October 4th marks World Animal Day –an event raising awareness about animal welfare all over our planet. In recognition we’ve scoured the length and breadth of Britain to find the supreme spots to spy our country’s most captivating creatures. From sea to sky, park to pool and mountain to marshland, there’s a wealth of wildlife on our doorstep, waiting to be discovered…
Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
Our largest National Park and wilderness and home to a tremendous 25% of our endangered species, the Cairngorms in the eastern Highlands of Scotland are an exceptional wildlife-watcher’s choice. Its climate is more like the arctic than Scotland, animals turn white in winter to hide from predators and snow can stay on the ground all year round. Primeval Caledonian pine forest, glens, lochs and high mountains are home to pine marten, osprey, wildcat, golden eagle, red squirrel, snow bunting, the secretive capercaillie, endemic Scottish crossbill and Britain’s only wild herd of reindeer. Team with inspiring year-round walking and guaranteed winter skiing, this wildlife hub is a truly special spot.
North Norfolk coast
Apart from being a refined holiday destination, the North Norfolk coast is a winter wildlife wonderland. At Blakeney Point, (home to England’s largest colony of grey seals) between November and January, females swim ashore to give birth to their fluffy white pups. Take a boat trip from Blakeney to experience this sweet spectacle. Nearby, Cley Marshes is a fantastic habitat for striking bearded tits and rare bitterns. Further west, RSPB Snettisham offers pre-dawn guided goose walks to see tens of thousands of pink-footed geese moving in a honking hulk from their mudflat roost in The Wash to feed on Norfolk’s famous beet fields.
Lyme Park, Cheshire
A grand facade, mirrored lake (where the BBC’s Miss Bennet happened upon a semi-naked Mr Darcy!) and a pristine deer park doesn’t immediately make you think wildlife. As it turns out, Lyme Park in Cheshire is brown hare heaven. This elegant estate on the edge of the Peak District is a stronghold for this shy, beleaguered animal – in the last 50 years their population has declined by 75%. In early spring, during mating season, males race into the open fields to fight. Standing on their hind legs they bound, chase and ‘box’ giving them the name ‘Mad March hares.’ Make your way up to The Cage hunting lodge for an elevated view. Visit in October to experience the booming red deer rut and winter to hear the waxwings’ distinctive call.
Brownsea Island, Dorset
Sheltering in Poole Harbour in Dorset Brownsea Island enjoys several claims to fame. Enid Blyton’s inspiration for the Whispering Island in the Famous Five series, Brownsea is also home to our largest single flock of avocet (a rare wading bird), a parade of wild peacocks and the endangered red squirrel. There are no competing grey squirrels on the island and it has become an important southern stronghold for the reds. Shy at best, these russet-coloured rascals are easiest to see during spring or autumn and at sunrise or sunset. Nearby on the mainland, Upton Heath nature reserve offers a chance to see all six of our native reptiles – slow-worm, common lizard, sand lizard, smooth snake, grass snake and adder.
Sizergh Castle and Gardens, Cumbria
In the far north west of England, at the gateway to the Lakes, Sizergh Castle and estate are a surprisingly superb place for butterflies – especially our fluttery, frilly-winged fritillaries. Here in the dappled sun of wooded glades, you’ll find the Pearl-bordered, Small Pearl-bordered, Dark-green and High Brown varieties. Stroll the circular wildlife walk through woodland and wildflower meadows spotting redwings and woodpeckers. The shy and rarely seen hawfinch also lives here, best seen in late winter and early spring and conveniently around the car park!
The Begwns, Powys, Wales
This little known area of Powys, to the north of the famous Brecon Beacons and affording handsome views to Hay Bluff and the Black Mountains, is a beautiful heather, bracken and grass-covered common. The bird life is wonderful including a raft of raptors – red kites, peregrine falcons, and buzzards plus gorgeous golden plover, black and red grouse, and bounding brown hares. A pond on the heath is home to 16 species of dragonfly and damselfly and it’s perhaps the most tranquil of our choices.
Lundy Island, off the Devon coast
The waters around Lundy off Devon make up our only marine nature reserve, and the island is home to the biggest seabird colony in southern England. Milder and sunnier than the mainland, the island also benefits from a complete lack of roads. The name Lundy is derived from the Norse word Lund, meaning puffin, and they nest here on the west coast’s wild Atlantic cliffs. Between April and July this whole coast bursts into life with breeding birds including guillemots, kittiwakes, manx shearwaters and razorbills. Inland, Lundy’s only native mammals are pygmy shrews and pipistrelle bats but Soay sheep, sika deer and more than 100 species of butterfly are also a welcome sight. The surrounding sea is home to bottlenose dolphins and basking sharks.
The mournful evening calls of grey seals have given these islands the romantic moniker, ‘Islands of the Singing Seals’ but it’s not these majestic mammals we’re getting so excited about. The Shetlands have the densest otter population in Europe and because of their location, between the far north of Scotland and Norway, they enjoy long summer daylight hours making this a superb place to spot them. Usually nocturnal, these playful animals are used to being oot and aboot during the day, plus there is a dedicated guided tour on offer. Whales and dolphins also surround these islands and between May and August, killer whales hunt those poor, singing seals close to shore.