Steep Holm Island – Where the Wild Birds Live

Steep Holm Island is a small, uninhabited island in the Bristol Channel, just off the coast of Somerset. It’s a hidden gem, known for its beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife, and rich history. It can be seen from the Somerset coast and is an intriguing landmark that many wonder about but very few manage to visit.

The island is a haven for wildlife. The limestone cliffs provide nesting sites for gulls and cormorants while muntjac deer roam the dense vegetation that covers the island. The island’s diverse flora includes unique plant species like henbane, island leek, Alexanders meadow, and the Mediterranean peony.

Whether you’re fascinated by history, birdwatching, or seeking a tranquil escape, Steep Holm Island offers an unforgettable experience, especially in the early summer when the gulls are nesting.

How to visit Steep Holm Island

Visiting Steep Holm needs planning. It can only be reached on a few dates each year by a small boat due to the tides and weather conditions.

The boats are run by Bay Island Voyages based in Cardiff and run a friendly and easy RHIB boat from Cardiff and Weston-super-Mare over to the island. The island is about 6 nautical miles from Cardiff and 5 nautical miles from Weston and the journey takes about 15 to 20 minutes.

The boat ride is fast and comfortable and once you have your life jacket and safety briefing you realise that this is all a part of the adventure.

Once the boat arrives on the island a step will allow you to get off the boat onto the beach. This is a bit of a step onto pebbles, but the volunteers are on hand to help if needed.

How long to spend on Steep Holm Island

There is no choice in how long you spend on the island. The tides determine your stay which is around 12 hours. The times that you see on the booking are the times from Cardiff or Weston and the time you will arrive back on the slipway.

The departure time is written on the board in the barracks so you know when to head back to the beach. Most people arrive early for departure and spend the time before the boat returns exploring the beach.

When is the best time to visit Steep Holm Island?

Steep Holm Island is open from April until late summer with the weather and tides determining when the boat finishes for the season. In May and June, it is possible to see the nesting cormorants and from May until late July the nesting gulls will be seen. Later in the season, the island is quiet from the mayhem of the gulls making it the perfect retreat from the bustle of Weston and Cardiff.

Getting around the island

The boat leaves you on a small pebble beach and then a path leads up to the top of the island. This is quite steep but there is lots to see on the way and you can take as long as you want. Once you are at the top of the cliffs it is then a gentle undulating path around the island. The path is cleared twice a year so make sure you have long trousers to protect from stingers as you walk.

It takes about 2 hours to walk around the island with stops for photographs and snacks. The island is only 800m long and 300m wide so there isn’t a huge area to explore. There is a path that cuts across the top of the island if you decide to have a break halfway, but beware that the area around the trig point is a gull hotspot.

On the island, there is a dry area with a museum, cafe, toilets and a small shop in the old barracks. This is a welcome place to have lunch or listen to the wildlife talks given by the volunteers. In hot weather, it is a place to escape the sun and in bad weather, it is one of the few places to find shelter.

Remember that you are on the island for 12 hours and while the cafe provides snacks you do need to bring your own supplies as well. Water is essential along with sun cream, waterproofs and plenty of camera memory.

During gull season there are umbrellas to rent for a small donation to the trust available in the Barracks. This may sound really weird but the gulls will ambush you constantly with their feet, divebombing to protect their chicks. They are also very accurate when dropping a s**t bomb from a great height.

Staying on Steep Holm Island

There are no facilities for staying on the island and it is only possible to visit on a day trip. There is no hotel and camping is not allowed.

There are currently no permanent residents on the island although volunteers do visit the island to complete renovation works, general maintenance and conservation monitoring. However, they do not stay on the island overnight.

History of the Island – Things to see on Steep Holm

Steep Holm Island has a rich and fascinating history that adds an extra layer of intrigue to its natural beauty. From religious retreats to military fortifications, the island has played various roles throughout the centuries.


One of the notable chapters in the island’s history dates back to the 12th century when a priory was established. St. Michael’s Chapel, the remnants of which can still be seen today, served as a spiritual haven for monks seeking solitude and contemplation.

These monks lived a simple life, relying on the island’s resources for sustenance and meditating in tranquil surroundings. The priory on Steep Holm Island was eventually dissolved during the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII in the 16th century.

