The best places to watch wildlife in Britain

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The Independent Online

From the volcanic moorlands of Lundy Island, to the arctic mountains of the Cairngorns and verdant Lee Valley, Britain is a wildlife-lover's paradise. Sanjida O'Connell of the BBC's new 'Nature Calendar' series travelled the length and breadth of the nation in search of the best places to watch the wilds go by

My house is on the Cotswold Way. It sounds glamorous but isn't - it's in a small, run-down town that once had a few large factories and now has commuters and people on welfare. This summer I walked the Cotswold Way - as far as my house - and then stopped to drink champagne and eat sticky toffee pudding and didn't get any further than that. But the closer I drew to home, the more beautiful I thought the landscape was - steep-sided escarpments dense with devil's bit scabious and thick with butterflies, majestic beech woods gracing the lower slopes. It just goes to show that there's no place like home; in fact, this sentiment could apply to the whole of Britain.

This year Chris Packham, Mike Dilger, Janet Sumner and I have been filming Nature's Calendar - it's a 40-part seasonal guide to wildlife on our own doorsteps. What I love about Nature's Calendar is that it's honest. We spend two to three days in each place with a wildlife cameraman as well as another camera operator. What we saw is what you see - there's no nipping back to nab BBC archive if we can't shoot some elusive creature. It's also practical: because it's seasonal we're able to show what you might see if you went to the same nature reserve at the same time of year.

The idea is that our wildlife should be accessible to us all - proof that you don't need to be a middle-aged, waistcoat-wearing, white gentleman to be a naturalist. Fortunately, there is now a greater interest and awareness of conservation issues, and in British wildlife in particular. The Attenborough Nature Reserve, in Nottinghamshire, for instance, has been named one of the top 10 eco-destinations in the world in this month's BBC Wildlife magazine.

During the course of filming, I've seen some amazing sights: salmon migrating up the River Tweed; fallow deer bucks rutting at Ashridge Estate in Hertfordshire - the males are so intent on fighting that they roar and lock their large, flattish antlers with each other just a few metres from the path. I have helped bird ringers catch a kingfisher at Lemsford, a former watercress bed near London. I've seen cranes begin to dance at Hickling Broad, and what looks like a clump of reeds morph into a bird with enormous grey-green feet that stalked through the rushes of the Lee Valley. Although I felt privileged to see these animals, just turning up at the right time and place gives you a fighting chance of seeing them, too.

These are the best places in the country to see wildlife - but I could easily come up with the same number again, and I'm sure you could, too.

Nature's Calendar airs from Monday 27 November, at 6pm on BBC2

Lundy Island

Why go there?

Lundy is our only marine nature reserve, though hopefully it won't always be. I confess to being biased: my zoology field trip was to Lundy and I spent an idyllic week studying the foraging patterns of bumble bees, which don't rise until 10am. The remnants of a volcano, Lundy is a combination of granite cliffs, moorland and farmland.

What can you see?

The biggest seabird colony in the south of England, but it's also an attractive stopover for migrants. Wild ponies, soay sheep and goats, the unique Lundy cabbage and, in the sea, seals, bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises, basking sharks, and a rich diversity of marine life (one square metre of seabed can support 2,500 organisms).

Where is it?

Ten miles off the coast of Devon.

Further information

www.lundyisland.co.uk, www.english-nature.co.uk

Nottingham Attenborough Nature Reserve

Why go there?

The reserve was formerly a wet grassland habitat but became a site for gravel extraction. Over the past few years the area has been restored and is now a watery network of lakes and islands. New habitats have been created specifically for particular species, such as a dragonfly pond, a water meadow, a reed bed planted with 420 tons of reeds and a shallow lagoon for wading birds like curlew.

What can I see?

The reserve is a haven for waterfowl, including pochard and shoveller; kingfisher, bittern as well as winter migrants. Otters have been spotted and it's hoped that they'll breed in the near future.

Where is it?

Just outside Nottingham city centre, along the River Trent.

Further Information

www.attenboroughnaturecentre.co.uk

Cairngorms

Why go there?

It's one of our last great wildernesses; at 3,800 sq km, it's Britain's largest national park. It has diverse pristine habitats: the last remnants of a primeval Caledonian forest, the largest area of arctic mountain landscape in the UK, moors, glens, lochs and rivers. And it's home to a quarter of all our threatened species.

What can you see?

The Scottish crossbill (the only bird unique to Britain),golden eagles, ospreys, ptarmigans, snow buntings, capercaillies and the crested tit. There are also pine martens, wild cats, otters, red and roe deer, and the only wild herd of reindeer in the country.

