We're finally waking up to the joys of wildlife watching in the UK. And there's a great variety to see, apparently all thanks to our weather. "We have everything from European temperatures in Cornwall to Arctic tundra in the Shetlands," says Abbie Patterson from the National Trust of Scotland. "That means a superb variety of wildlife. [Wildlife watching] is definitely a trend. People are much more interested and informed about our wildlife these days."
It seems we've got a lot of exploring to do. According to the World Commission on Protected areas, around 30 per cent of the UK is protected land, while the National Trust alone owns a quarter of a million hectares (2,500 square kilometres). And with spring arriving, this is the best time to seek out what these isles have to offer.
Although only 2 per cent of the country is today covered in ancient woodland, these tracts offer some of our finest wildlife viewing. In the New Forest, for example, you're very likely to see wild ponies, as well as five species of deer. There are daily deer feeds at the viewing platform by Boulderwood car park from mid-April, and a great area for seeing wild ponies is on the one-mile Ober Water Trail, which starts at Whitfield Moor car park. Bear in mind, though, that these animals are wild so mustn't be fed or touched. Special events include bat walks and dawn choruses, as well as talks at the Reptile Centre in Lyndhurst, which run until the end of September.
Scotland has some of our richest swathes of forest. Mar Lodge Estate, a 29,380-hectare wedge of the Cairngorms National Park, is an excellent mix of forest and moorland. Recognised as one of the most important conservation areas in the UK, this is home to huge populations of deer, plus healthy numbers of pine martens, red and black grouse, red squirrels and elusive golden eagles. A wide range of walking routes can be followed through the estate, and guided wildlife walks are offered in summer.
More demure but no less interesting is the recently refurbished visitor centre at the Falls of Clyde Wildlife Reserve, close to New Lanark. The reserve, covering 59 hectares of woodland, is best known for its peregrine falcons. The birds are due to return to the reserve around now, and can be either glimpsed from the ground or spied on from the live CCTV link-up at the visitors' centre. Other common species include badgers and bats: there are guided walks to see both throughout the spring and summer.
Part pine forest, part shoreline, Formby Reserve, 15 miles north of Liverpool, is home to one of Britain's last thriving colonies of red squirrels. A buffer zone prevents grey squirrels from interbreeding with the reds, and visitors can wander through the trees on a network of paths, getting glimpses of the squirrels scurrying around the trees.
Our coastlines provide some of the richest wildlife habitats in the country, and the Gower Peninsula in Wales was the first area in the UK to be designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 50 years ago this May. The wide variety of habitats - cliffs, sand dunes, marshes and woodland - attract a huge range of animals, including rare dune-dwelling insects, otters and badgers. But the highlight is the birdlife, particularly around Worm's Head. The caves peppering the coastline are home to bats during spring. Walk from the visitors' centre at Rhossili to Rhossili Down Commons for fantastic views of Worm's Head.
For some of the finest birdwatching in England, head two miles off the Northumberland coast to a cluster of islands known as the Farnes. Tens of thousands of birds nest here in spring, including huge colonies of sea birds such as puffins, guillemots and razorbills, as well as dive-bombing terns and cormorants. The Outer Farnes are home to more than 4,000 grey seals, making this one of the most important seal-breeding colonies in Britain. A range of boat trips take visitors on tours around the islands.
Cardigan Bay, on the west coast of Wales, has one of the UK's only resident populations of bottlenose dolphins, and was the first area to be designated as a Marine Heritage Coast. Around 130 dolphins live in the area year-round, but late spring and summer are the best viewing times, when boats traverse the waters looking also for tiny harbour porpoises, grey seals and nesting sea birds.
Another good spot for dolphins is the Isle of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland, which has a great combination of coastal and inland wildlife. Boat trips offer views of bottlenose dolphins, minke whales, European otters and birds, including puffins, crossbills and huge numbers of waders during the spring migration. Inland you'll find red deer, but most appealing are the raptors - this is one of the best places in the UK to see golden and sea eagles.
Marsh regions are another wildlife hotspot, where the mix of landscapes attracts a rich variety of smaller animals. Now is a good time to visit the Montrose Basin, covering a vast estuary of the South Esk and attracting more than 50,000 migratory birds. The interactive wildlife centre includes high-powered telescopes and CCTV cameras allowing close-ups of the huge numbers of pink-footed geese and knots. This is a good one for kids, with exhibitions such as "Under the Mud" allowing gooey glimpses of submerged creatures.
Those with an eye for detail will appreciate the rich insect life at Wicken Fen, the National Trust's oldest English reserve. It covers 653 hectares, and is one of the most important wetland areas in Europe. There are thousands of species of moth, butterfly and beetle, as well as 2,000 species of fly, and 20 of dragonfly. These in turn attract birds: more than 200 species have been recorded, including bitterns, bearded tits and marsh harriers. If you like your animals a bit larger, there are wild ponies, which you can see on the Adventurer's Trail.
If you're short of time, you don't even have to be in the countryside to watch wildlife. The London Wetland Centre offers an extensive network of paths and hides. Spring is the best season to catch a glimpse of migratory waders and passerines. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have passed through the centre since it opened in 2000 - proof enough that we're waking up to our wildlife.
Best of Britain: where to watch wildlife
New Forest (023 8028 6840; forestry.gov.uk/newforest), guided walks from £2.
Mar Lodge Estate (013397 41433; nts.org.uk), open during daylight hours, free. Guided walks from £2.
Falls of Clyde (0131-312 7765; swt.org.uk), open during daylight hours, visitor centre 11am-5pm, adults £3, children free.
Formby Nature Reserve (01704 878591; national trust.org.uk), open during daylight hours, free.
Rhossili Visitor Centre, Gower Peninsula, (pictured) 01792 390707; nationaltrust.org.uk) open daily, 20 March-5 November, 10.30am-5.30pm, free.
The Farnes (01665 720651; nationaltrust.org.uk).Boat trips run from Seahouses harbour, stopping at Inner Farne and Staple, 10am-5pm, adults £4.20, children £2.10, plus boat charges.
Cardigan Bay The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (0870 870 0027, wdcs.org) organises dolphin-watching weekends in Cardigan Bay, and has an online database of boat tour operators.
Isle of Mull For wildlife tours, contact local expert David Woodhouse (01688 500 121; scotland wildlife. com).
Montrose Basin (0131-312 7765; swt.org.uk), open 10.30am-5pm, adults £3, children free.
Wicken Fen (01353 720274; nationaltrust.org.uk), open 10am-5pm (closed Mondays during term time), adults £4.50, children £2.
London Wetland Centre (020 8409 4400; wwt.org. uk), open 9.30am-5pm, adults £7.25, children £4.50.Reuse content