Shore things: Beach birds

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The Independent Travel

The best beach in Britain I know is in Anglesey, a magnificent sweep of sand backed by a huge area of pristine dunes, parts of which are afforested. I know it because the whole lot is a national nature reserve and for 10 summers, I was a volunteer warden there.

I saw it for the nature, for the wonderful specialised sand dune flora and fauna (sea-holly, polecats, short-eared owls); the public, entirely naturally, saw it for the recreation possibilities. For the beach is not only extensive and golden and quite unspoilt, it has the most gentle slope into the sea you will ever find, so it is especially safe for children.

These two interests, nature and public recreation, tended to clash, which is why chaps like me were needed. When the wind bustled along the sand, holidaymakers wanted to creep off the beach and shelter in the dune slacks just behind (a slack is a hollow between dunes). But the slacks were where the oystercatchers were breeding, those handsome black-and-white shorebirds with their scarlet bills, and it would only take one picnicking human family to drive an oystercatcher family off its nest.

So part of my job was to ask picnicking families, as politely as possible, would you, er, mind sort of moving back on to the beach please, because oystercatchers are breeding here. And I remember one blustery afternoon when I looked along the sand and saw seven families I had persuaded to emerge from the dunes, dotted the length of the beach, one after another, and I thought, I've done my bit for nature today.

You need somewhere like Anglesey to have a beach where the wildlife is as good as the sunbathing, because you need northern seas. That brilliant blue of the Mediterranean waters that delights us as holidaymakers is actually a sign of ecological poverty, of lack of nutrients, so they don't support many seabirds: a few yellow-legged gulls, a few shags and shearwaters. The Med has none of those riotous assemblies of birdlife that flourish in the Atlantic where the waters are green and rich with plankton: teeming colonies of guillemots, razorbills, puffins, cormorants, fulmars, kittiwakes and gannets.

For proper beaches with birds (and amazing things in the rock pools) head north, go to Anglesey, go beyond Wales to Scotland; the further north you go, the richer the birdlife, the more chance you may have of seeing puffins, the most charming sight in the sea. My abiding memory of seaside wildlife comes from my Anglesey stamping ground; one bright Saturday morning in summer, I sat on the beach as it filled with families and through my binoculars looked beyond them. Half a mile out, a squadron of gannets had found a shoal of mackerel and they were dive-bombing it, sending up plumes of spray that looked like bursting artillery shells. The families were delighting in the gentle gold of the sand, and a delight it was, but there was a more intense pleasure to be had there that day, for anyone who cared to look beyond.