Where is it?

The eastern Scottish highlands.

Further information

www.cairngorms.co.uk

Bass Rock

Why go there?

The world's largest single rock colony of gannets - all 100,000 of them - lives on Bass Rock, a 100m high plug of volcanic rock. You can watch them on cameras mounted on the rock from the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick. These birds are a crisp, elegant cream and white and can dive at speeds of 62mph. The gannets stay on the rock until the end of October when they set off to the west coast of Africa, returning in January.

What can you see?

Apart from the gannets, 300,000 seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, shags, and kittiwakes, nest here each spring.

Where is it?

In the Firth of Forth, east Scotland, a mile from North Berwick.

Further information

www.seabird.org

Malham Tarn

Why go there?

William Wordsworth described Malham as made by the same giant who created Ireland's Causeway. It's a spectacular sight: England's highest freshwater lake, which was formed during the last ice age; Malham Cove, Carboniferous limestone cliffs topped with a limestone pavement. Malham is part of the Yorkshire Dales, 1,173sqkm of flower-filled meadows, fields and moorland.

What can you see?

In summer the RSPB set up telescopes so you can see our fastest bird of prey, the peregrine falcon, which can reach speeds of 112mph, swoop from the cliffs. You might also see little owls, green woodpeckers and redstarts. In between the clints (the blocks of limestone) and grykes (the gaps) are plants that survive in this rare micro-climate, such as green spleenwort and wall rue.

Where is it?

Near Skipton, at the southern base of the Yorkshire Dales.

Further information

www.malhamdale.com

Skomer Island

Why go there?

It might only be a tiny 247 acres, but this is one of the most important seabird breeding sites in Europe. Skomer is carpeted in bluebells in May and is also a haven for rabbits. I am equally happy walking along the Pembrokeshire coastal path, where you'll still see many of the same seabirds, plus peregrine falcons, as you wander through carpets of thrift, sea campion and red fescue.

What can you see?

About 35,000 pairs of manx shearwaters, storm petrels, gulls, razorbills, guillemots and puffins, as well as ravens and a more unusual corvid, the chough. You'll also see grey seals, porpoises and dolphins.

Where is it?

Three miles off the Pembrokeshire coast.

Further information

www.pcnpa.org.uk, www.wildlifetrusts.org

Lee Valley Park

Lee Valley Park is London's green lung: it runs for 26 miles alongside the river Lee and is crossed midway by the M25. It's easy to get to if you live in the city - you can even reach the start of this 10,000-acre park on the Tube. Lee Valley encompasses five nature reserves and eight Sites of Special Scientific Interest. One of the main reasons for visiting the park is that it is one of the most important sites in the UK for that elusive creature, the bittern.

What can you see?

The Lee Valley has 32 different species of mammal, 500 types of flowering plant and 21 species of dragonfly. Around 10,000 waterbirds overwinter here, including tufted duck, pochard, goosander, great crested grebe, coot, gadwall and shoveler.

Where is it?

It stretches from near Stratford in East London to Ware in Hertfordshire.

Further information

www.leevalleypark.org.uk

Gigrin and Gilfach Farms

It would be harder to get closer to a greater number of raptors than at Gigrin Farm. Red kites are fed every day at 2pm and sometimes you can see up to 400 of them at once, fighting over prime beef. Kites are a great success story. Once they were so common that in Tudor times flocks would gather to snatch scraps from the Thames and the streets of London. Unfortunately, they were persecuted almost to the brink of extinction but, thanks to a successful reintroduction scheme, there are now 3,000 kites with 500 breeding pairs in the country.

What can you see?

If you go to the nearby nature reserve at Gilfach Farm, you'll find a wealth of flowering plants, such as moonwort, along with 413 types of lichen, 73 different species of bird, a selection of butterflies and damselflies, as well as stoats, otters, badgers, hares, hedgehogs and daubentons, natterers and brown long-eared bats.

Where are they?

Both farms are off the A470 near Rhayader, in mid Wales.

Further information

www.gigrin.co.uk, www.radnorshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/gilfach.htm

River Tweed

Why go there?

The Tweed is one of the most important European rivers for salmon. Salmon born here migrate to Iceland and back. In autumn, they leap upstream. Head for Philiphaugh on the Ettrick, a tributary of the Tweed, where you can watch the salmon on underwater cameras.

What can you see?

Apart from salmon and sea trout, Berwick-upon-Tweed is home to a mute swan colony. Ospreys nest near the Ettrick too.

