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Relax! Flat Holm’s ‘fearsome’ beetle is harmless!

Vampires, werewolves, zombies, the Yeti, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. To this list of apparently spine-chilling creatures, can we now add Flat Holm’s flesh-eating beetle?

Well, not quite. But this rare insect had some excitable journalists in the national media urging us to run for the hills this month when its discovery on the island wildlife sanctuary in the Bristol Channel was announced by scientists.

We know it’s the silly season – when almost anything can be hyped up into ‘shock-horror’ headlines – but newspapers warning people to avoid this little beetle, ahem, ‘beat all’!

Flat Holm’s community engagement officer, Sarah Morgan, was quoted – accurately – describing the insect (taxonomic name: dermestes undulatus) as “not for the squeamish”, but adding, “these tiny beetles feed on the skin and bones of dead animals. It’s a preference that makes them a bit of a pain in museum collections but incredibly useful in forensic science to help determine how long a body has been in situ.”

That prompted at least two national newspapers to issue a ‘warning’, and put our little mortician’s assistant in the same league as invasive Chinese mitten crabs and the bedbugs currently causing alarm from the streets of Paris to the buses of Manchester!

Said Sarah: “These little creatures are only 5-7mm in length, are perfectly harmless and only feed on dead flesh.

“And because they feed on carcasses, these beetles do a really important job of clearing decaying material in the environment. This is essential for conserving our other wildlife and means they’re a natural and important part of the ecosystem.

“I can assure you that they’re nothing to be afraid of and only add to the amazing biodiversity we have on Flat Holm, including slow worms, the rare Scarlet Berry truffle and wild leeks.”

If you want to visit Flat Holm and see the island’s beauty up-close, it’s possible to enjoy an organised day or overnight trips throughout the year. Overnight trips are self-catered and include a return boat journey, basic shared hostel-style accommodation with tuition and activities run by experienced instructors. For more information, visit  

Flat Holm Fact File

  • Despite being just over a 10th of a square mile in area, Flat Holm has a rich history. It was first inhabited during the Bronze Age (900-700BC) and in the 5th-6th Century AD was a retreat for St Cadoc who lived as a hermit on the island
  • It has connections to the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, and in 1542 Henry VIII granted a lease to Edmund Tournor to farm the island
  • In the 18th Century, it provided an ideal base for smuggling
  • Despite the 1737-built lighthouse, it has seen numerous shipwrecks. In 1817, the British sloop William and Mary foundered after hitting rocks off Flat Holm with the loss of 54 passengers, 50 of whom are buried on the island
  • During the Second World War, 350 soldiers of the Royal Artillery were stationed on the island to protect shipping convoys between Cardiff, Barry and Flat Holm
  • In 2008, in the ‘Adrift’ episode of the BBC’s Dr Who spin-off Torchwood, the island was featured as the home of a secret medical facility
  • The island is currently managed by Cardiff Council, and supported by the Flat Holm Society, which is a registered charity