Where the wild things are: You don't need to go far to see animals up-close - you just need a tent


The Americans have come up with one of the ugliest words to describe holidaying at home – a "staycation". But as the credit crunch starts to bite, more of us are choosing to stay put. The upside of forgoing trips to Marbella, Majorca and Malawi is that we have beautiful countryside and superb wildlife on our doorstep, and one of the best and cheapest ways to see it is by camping. "Camping is one of the easiest ways to experience wildlife because you're outside all the time and that's where the wildlife is," says Tim McGrath, Avon Wildlife Trust's chief nature warden.

"You can get to see the most fantastic bits of our countryside. I recently camped overlooking St David's Bay in Wales, and choughs – birds that are rare in the UK – were just flying round the campsite, and there were seals, dolphins and porpoises off the coast. It's eye-opening to have animals around you and share their space."

Jonathan Knight, author of Cool Camping England, is equally enthusiastic: "The great thing about camping is that it's an excuse to get out into the countryside and see some wildlife. Most of us live in towns and cities, and don't get to see little creatures wandering around on our daily commute to work."

Naturally, some campsites are better than others when it comes to seeing wild creatures, but any site, by virtue of the fact that it's outside, will have its own unique wildlife.

Tips for wild camping

Pitches close to gurgling water aren't recommended. The sound may soothe you to sleep at night, but midges and mosquitoes favour damp places. Dry body oil in the "Skin So Soft" range by Avon is an extremely good insect-repellent, as well as being kind to your skin.

Check where you are placing your tent – if there are molehills nearby, you could end up being bumped in the night. And avoid pitching up near wood ants – they're very aggressive.

If you camp near a hedge, you may be alongside a boundary that animals use to come through – if you're lucky, you'll hear and maybe see badgers and deer. Avoid pitching right in the middle of paths made by animals in case they crash into your tent in the night. Knight says: "My most memorable wildlife camping moment was when a badger decided to go for a walk underneath our tent. I don't know if we had pitched over its set or whether it was just foraging, but it was a shock to see a moving lump in the floor of the tent!"

If you sit outside quietly, animals are more likely to come to you. Knight says: "Try to find camping places that are really remote and not oversubscribed. The fewer people around, the more chance you've got of spotting wildlife."

Buying local produce adds a sense of place, reduces fuel miles, traffic and pollution, and encourages farmers to manage their land in wildlife-friendly ways. It usually tastes good, too.

For barbecues, look for charcoal from local woodlands. It's produced sustainably and gives your food a rich, smoky tang; disposable barbecues are bad for the environment.

Take care to clean up after yourself. Abandoned cans, plastic, cloths, rope and tent pegs can all kill or seriously injure wildlife, as animals may swallow rubbish, impale themselves on it, or get tangled up in it.

Be careful of ticks, which live on deer and can jump to humans. They're black and grow as they suck your blood. To remove them, smear with Vaseline or tea-tree oil, twist the tick anti-clockwise and pull. Ticks carry Lyme's disease, so if you've been bitten and start feeling fluey, see a doctor immediately.

Watch out for adders, Britain's only poisonous snake – they're not aggressive but can strike if disturbed or handled. Adder bites are not deadly, but you will need medical attention if you are bitten. You're most likely to see them sunning themselves in early spring, when they emerge from hibernation. They have a dark zigzag pattern along their spine and an inverted "V" on their neck.

What to see

The best time to see animals is early in the morning, or at dusk when nocturnal or crepuscular creatures emerge. There are five species of owl in Britain – barn, tawny, little, long-eared and short-eared – that you might hear. Barn owls are perhaps the easiest to spot as they hunt, flying low over fields as they search for voles and other small rodents.

Campfires and lanterns attract moths. Put up a white sheet in front of the light, then count how many of our 2,500 moth species appear.

Bats are the most common wild animals in Britain, but we know little about them. Pipistrelles are the most frequently seen; near water you're likely to find Daubenton's and greater horseshoe bats. National Trust estates are good places to spot bats – Tyntesfield in North Somerset, for instance, is home to a number of species.

