to do with Welsh football star Aaron Ramsey, and is believed to be related to the old Norse personal name "Hrafn" and could well have been known originally as "Hrafn's isle". Another suggestion has been that it was named after "ramson" meaning "wild garlic" in old English, which is known to have given its name to other places in the UK including Ramsbottom and Ramsden.
Ramsey is believed to have been occupied for over 4000 years, with a number of archaeologically important sites discovered on the island including a holy well and cemetery dating back to the 9th century. Despite the rugged conditions, the island was successfully farmed for centuries producing crops, produce, and livestock with a lime kiln and corn mill operating until the 20th century.
Part of the ancient Hundred of Dewisland, one of seven that made up Dyfed, Ramsey came under the control of the bishops of St David’s in 1082 and remained so for the next 800 years until it was sold to a private owner in 1905. The private owners continued to farm the island until the 1960s when it became a deer farm. In 1992 it was bought by the RSPB who turned it into an island nature reserve.
Saint Justinian and Saint David
Ramsey is one of Wales’ Holy Islands and according to legend is the burial place of over 20,000 saints. Saint David, the Patron Saint of Wales, and Saint Justinian have the strongest links to the island and it has been a place of pilgrimage since the 12th century.
Saint Justinian was believed to have been a Breton nobleman who settled on the island as a hermit. Saint David is said to have met him and been so impressed by his holiness that he made him his confessor and Abbot of St. Davids cathedral. However, Saint Justinian became disillusioned by the dedication of the monks there and instead established his own, more holy community on Ramsey Island with his most dedicated monks.
There’s evidence that at least two chapels may have existed on Ramsey, one being Tyfanog’s Chapel that in the 1600s was reported as being “decaying”. Another may have been dedicated to its most famous residence, Saint Justinian.
The fourth-largest island in Wales, Ramsey covers an area of about 640 acres and is just a touch smaller than another Pembrokeshire island, Skomer. Around 3.2 kilometers long, its highest point is a peak called Carn Llundain that measures 136 meters above sea level, and along with another peak, Carn Ysgubor, gives Ramsey its distinct outline. Despite its small size has a varied and diverse geology. You’ll find a diverse range of habitats on the island including heathland, coast, oceans, and cliffs that measure 120 meters, making them some of the highest in Wales.
The island is covered in beautiful heathland with bluebells, pink thrift, and purple heather adding dashes of colour to the landscape in spring and summer. As a Special Protection Area for chough, the heathland is kept short using a flock of between 100 and 200 welsh mountain sheep, which enables the chough to easily find food. The sheep are managed by the RSPB’s resident warden who along with the island’s very own sheepdog, carries out all shepherding duties, including lambing.
That’s not the only example of using wildlife to help conservation. Welsh Mountain Ponies are used to keep the small shallow pools in the heathland open and the edges poached, which enables nationally and internationally important plant species to thrive.
The Ramsey Sound
To reach the island you have to pass through the Ramsey Sound, a powerful tidal sea passage that separates the island from the mainland. Composed of a central deep channel, strong tidal currents, and hazardous rock clusters that are tidally submerged, it's difficult to navigate especially for those not familiar with the area.
Within the Sound and the waters surrounding Ramsey, there are a number of smaller islands, islets, and rock formations the most famous of which, "The Bitches" contains a tidal waterfall and is a favourite spot of surfers and kayakers.
Owned and managed by the RSPB, Ramsey Island holds huge importance for a number of sea bird species as well as other wildlife and thanks to its rich landscape offers a range of different habitats. Birds, like guillemots, peregrine falcon, Manx shearwaters, the common raven, and razorbills flock to the island in spring and summer to nest in its high cliffs that make the perfect location for breeding birds. It’s the chough that takes centre stage at Ramsey though and it is one of the best sites in Wales to view these amazing birds.
The water around the island is just as busy and Ramsey Island hosts one of the largest Grey Seal colonies in the UK. They are most prevalent during the breeding season (late August to October) when the females come into the coves and bays to birth their pups, with an estimated 600 born each autumn.
The seal population is joined by harbour porpoises, alongside the common, bottle-nosed, and Risso’s dolphin in this area and are often spotted in the waters around the island.
Why are there no puffins on Ramsey Island?
Puffins have long been associated with Pembrokeshire especially the large colony on Skomer Island, but if you book a trip to Ramsey in hope of seeing the colourful seabird you may be disappointed. While there are the odd puffin sightings in the area, Puffins haven’t nested on the island for over 100 years. They began to disappear in the 1890s when brown rats were brought to the island on ships and who found the birds easy prey and decimated populations of all breeds in the 20th century.
In an effort to reverse the trend, the brown rats were cleared from the island in 2000, with the hope this would help the bird population thrive. While it has for breeds such as the Manx shearwater and storm petrels, who were discovered to be nesting on the island for the first time on record, the puffins seem to be staying away. The RSPB haven’t given up though and in the years since have tried some unusual methods to try and lure the puffins back including installing 200 “decoy” puffins and a sound system playing puffin calls. Despite their best efforts, Puffins have yet to return to Ramsey, so if you do spot any on your trip, you’ll know it’s a rare sighting!
Get to know Ramsey Island:
Is Ramsey Island open to the public?
Yes! Ramsey is one of the Pembrokeshire islands open to the public throughout the spring and summer months usually from April or Easter (whichever is earlier) to 30th September. Not only can you go onto the island itself to explore, but there are also a number of wildlife tours that will take you for a closer look at the island's incredible coastline. Please check which days boats are running as this may vary and all trips are subject to weather conditions.
Does anyone live there?
There are two permanent human residents who live on Ramsey, though both of these are connected to the management and protection of the island, the RSPB Warden and Assistant Warden. There are of course thousands of other residences including seabirds and mammals.
How do you get there?
You can catch a boat to Ramsey Island from St Justinians harbour on the mainland. There are also a number of companies that also run wildlife trips that will land on the island. Check out our recommended trips here.
Visiting Ramsey Island
Ramsey Island is open to the public every year, usually between 1st April (or Easter if earlier) and 31st October. There are two departures per day, run by Thousand Islands Expeditions only. The boats depart from the Lifeboat Station at St Justinians, and you can buy your ticket beforehand online or at their shop in St Davids.
If you're interested in exploring the beautiful waters around the island, giving you a great view of the wildlife that populates it as well as the landscape, try a wildlife safari. There are lots of providers in the area who run these types of trips, including Falcon Boats, Voyages of Discovery, and Thousand Islands Expeditions.
Learn more about Pembrokeshire's beautiful coastline and find out more about the area close to Ramsey Island.