Where is it?

The mouth of the Tweed is at Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumbria.

Further information

Tweed Forum 01896 849723, www.tweedvalleyospreys.co.uk

Hickling Broad

Why go there?

Hickling Broad in Norfolk is the place to go to catch sight of one of our most spectacular birds - the common crane. This is a bird of superlatives - it is our tallest breeding species with the longest wingspan; at 2.5m it's even greater than that of the golden eagle. Although it was once common, until 1979 it had not bred in this country for 400 years. The time to see them is very early in the morning when they leave their secret breeding location and fly across the broads to feed in the nearby fields. The birds mate for life and engage in a dance where the pair circle each other, bowing and hopping with half-open wings. This routine begins in February and peaks in March.

What can you see?

Apart from the cranes, koniks, a race of wild Polish ponies, raptors, butterflies and dragonflies, as well as aquatic plants only found here: the holly-leaved naiad and three species of rare stonewort.

Where is it?

North Norfolk

Further information

www.wildlifetrust.org.uk, www.norfolkcoast.co.uk

Giant's causeway

Why go there?

Being half northern Irish, I couldn't not include the Giant's Causeway. This is a world heritage site, a spectacular landscape of polygonal basalt rocks. The scientific explanation is that was formed by the crystallisation of molten lava 65 million years ago, but legend has it that the giant Finn MacCool threw lumps of the cliff into the sea to create a causeway between Ireland and Scotland. Another reason to visit is that the causeway leads to the world's oldest whiskey distillery.

What can you see?

Wild flowers such as bird's-foot trefoil, kidney vetch, spring squill and thrift; buzzards and peregrine falcons are found around the cliffs. Eider ducks and oystercatchers feed in the bays below.

Where is it?

One mile north of Bushmills, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland

Further information

www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Cheddar Gorge

Why go there?

The whole of the Mendip Hills, a limestone ridge, is classed as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. At its heart is Cheddar Gorge, a Site of Special Scientific Interest; at 400ft it's Britain's highest gorge. The caves were inhabited by our ancestors 40,000 years ago and are now home to endangered greater horseshoe bats.

What can you see?

Dormice, yellow-necked mice, slow worms, adders, rare whitebeams, chalk grassland-loving species such as marjoram, wild thyme, and an unusual butterfly, the large blue, a butterfly that was thought to have become extinct in 1979 but has since been rediscovered. The nearby Green Down Nature Reserve is the best place to see it.

Where is it?

South of Bristol.

Further information

www.mendiphills.org.uk, www.somersetwildlife.org

New Forest

Why go there?

The New Forest is one of the many areas of land that William the Conqueror designated as a royal "forest", meaning a place where he could hunt. Today, unlike some other British "forests", there are plenty of trees, heaths and coppiced plantations.

What can you see?

Four types of deer - fallow, red, roe and sika. In autumn you can see the rut as males fight for the right to mate as many females as they can. New Forest ponies, rare plants, such as marsh gentian and marsh clubmoss, as well as several species of carnivorous sundew and unusual insects, like stag beetles and our only native cicada.

Where is it?

South-west Hampshire

Further information

www.thenewforest.co.uk, www.newforestnpa.gov.uk

Tips for watching wildlife

* Don't wear bright colours. Earthy shades and camouflage gear will blend in and break up your outline so that birds and animals are less likely to spot you.

* If stalking mammals, make sure you stay up-wind of them so that they don't smell you. Insects can't stand our breath - so try not to disturb them by breathing on them.

* Binoculars are an essential piece of kit. The lighter they are the more you'll have to compromise over magnification and the amount of light they gather (so therefore they'll be less good at low-light levels at dusk and dawn). Chris Packham favours telescopes, which are great if you are sitting in one place but make you look weird in your local park.

* Check out local nature reserves. They normally set up hides at key birding positions. Reserves such as the RSPB's Minsmere have guide-in-a-hide schemes so you can ask questions.

* Other good bits of kit: guide books, a pooter for sucking up insects, magnifying glass, net for catching butterflies, net and tray for pond dipping. Remember to put everything back where you found it.

* Many reserves carry out guided walks or have volunteer schemes on everything from bat walks to small mammal trapping to learning how to build a nest box. Others, such as the Lost Gardens of Heligan, have cameras set up in nest boxes and badger setts. Some, such as Rockingham Forest, broadcast the images over the internet so you don't even have to leave the comfort of your own home.

* Putting up a bird feeder - even if it's just outside your window if you don't have a garden - is enough to attract wildlife to you.

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