Call of the wild: 'Springwatch' presenter Martin Hughes-Games gets up close and personal with Britain's wildlife
Saturday 13 June 2009
I'm not ashamed to say that I've always done it, and anyone who does it knows just how enjoyable it can be. Mixing a UK holiday with wildlife watching has never been an easier or more accessible option.
A fortnight ago, driving back to Bristol from the Springwatch main site in Norfolk, I passed dozens of motorbikes heading north on the M5 to get the ferry to the Isle of Man TT races. It's usually a pilgrimage for me as well, but when I visit, it's not only about the motorcycles. Stuffed in my bulging panniers along with a tent and cooker will always be a pair of binoculars and a couple of guide books: something on local birds, and a wild-flower guide.
If you slip away from the race-track, the Isle of Man is stuffed with wonderful wildlife. I saw my first chough here, a fantastic bird which looks like a dazzling, acrobatic jackdaw with a beak and legs that seem to have been dipped in blood. There are seals all over the place, as well as gannets cruising past the northern tip of the island.
I always make a trip to the Chasms, where massive blocks of cracked rock plunge downwards into the sea. I go partly to scare myself a little, partly to pay my respects to great-great-uncle Harold (who unfortunately drowned while swimming nearby), and partly to do some bird-watching. Here you can see a huge variety of seabirds wheeling around the cliffs; there are also orchids in the fields. I love a motorbike as much as the next bloke, but wildlife adds a whole new dimension to my visits.
And that's the core of what I discovered while making the recent Springwatch holiday films: that with a minimal amount of effort, you can tap into the fantastic wealth of British wildlife. Seeing animals and plants in their native environment really does add to your enjoyment of the holiday itself.
Some of the UK's most popular holiday destinations are near the best places to see wildlife in Europe. We visited the RSPB reserve at Bempton, which perches on the coast between the candyfloss and fairground rides of Scarborough and Bridlington in Yorkshire. Bempton boasts 5km of soaring sea cliffs and is home to 200,000 nesting seabirds in one huge squabbling, smelly cacophony – including one of the nation's favourite birds, the puffin.
If birds aren't your thing, why not rediscover the joys of rock-pooling? It's simple, it's free, and you never know what you are going to find next. An old ice-cream container with the bottom cut out and a bit of plastic wrap stretched over the bottom makes a splendid underwater viewer that's guaranteed to keep children absorbed.
If you'd prefer to go deeper, then join an organised rock-pooling event, such as the one I went to in South Milton Sands in Devon. I thought I knew a reasonable amount about life in rock pools but this was a revelation. We found pipefish, cowries, killer dog-whelks (and their prey) and a bizarre sucker fish that had a face like a duck. And there's always that frisson of danger whenever you try to pick up a crab.
A trip into the forest opens up a host of wildlife opportunities, from the familiar to the slightly scary. For a real grasp of what's going on, it helps to turn detective. Many of the more secretive woodland residents leave tantalising clues as they pass: a small muddy pool can reveal a host of footprints. (These are known as "slots" if they left by deer. Don't forget this. I got it wrong in front of the Springwatch team and have never lived it down.) You'll often see fox tracks, and if you are in Gloucestershire's Forest of Dean, as we were when we were filming, you might come across a wild boar print.
Whenever you're in the woods, have a careful look at young trees – they can tell you a host of fascinating information of what's around you. Deer will fray the bark with their antlers; other animals leave fur behind; wild boar cover tree trunks with mud while they have a good old scratch after a mud wallow.
Camping is an obvious way to move one step closer to the natural world. I've been in tents with elephants just feet away, and I've found myself sharing my sleeping bag with a scorpion. True, neither of these incidents happened in the UK, but this year we've had a number of people on the Springwatch message board who have had badgers break into their tents after food.
I went on a fantastic dawn chorus walk at a campsite called Kelling Heath Holiday Park in Norfolk. We started at 5.30am (in itself an adventure) and not only learned to tell the difference between a dozen different bird species, but also, as the sun rose, we went looking for adders.
In early spring, adders have just come out of hibernation and will be sunning themselves to build up energy for mating. Contrary to popular belief adders are not deaf, but they hear things differently from us. Vibrations on the ground are transmitted to their ear through their body, particularly their jaw. So if you're going snake hunting, tread very carefully: if they pick up your footfall they'll be gone like a shot. To be out in the midst of the dawn chorus at first light is one of the most uplifting wildlife experiences the UK has to offer. (As long as it's followed by an enormous stack of pancakes with maple syrup.)
City breaks can be great opportunities for wildlife watching. There are more and more excellent city reserves run by organisations such as the RSPB, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and local wildlife trusts. I also hunt out old graveyards, which can be wonderful unofficial reserves.
As well as urban foxes and badgers, it's often possible to find exotic muntjac deer creeping right into the heart of our cities (often using railway lines as secret green highways). The dog-sized muntjac started to escape from wildlife collections back in 1900 and are now all around us, largely unnoticed. Look for their footprints – Sorry! "Slots" – in the mud.
Some of the best and easiest bird watching I know is in the heart of the city. I grab a comforting latte and some nice crunchy biscuits and slip up to Brandon Hill in Bristol. The birds here are so used to people that they are incredibly tame.
You can sit on the bench and see goldcrests, tree-creepers, nuthatches and coal tits. The only drawback is having to beat off the plump squirrels who follow you around hoping for a nut.
The ominous and thrilling shape of a peregrine falcon is an increasingly common sight, gliding high above the busy streets, ever alert, biding her time before locking on to a careless pigeon and hurtling from the sky like a thunderbolt.
Britain's wildlife is always closer than you might think.
'Springwatch Holidays' with Martin Hughes-Games is on BBC2 at 8pm this Wednesday
South Milton Sands, South Devon (01752 346585; nationaltrust.org.uk ). Learn to Sea rock-pooling, South Milton Sands (0781 134 9966; learntosea.co.uk ). Sea school runs throughout the school summer holidays and starts at £7.50 per hour per child, or £10 for a half day. Bookings are advised.
RSPB Bempton Cliffs, Bridlington, East Yorkshire (01262 851179; rspb.org.uk ). Reserve open at all times. Visitor centre open 10am-5pm daily from March to October, until 4pm the rest of the year. Admission is free to members, £3.50 per car for non-members.
Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire (0845 838 8799; visitforestofdean.co.uk ).
Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Weybourne, Holt, North Norfolk (01263 588181; kellingheath.co.uk ). Accommodation ranges from camping and caravans to woodland lodges.
Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust: 01453 891900; wwt.org.uk
Isle of Man Tourism: 01624 686801; visitisleofman.com .
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