If you camp near open woodlands and fields, you're likely to see badgers, foxes and deer, and you'll be treated to a dawn chorus without having to get out of bed.

The Scottish Highlands are fantastic for spotting eagles, red deer and moorland bird species, from capercaillies to red grouse.

On heathlands, you could well hear the mysterious chirring sound of the nightjar, and catch this nocturnal bird feeding or displaying, as well as spot dragonflies, rare bog plants and reptiles, including the adder, grass snake, smooth snake, slow-worm, common lizard and sand lizard.

Estuaries are great for waterfowl and waders, and down or chalk grassland is good for butterflies and wild flowers.

Wild food

Edible wild plants can add an extra zing to campfire cooking. Lady's smock makes a good addition to a summer salad. It has white to pale-pink flowers and a strong peppery flavour.

The seeds from alexanders, barberry and juniper berries can be used as flavouring. Ramsons (wild garlic) and garlic mustard leaves (Allaria petiolata) add a kick to salads and omelettes, or can be used to make a mild garlic butter. Mix blackberry juice with lemon or vinegar and olive oil for an unusual salad dressing. Pick out and crack open the dark, shiny seeds from the ripe fruit of wild burdock (Arctium lappa) for a tasty outdoor snack.

For more recipes, download Johnny Jumbalaya's booklet, The Fast Wild Food Cookbook:www.countrylovers.co.uk/wildfoodjj/fastfood.pdf

Wild medicine

We've all grown up spitting on dock leaves and rubbing them on nettle stings, but the best remedy for stings and bites is actually plantain, which has antiseptic and antihistamine properties. Fold, crush and rub a leaf vigorously, then dribble the sap over the affected area.

For minor cuts and bleeding, use the juice of yarrow or shepherd's purse. Both are mildly antiseptic, with pain-killing and blood-staunching qualities.

Sanjida O'Connell will be presenting 'Nature's Top 40' on BBC2, a guide to the best British wildlife spectacles, later in the summer. 'Cool Camping England' by Jonathan Knight is published by Punk Publishing. See www.wildlifetrust.org for wildlife and camping tips

Up close and personal: the best campsites for wildlife

East Hook Farm, Marloes, Pembrokeshire (01646 636 291)

A basic campsite on a working farm. Ideal for visiting the 12,000 puffins on nearby Skomer Island (March-July) (though they sometimes visit the site, so might save you the journey!). There are also 200,000 nesting Manx shearwaters, guillemots and razorbills among the heather and bluebells.

Little Meadow, Ilfracombe, Devon (www.littlemeadow. co.uk; 01271 866 862)

This terraced campsite on the North Devon coast enjoys sweeping views out to sea – and frequent sightings of porpoises and dolphins in the waters below.

Livingstone Lodge, Kent (www.totallywild.net; 01303 234 190)

If you get fed up of the retiring nature of British wildlife, you could try this unusual campsite, set up like an African safari. You're woken at the crack of dawn and driven round in a Land Rover to see giraffes, elephants and rhino before retiring to your wooden lodge. During the day you can watch tigers, leopards, howler monkeys and gorillas, too.

Black Mountain Caravan and Camping Park, Llangadog, Carmarthenshire (www.blackmountainholdays. co.uk; 01550 740 217)

Located in the Brecon Beacons National Park, the campsite is near a red-kite feeding station, which attracts these magnificent birds of prey every day.

Roundhill, New Forest, Hampshire (www.forestholidays.co.uk; 01590 624 344)

The New Forest is famous for its wild horses, and there's a nearby otter and owl sanctuary (www.ottersandowls.co.uk). It is also rich in invertebrates, including butterflies such as the pearl-bordered fritillary, and home to all British reptiles, five species of deer and many birds, such as sparrowhawks, hobbies and the honey buzzard, as well as the very rare firecrest.

Graig Wen, Snowdonia (www.graigwen.co.uk; 01341 250 482)

There are two Royal Society for the Protection of Birds sanctuaries on the estuary, so it's a perfect spot for twitching. Practically from your tent you'll be able to watch waterfowl and waders in the estuary, as well as wood warblers, pied flycatchers, redstarts, ravens and buzzards. Plus carpets of bluebells in spring.

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