Get up close to nature with our pick of the ten best wildlife sites across the UK, and let us know your own top British wildlife experiences below.
Starling work on the Somerset Levels
An eerie sight greets visitors to the Somerset Levels in late autumn and winter. At dusk between November and January a swirling mass (pictured above), like a colossal black cloud, fills the sky, collecting and dispersing in bizarre, ever-changing patterns. This astonishing event is laid on by thousands of starlings – residents joined by millions of migrants from northern and eastern Europe, visiting for the UK’s milder winters – who gather, for safety in numbers, to roost for the night. Westhay Moor, Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath are all good places to witness the displays.
Selkirk’s salmon leap
Ettrick Weir, near Selkirk in Scotland, is one of the best places in the world to witness one of nature’s greatest phenomena: the spectacular salmon leap. Each autumn thousands of salmon make the arduous journey from as far away as Greenland back to the gravel beds where they were born at the upper end of the Ettrick River, a tributary of the Tweed. So determined are they to reach their destination that they will leap over any obstacle in their way – an awesome muscular display. You can enjoy a salmon’s-eye view of it at the Philiphaugh Salmon Viewing Centre, which has an underwater camera to catch the takeoffs.
Badgered in Devon
Watching badgers feed is a mesmerizing sight, especially when they are with their cubs. From the ingeniously concealed hide at Devon Badger Watch, near Tiverton, you can watch the antics of these reclusive animals as they play and feed around their sett. Best of all, the badgers usually appear well before dusk, so if you’re quiet you should be rewarded with a good view.
On the trail of Squirrel Nutkin in Yorkshire
Though it clings on in Scotland, the much-loved red squirrel remains in catastrophic decline across much of England and Wales: the larger grey now outnumbers the native species by twenty to one. To arrest its demise, numerous reserves have been set up across the country; the densely forested Widdale Squirrel Reserve in Yorkshire is one of the best, with a special viewing area set up for you to admire the fluffy-tailed beauties as they feed. The nine-mile Snaizeholme Trail crosses delightful Dales countryside to the viewpoint from the Wensleydale town of Hawes.
Flying high on Mull
The magnificent golden eagle breeds across the expansive hunting grounds of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, but is easiest to spot in western areas, such as the Isle of Mull, where the open moorland they favour stretches down to sea level. The island is also home to the rare white-tailed eagle (or sea eagle), Britain’s largest bird of prey, recently reintroduced following its extinction in the early twentieth century. Ranger-led walks are arranged by the island’s RSPB visitor centre between April and October to spot the beautiful birds, and chances are you will also catch sight of otters and deer.
Boar-n again in the Forest of Dean
Venture too far into the woods of the Forest of Dean and you might be in for a hairy surprise. Bar a short-lived reintroduction in the seventeenth century, wild boar were extinct in Britain from the 1200s until the 1980s, when farming of these master foragers began. Since then, there have been numerous escapes – and a handful of deliberate releases – and now significant breeding populations of wild boar have established themselves, notably on the Kent/East Sussex border and in the Forest of Dean. Destructive and occasionally aggressive, they’re not popular with everyone, though – the first cull took place in 2010 – so go find them while you can.
Prehistoric cattle at Chillingham
Fierce and primeval – indeed they look like the sort of animal painted by prehistoric man – wild Chillingham cattle once roamed free through the forests of Britain. Today, these handsome beasts survive only within the extensive parkland of Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, where they’ve remained astonishingly genetically isolated for centuries. Visit the Chillingham herd, which today numbers around ninety, and it’ll be the closest thing to big-game spotting you get in England.
Puffin spotting on Skomer
Lying just off the Pembrokeshire coast, spectacular Skomer Island, the second largest in Wales, is home to a huge breeding sea-bird population, including one of the UK’s most important colonies of puffins. Up to six thousand of these endearing, comical birds roost here in colonies in early summer, nesting in cliff-top burrows often poached from rabbits. Come in May, when the island is carpeted in a sea of bluebells and red campion flourishes in sheltered areas.
Glorious bustards on Salisbury Plain
In 2009, Salisbury Plain saw the UK’s first birth of a great bustard chick for over 170 years in a breeding programme designed to reintroduce the world’s heaviest flying bird to our shores. Up to 3ft tall with a wingspan of 8ft, these are impressive giants, and it’s quite a thrill to observe the small population of twenty or so birds, introduced from Russia in 2004, on a trip to the project’s secretly located hideout in the Plain’s chalky grassland.
Avocets at Minsmere
With its long legs, distinctive pied colouring and elegant upward-curving beak, the avocet is perhaps behind only the mute swan as the most graceful of our native bird species; indeed its comely looks have made it world-famous as the emblem of the RSPB. There’s no better place to watch these beautiful waders than on the Scrape, a man-made lagoon at Minsmere RSPB reserve in Suffolk, where about a hundred pairs nest annually each spring. While you’re here, listen out for the distinctive boom of the bittern, Britain’s rarest bird – Minsmere’s reedbeds shelter around 30 percent of the UK’s breeding population.
Share your own favourite British wildlife experiences below.