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Wildlife at St Helens Duver

A view over the saltmarsh at St Helens Duver on the Isle of Wight with an area of water surrounded by trees, scrub and marsh grassland
The saltmarsh at St Helens Duver | © National Trust Images/Chuck Eccleston

Mixing grassland, woodland, rock pools and areas of wide-open space, the wide variety of habitats in and around St Helens Duver on the Isle of Wight provide a home to many animals. Among them, you’ll find hungry Hebridean sheep, threatened bees, and various species of birds and rare insects.

Wildlife on St Helens Common

St Helens Common is a small, fenced-off area on sloping ground to the north of St Helens Duver and above the Mill Pond. It's an area of restored common where much of the scrub has been cleared to reveal views down to the Duver.

A gift from the Poultons

A memorial stone halfway down the Gaggan Edge footpath reads: ‘This common and woodland were presented in 1925 and 1928 to the National Trust by Professor and Mrs E.B. Poulton in memory of their children Hilda and Ronald and Janet who spent many happy hours at St Helens.'

Gaggan Edge itself was named after the press gangs from nearby ships who used to lie in wait to gag their victims. These days, hardy black Hebridean sheep are the only threat, but mainly so to coarse grass and scrub. They graze the land in late summer to help restore its original condition as a flower-rich grassy common.

Please note this area can only be accessed by the public footpath that runs alongside.

Wildlife in Priory Woods

This narrow strip of sycamore and ash wood behind the beach at Nodes Point clings to the low clay cliffs which are slipping and tumbling into the sea.

Red squirrel and dormice live in the denser parts of the wood and some rare burrowing insects live in the exposed clay where it erodes onto the beach.

Wildlife on the shore at St Helens Duver

Flotsam and jetsam

Look out for razor shells and whelk egg cases, cuttle bones from cuttlefish, and mermaid’s purses, which are dogfish egg cases. Sand hoppers and seaweed fly are abundant in the washed-up seaweed, and these invertebrates provide food for birds such as pied wagtail and turnstone.

Animals in the rock pools

The limestone crevices provide shelter for whelks, limpets, and three types of periwinkle.

Dog whelk numbers declined dramatically during the 1980s due to the use of poisonous anti-fouling paints on the hulls of ships; they have since recovered as the use of these paints is now restricted.

Limpets have a hard shell which protects from predators and a large muscular foot to clamp themselves to the rocks. They graze on seaweed, moving up to 50cm to find food, then returning home.

Sea anemones live in the pools and damper hollows, many different types of worms live in the sand, and sea squirts cling to the rocks. Small fish such as Blennies and Gobies hide amongst the seaweed and even seahorses have been seen here.

A child goes rockpooling, and finds a large crab
The limestone ledges off St Helens Duver are one of the best places to go rockpooling | © National Trust / Rob Warburton

Crabs and other crustaceans

Various types of crab hide amongst the barnacle encrusted rocks. These include the hermit crab, so called on account of its habit of living alone in a second-hand shell, and the broad clawed porcelain crab, whose delicate limbs are inclined to break like porcelain.

Shore crabs come in different colours, all of them heart shaped, while squat lobsters can sometimes be found and shrimps.

Insects at St Helens Duver

St Helens Duver provides a habitat for insects, including two threatened species – the beewolf and the bee halictus confusus. In total, no less than 67 species of bee and wasp have been recorded here.

Many of these insects burrow into loose sand and you'll likely see them coming in and out of their burrows. It's another feature of a changing habitat where areas of exposed sand are a benefit rather than a problem for wildlife.

Threatened species

The beewolf, a solitary burrowing wasp that preys on bees, was first recorded in Britain in 1828, right here on the island. The female digs tunnels in sandy soil to lay eggs. It paralyses bees with its sting, then drags them back to feed the carnivorous larvae.

Halictus confusus is a metallic green sweat bee, so called because it's attracted to sweat, which is found at only 15 British sites.

A brilliant habitat for bees, wasps and spiders

The area is also home to the wasp spider, so called because the female – which is much larger than the male – has the distinctive black and yellow striped markings of a wasp. This spider first appeared on the south coast of Britain in 1922 but has recently been reported to be on the move northward.

Additionally, the Duver is home to grasshoppers and crickets, notably the Common field grasshopper, the grey bush cricket (which favours dunes), the dark bush cricket and the long-winged conehead cricket.

A white egret paddling in rippled water
The egret is one of the birds you can spot here | © National Trust Images/Hilary Daniel

Birdwatching at St Helens Duver

Birds by the shore

Brent geese and wigeon fly south from their breeding grounds in the sub-Arctic to find food and can be seen here between October and March, feeding on the eelgrass beds off St Helens Ledges and in the harbour. You might also spot pintail, wigeon and teal.

Birds in the harbour

The harbour area is important for migrant wading birds such as dunlin, redshank, sanderling and turnstone, which feed on the invertebrates in the mud. The dunlin is a small wader which feeds in flocks and the redshank has distinctive long red legs.

Look out for the thrush-sized turnstone, which scoops up individual stones with its beak, then rolls them over to search for crustaceans and insects. In its spring plumage it has a white head with striking black markings and a broad black breast band.

Great-crested grebe and red-breasted merganser, a diving duck with a long, serrated bill, feed on fish from the sea here. Both are crested, but the male merganser has a distinctive white ‘clerical’ collar.

Birds on the dune system

On the Duver itself you may see common whitethroat, wheatear, chiffchaff and linnet.

The whitethroat nests in bushes, and in song the male flies up, then sails down into the bushes with its wings spread and tail erect.

The wheatear feeds on the grassland in spring and autumn on migration. It has a white rump, and the male has a black eye mask.

Birds by the lagoons

The shoreline, muddy harbour and salt marshes in the lagoons behind the reserve provide rich habitats for birds, especially during times of migration and in winter.

Close by, on the other side of the Embankment Road, is the Brading Marshes RSPB reserve, which encompasses most of the reclaimed land of the estuary of the River Yar and includes freshwater lagoons. Unsurprisingly, this whole area is excellent for bird watching.

Little egrets (which resemble a small white heron), wigeon, shelducks, teal, brent geese, curlew and lapwings are all regular visitors.

A view across the landscape at St Helens Duver to the beach

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