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St Bees Head

From Opus

Photo by HelenBColonies of seabirds nest on these sandstone cliffs at St Bees Head, May 2009
Photo by HelenB
Colonies of seabirds nest on these sandstone cliffs at St Bees Head, May 2009

England, Cumbria


[edit] Overview

A stretch of red sandstone cliffs on the Cumbrian coast, St Bees Head is famous as the site of England's only breeding Black Guillemot. The cliffs, reaching almost 100m in height, have many ledges and the coastal strip of grassland above the cliffs has patches of gorse and inland are fields with drystone walls.

North Head is the highest point, behind which there is a lighthouse and Tarn Flatt Hall where there is farmland with low hedgerows. Midway between North Head and South Head is a small, densely vegetated valley which meets the sea at Fleswick Bay.

[edit] Birds

[edit] Notable Species

Black Guillemot numbers are becoming very low but they are regular and easily visible on the water at the base of the cliffs (try the area immediately north of Fleswick Bay or from the small beach itself). Atlantic Puffin also occurs in small numbers but Common Guillemot and Razorbill are much more numerous and breed along with Northern Fulmar, Kittiwake, Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Also present on these cliffs are Common Kestrel and Little Owl, Rock Pipit, Jackdaw and Northern Raven. The scrub atop the cliffs has Stonechat and both Common Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat, Linnet and Corn Bunting and there are also breeding Grey Wagtail, Common Wren and Willow Warbler.

Numerous migrants can be seen from these cliffs during passage periods and include divers and grebes, waterfowl and waders, shearwaters, including Sooty Shearwater, and skuas and terns. Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Merlin and Peregrine Falcon often hunt migrant passerines along the cliffs in autumn and winter.

Photo by HelenBNesting guillemots on the cliffs. May 2009.Click on image for a larger version
Photo by HelenB
Nesting guillemots on the cliffs. May 2009.
Click on image for a larger version

[edit] Rarities

Rarities recorded in this area have included Great Shearwater and Mediterranean Shearwater, Mediterranean Gull and Long-tailed Skua, Red Kite and Red-backed Shrike.

Photo by HelenBThe main viewpoint for the colonies of nesting sea birds at St Bees Head
Photo by HelenB
The main viewpoint for the colonies of nesting sea birds at St Bees Head

[edit] Check-list

Birds you can see here include:

Red-throated Diver, Great Crested Grebe, Northern Fulmar, Sooty Shearwater (rare), Manx Shearwater, European Storm Petrel, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, European Shag, Pink-footed Goose, Common Eider, Common Scoter, Velvet Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Grey Partridge, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Purple Sandpiper, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Common Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Arctic Skua, Great Skua, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Sandwich Tern, Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin, Stock Dove, Feral Pigeon, Little Owl, Common Swift, Eurasian Skylark, Barn Swallow, Rock Pipit, Meadow Pipit, Grey Wagtail, Common Wren, Common Redstart, Whinchat, European Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, Eurasian Blackbird, Fieldfare, Song Thrush, Redwing, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Common Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Eurasian Magpie, Eurasian Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Northern Raven, Common Starling, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Eurasian Linnet, Yellowhammer, Corn Bunting (rare)

Photo by HelenBCliff top path leading down to Fleswick Bay and North Head in the distance
Photo by HelenB
Cliff top path leading down to Fleswick Bay and North Head in the distance

[edit] Other Wildlife

Flowers of the clifftop include Bloody Cranesbill and Rock Samphire, Orpine, Meadow Saxifrage and Heath Spotted and Early Purple Orchids.

Harbour Porpoise are common particularly at South Head.

[edit] Site Information

[edit] Access and Facilities

The headland can be reached by leaving Whitehaven southwards on the A595 and turning west after 3km to Sandwith. In the middle of the hamlet turn onto the private road to Tarnflat Hall (GR NX948146). Park in the farmyard, £2 a day (2019) - honesty box by the farmhouse door (Whilst I haven't been up to the farm to check, I believe that parking in the farmyard is NOT permitted during the current situation - andreadawn) The clifftop is about 800 metres along the track.

Alternatively, continue to the village of St Bees and turn right on to a minor road leading to St Bees Beach where there is a 'pay and dsiplay' car-park. From here a footpath ascends the cliffs and leads to two observation points. It is about a 4 mile round trip by this second route.

These cliffs are very dangerous and viewing should be limited to these safe observation points. Walking from St Bees to the lighthouse and back takes two-three hours, depending on how long you stop to observe the birds.

Grid Ref: NX959118

[edit] Contact Details

Tel: 01697 351330 (RSPB)

[edit] External Links

Content and images originally posted by Steve and HelenB

[edit] Reviews

Stephen Dunstan's review

Don't go there expecting to see Sooty Shearwaters or Corn Buntings as it suggests. Bear in mind that it is a long walk up the cliffs or from Sandwith, as the road to the lighthouse is private. If you are in West Cumbria it is a must see place, can recommend a very nice if expensive guest house.


  • The views


  • The climbs!

HelenB's review

We visited in early July of 2000, in the pouring rain! The climbs are steep, but well worth it for the views of the cliffs and the seabirds. As an added bonus, we were pleased to see a couple of Peregrines hunting along the cliff tops on our way back to the St Bees carpark. The long grass along the narrow path edges, really soaks your trousers and boots, so would recommend waterproof leggings on wet days. There is no entrance fee to access the reserve.


  • seeing Peregrine Falcons and Atlantic Puffins


  • steep climb to viewing areas

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