Steep Holm Battery

During the 19th century, Steep Holm Island gained strategic importance as a military stronghold. A battery was constructed on the island to defend the Bristol Channel against potential threats and was one of the many Palmerston Forts.

This battery, armed originally with cannons and later with guns, guarded the waterway during the World Wars. The numerous batteries and observation posts on the island continued the defences seen at Brean Down Fort. These formed part of a chain of defences protecting the Bristol Channel and the docks in Bristol and further upstream in Gloucester.

Remnants of the battery and the underground passages used by soldiers can be explored, providing a glimpse into the island’s military past. There is currently work being carried out to dig out and restore one of the underground ammunition stores at the Tombstone Battery.

More recent history

Steep Holm Island Trust is a living memorial to Kenneth Alsop, a conservationist, broadcaster and author. The trust acquired the island in 1976 and dedicated it to nature conservation in his memory. The island is now a nature reserve, bird sanctuary, and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Old Farm Buildings, The Inn and Trig Point

There are a number of farm buildings tucked away on the island as well as the prominent 19th-century Inn that stands in ruins on the beach. These buildings can’t be entered but are interesting places to explore. The highest point of the island is at the trig which is 78 metres above sea level.

Steep Holm Island geology and plant life

The landscape of Steep Holm Island is a captivating blend of rugged limestone cliffs that are the final outcrop of the Mendip Hills. Caves, hidden coves, and a variety of unique plant species, some of which are remnants of the island’s long-lost physic garden cultivated by the monks can be seen across the island. As you explore the island, you’ll be immersed in its distinctive geology and discover the enchanting and sometimes poisonous flora that thrives in this secluded haven.

The beach and shingle spit

Unlike the traditional sandy beaches seen just across the Bristol Channel at Burnham-on-Sea and Weston-Super-Mare, the shoreline of Steep Holm Island is adorned with grey pebbles. The smooth, weathered pebbles allow you to take time away from the intensity of the nesting gulls and search for pretty and unusual shapes and colours hidden in the grey.

At low tide, a shingle spit appears where oystercatchers can be seen. When the tide turns and starts its rush inwards, the movement of the pebbles can be heard in a strange but haunting roar. With the second-highest tidal range in the world, the tiny beach sees huge changes with each tide.

Cliffs and caves

The cliffs of Steep Holm Island are composed of limestone, bearing witness to the island’s ancient geological history. Over time, wind and waves have sculpted the towering cliffs, revealing layers of sedimentary rock.

These dramatic cliffs showcase intricate patterns and formations etched into the stone, creating a visual testament to the island’s geological past. Close to the beach, they are covered in every shade of orange as lichen clings to the rock forming intricate patterns.

Plants on steep Holm island

Steep Holm Island boasts a diverse range of plant species, some of which are remnants of the monks’ medieval physic garden. Among these notable plants found on the island are hembane (Inula conyzae), island leek (Allium monanthum), Alexanders meadow (Smyrnium olusatrum), and the May flowering wild Mediterranean peony (Paeonia mascula).

These species have adapted to the island’s specific conditions, thriving in its nutrient-rich soils and coastal climate. Their presence adds a touch of botanical allure to the island’s already captivating scenery.

Rabbits (or the lack of them!)

Steep Holm Island is free from rabbits, which has shaped the landscape and influenced the growth and distribution of plant communities. The absence of these herbivores allows certain plant species to flourish without the pressure of grazing or burrowing, creating a unique balance within the island’s ecosystem. However, this also means that paths disappear over the summer months making exploring the island even more of an adventure.

Bird life on Steep Holm Island

Steep Holm Island offers a diverse range of species that captivate both novice and seasoned bird enthusiasts. During migration seasons, the island becomes a temporary refuge for numerous bird species while peregrine falcons can be seen hunting along the cliffs year-round. These small raptors feature on the islands logo and were once a common sight.

Cormorants nest on the cliffs on the northwest of the island close to the Summit Battery in the spring but disperse once their young have fledged. They tend to be gone before all of the gulls have left the island and by mid-June, there are only a few left on the cliffs.

Steep Holm also has blue tits, blackbirds and robins that potter around. During the gull breeding season, they are harder to find, but once the gull mayhem is over they reappear across the island.

