The sand and pebble beach goes on for 8km. Behind it, the sand dunes and heaths of the Ayres National Nature reserve. This is the only National Nature reserve on the Isle of Man, and it’s located on the north coast, the newest part of the island, geologically speaking.
The name is from a Norse word meaning a gravel bank. It was formed from sand and gravel moved along the coast by tides and wind.
I visited in mid-May.
Cronk y Bing
We started exploring at the south-western end – though the small reserve of Cronk y Bing, owned by the Manx Wildlife Trust is not actually part of the NNR. Sandwiched between the sea and the Lhen Trench, this is one of the widest strips of yellow dune on the island, providing habitat for a variety of species that require a mobile sand habitat. Marram grass dominates, with pyramidal orchid, sea bindweed, rest-harrow, common stork’s bill, bugloss harebell, sheep’s bit, wild carrot, common cornsalad, burnet rose and wild mignonette all competing for space, and helping to stabilise the dunes. For the most part, rabbits graze them down to a short lawn between patches of bramble and blackthorn.
On the seaward side, sea holly and saltwort maintain a footing, while oysterplant Mertensia maritima is found on the more shingly areas. This is a rare species – disappointingly it wasn’t in flower yet (it flowers from June to September), so I still have no photos of it. It gets its name because the leaves are said to taste of oysters.
This is a favoured breeding ground for little terns, oystercatchers (above), ringed plovers (top photo) and meadow pipits.
The Lhen Trench was a melt-water channel from the ice-age, it had silted up but was dug open to drain the marshy land to the south-west, so this section of it runs in a straight line. It provides habitat for another slew of species, including the rare Isle of Man Cabbage. Unfortunately, this is another plant that doesn’t flower until June.
We continued along the coastal trail almost to Blue Point, before turning back.
Travel eastwards on the A10, and another road leads out to the sea at Rue Point. This is the western end of the NNR, though the habitat continues to Cronk-y-Bing. The road winds through grassy dunes to picnic areas. The rabbits again were keeping the turf short, and many plants were nibbled down to bonsai versions.
This is a great place for insects – the sun is able to warm the sand through the thin layer of vegetation, and provide suitable breeding grounds for solitary bees, grasshoppers, and a whole host of less obvious insects. Colletes succinctus – a small burrowing bee that collects pollen and stores it underground for its larvae. It unwittingly provides a home for the heath bee fly – a bee-mimic which throws its eggs into the burrows, the resulting larvae eat the provisions left for the bee larvae, and then consume the bee larvae themselves. The only other sites in Britain for this bee fly are on the Dorset Heaths of southern England.
Megachile maritima (above) is also found here, on the northern edge of its range in the British Isles. Like other leaf-cutting bees, it cuts neat chunks out of leaves with which to line its nest in a burrow in the sand.
Out on the beach, an area of shore has been fenced off. This is the main breeding area for the little terns. A flock of thirty or so moved restlessly along the shore, in the company of arctic terns: they had not yet begun to nest.
Ayres visitor centre
The next road out to the shore leads to an observation platform and a visitor centre. The latter is run by the Manx Wildlife Trust, with the aim of increasing public understanding of the area, and to provide information about its birds, habitats and are plant communities. Unfortunately for us, it was only open in the afternoons from the end of May to the end of September, and this was a morning in mid-May.
The observation platform (erected in 2012) overlooks the NNR in all directions. It’s where the opening photo was taken. The considerable tidal range here provides excellent fishing – from the beach for humans, and close inshore for gannets – about two dozen of them providing a spectacular display. As the birds plunge from about 10-15m into the water, they twist around, almost somersaulting, and flashing their white plumage to alert other gannets to the feeding opportunity. The more gannets there are, the more the fish become confused and exhausted, and the more each individual gannet can catch. As the gannet reaches the water surface, it pulls back its wings to become a perfect arrow shape to dive through the water.
Point of Ayres lighthouse
The final road out to the shore takes you to the lighthouse on the northern tip of the island, though you could, of course, walk along the shore.
The heathland here has extensive lichen flora, and a surprise is seeing Usnea articulata – a lichen that normally grows on trees – growing on the ground.
A pair of choughs (red-legged crows) had taken up residence in the old foghorn – an interesting alternative to their normal breeding sites in caves and clefts in the cliffs. We watched them coming and going, as they fed their ever-hungry chicks. Then we went in search of a meal for ourselves.
The Ayres in winter
The lichen heath is less colourful in winter, but still a fascinating habitat. On my first visit, I watched a flock of several hundred golden plovers land on the heath and just disappear. They were incredibly well-camouflaged amongst the heather and lichen. Skylarks and other small birds were similarly hidden until you walked too close to them, and then they exploded into the air. In the late afternoon gloom, short-eared owls and hen harriers hunted for these small birds and mammals.
Along the shore itself, we have watched eider, scoter, grebes, divers (loons) and other seabirds on the water.
Isle of Man: resources
From the Point of Ayre in the north, to the Calf of Man in the south, there is a wealth of wildlife to explore on the Isle of Man. The following links will help you make the most of a visit.
The Island is famous for the TT races – motorbike time trials that take place in late May/early June. Driving around the island can be difficult at this time because many roads are closed while racing takes place, and accommodation can be hard to find because of the influx of visitors.
Click on cover for more information. I have all three and find them all useful.
Note that buying books through these links provide a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that helps with the cost of running this website.