The madness of the Steep Holm gulls

Steep Holm Island is a mad place to be for a few months each year. The gulls that are seen pinching chips on the seafront in Weston and Burnham come to the island to nest and rear their young. This results in overprotective adults defending their young and chicks running around all over the place. It is an intense experience to visit the island from May until July while they are nesting.

There are three species of gulls that nest on the island – herring gulls, lesser black-backed gulls and great black-backed gulls.

Herring gull (Larus argentatus)

The herring gull is a large, robust gull with a wingspan of around 1.4 meters. It has a white head and underparts, with pale grey wings and back. Juvenile birds have more mottled plumage.

Herring gulls build their nests on cliff ledges and rocky outcrops, typically using seaweed, grass, and other available vegetation. These gulls are highly adaptable and opportunistic feeders, scavenging for food in various environments, including fish, carrion, and human-provided food scraps.

Lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus)

The lesser black-backed gull is slightly smaller than the herring gull, with a dark grey or black back, yellow legs, and a yellow bill with a red spot. Its wingspan can reach up to 1.4 meters.

These gulls prefer nesting on coastal cliffs, shingle beaches, and islands, constructing nests made of twigs, grass, and other vegetation. They are omnivorous, feeding on a wide range of prey, including fish, invertebrates, and small mammals, and even scavenging at rubbish dumps.

Great black-backed gull (Larus marinus)

The great black-backed gull is the largest gull species in the world, boasting a wingspan of up to 1.7 meters. It has a powerful build, with black wings, a white head and underparts, and a yellow bill with a red spot.

Great black-backed gulls typically nest on coastal cliffs, rocky shores, and islands, constructing nests made of seaweed, grass, and other materials. These gulls are apex predators and have a diverse diet, preying on fish, seabird chicks, small mammals, and even other gulls. They are known for their aggressive behaviour, often stealing food from other birds.

Other wildlife on Steep Holm Island

Steep Holm Island has a wide range of wildlife from small insects to some of the longest-recorded slow worms. Butterflies can be seen across the island as well as a number of spider species.

Muntjac deer

Steep Holm Island is home to a small number of muntjac deer (Muntiacus reevesi) also known as barking deer. These elusive deer hide in the shrub but can sometimes be seen crossing paths as they move from one area to another.

They are small deer species that add to the diverse wildlife on Steep Holm. These deer typically measure about 50-60cm tall at the shoulder, making them relatively small in stature appearing like a large dog at a glance. They have a reddish-brown coat with short, coarse hair that helps them blend in with their surroundings.

Male muntjacs possess short antlers that are shed and regrown periodically throughout the year. One notable feature of muntjac deer is their distinctive barking calls, which they use for communication and as a warning signal. Despite their small size, muntjacs are highly adaptable and can navigate through dense vegetation with ease, allowing them to access a variety of food sources.


As an island, it is no surprise that Steep Holm sees seals. While there is not a large colony, seals can often be seen on the rocks close to the ruins of The Inn on the beach or pottering around the shingle spit that appears at low tide.

Other islands in the Bristol Channel

  • Lundy Island is located on the north coast of Devon and has a small puffin colony and sika deer.
  • Caldey Island is the perfect place for a retreat in Pembrokeshire. The island has a large active monastery as well as a cliff-top lighthouse and sandy beaches
  • Flatholm is very close to Steep Holm and can be seen from the north coast of the island. Smaller than Steep Holm, Flatholm has a lighthouse and far fewer gulls!

Steep Holm Island summary

Steep Holm Island is a small, uninhabited island in the Bristol Channel, just off the coast of Somerset. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is home to a variety of wildlife, including birds, seals, and deer. The island is also rich in history, with evidence of human occupation dating back to the Bronze Age.

The island is most famous for its breeding colony of gulls, which can number up to 20,000 during the summer months. The gulls are an important part of the island’s ecosystem. They help to control the population of other birds and animals, and their droppings provide nutrients for the soil.

Steep Holm Island is a popular destination for birdwatchers and other nature lovers. There are several walking trails on the island, and visitors can also explore the old military fortifications.

Access to Steep Holm Island is limited and is controlled by the Steep Holm Trust. Visitors must book a ferry in advance and are not allowed to stay on the island.

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