The <i>IoS</i> guide to wild Britain (Part 1)

Summer holidays are here, and what better way to spend them than to enjoy some of our diverse wildlife? David Randall tells the story of the RSPB, the world's oldest conservation group, and its experts choose 40 of the best reserves to visit

Sunday 31 July 2011 00:00

Welcome to the first of our Wild Britain 2011 specials. This summer, we will, in association with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the National Trust, be introducing you to some of the best places to see wildlife. Experts from both organisations have supplied up-to-date details on where to spot some of our most unusual birds, plants, insects and animals, and we will be sharing these with you.

We start with 40 of the best RSPB reserves; some popular, others known only to a few locals and the most dedicated society members. The RSPB is an extraordinary institution. A pioneer in caring for wildlife, it is 120 years old, has more than a million members (about seven times as many as the Labour Party), and is the largest nature conservation body in the world.

Its founding was entirely due to women. There was, in the 1880s, a widespread fashion for feathers in hats. Such was the demand for wearing on the female head what should have been on a bird's body that some species, notably the great crested grebe, were driven to the edge of extinction. Thankfully, not every woman was so easily led, and these fashion refuseniks started groups such as the Plumage Society, the Didsbury Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Fur and Feather Group, the last of which met in the Croydon home of a lady of leisure. In 1891, the latter two groups merged together to form the SPB.

Its president was the Duchess of Portland, a remarkable specimen herself who remained in post until her death 63 years later. But the RSPB, as it became in 1904, was not about society women playing at conservation. From the outset, it consistently campaigned and innovated, producing its first charity Christmas card in 1898, starting a schools education programme in 1901, selling nest boxes in 1906, and battling to get legislation on the statute book.

Oddly, it was not until 1930, that the RSPB acquired its first bird reserve, Cheyne Court, on Romney Marsh in Kent. More were bought, and much quiet good work was done for the next few decades, but it could hardly be said that the society, with just 10,000 members in 1960, was a force in the land. This began to change in the late 1950s, and two birds – seemingly lost to Britain but returning amid much publicity many years later – symbolised that. The avocet, a black and white wader with a spectacularly upturned beak, became the society's logo. And the osprey, which, after an absence of many decades, made its first return to Britain in the late 1950s, has, as more returned in subsequent years, become a high-profile poster bird for the benefits of conservation.

As the awareness of the loss of habitat and other harm done by agribusiness triggered the ecology movement in the 1970s, the RSPB's strength swelled. By 1972, membership was up to 100,000; in four years it had doubled, and, within 10 years, it had doubled again. The million-member mark was reached in 1997, and it has increased since then. Today, it has 195,000 youth members, 12,200 volunteers, hundreds of local groups, and 200 nature reserves. On the pages that follow we list 40 of the best.


Insh Marshes National Nature Reserve

Near Kingussie, Inverness

One of Europe's most valuable wetlands, this is a fantastic place to visit. A walk along the Invertromie trail can produce up to 11 species of butterfly: the dark green fritillary and Scotch argus feature in August and there's also the ringlet, meadow brown, common blue, small pearl-bordered fritillary, small heath, northern brown argus, small tortoiseshell, peacock, red admiral and painted lady. The same trail has good numbers of black darter dragonflies and small numbers of golden-ringed dragonflies. There's also a lovely wildflower walk with field gentian, devil's bit scabious, harebells and heathers. Ospreys catch fish in the loch, and roe deer are often seen both on the marsh and in the woodland.

Abernethy, Loch Garten

Near Aviemore, Highland

In 1954, when ospreys returned to breed in Britain, some 50 years after hunting and egg-stealing first drove them away, the open water amid this ancient Caledonian pine forest is where they chose to come. The Loch Garten Osprey Centre provides fantastic views of these magnificent birds on the nest, as well as close-up views, thanks to non-invasive CCTV cameras. This year's young have been ringed, and will soon be fledging and learning how to fish. In summer, around the Osprey Centre, there are also red squirrels (often seen at feeders), siskins, crossbills, great spotted woodpeckers, and, when they come down from the tree tops, the rare crested tits. There are regular events such as guides to the ospreys, natural history walks and children's activity days.

Corrimony Nature Reserve

Near Drumnadrochit, Highland

Stunning moorland, bog, heath and semi-natural birchwood, half of which is now being restored to Caledonian forest. It is home to some of Britain's most remarkable birds. The springtime courtship displays of the black grouse are long over, but they are still to be seen, together with the crested tit (confined to this part of Scotland), golden eagle and the Scottish crossbill. The latter is unique to these islands. On the loch, there are red-throated divers and breeding greenshank. This site also has some rare dragonflies. In August, you can certainly see the golden ringed dragonfly, common blue and large red damselflies, and the nursery web spider. There is an eight-mile waymarked trail, but much of the reserve is wild country, making it suitable only for the nimble and adventurous.

Loch Gruinart

Near Islay, Argyll and Bute

Managed as a working farm, Loch Gruinart reserve has an impressive array of wildlife at any time of year. In July and August, it bursts into colour, with the meadows full of ragged robin, buttercups and devil's bit scabious, while the wetter areas are great for sundews and bog asphodel. Summer is a great time to look out for raptors, such as hen harriers and merlins, hunting over the heath. Corncrakes can be heard calling around the reserve until the end of July, and choughs are on the wing at the Ardnave section of the reserve. This is one of the few places where you'll be able to catch sight of marsh fritillary butterflies; while, in the evening, red deer can be seen coming in to graze.

Mull of Galloway

Near Stranraer, Dumfries and Galloway

At the southern-most tip of Scotland, the Mull of Galloway is a mass of activity in the summer months. Its stunning cliffs are crowded with thousands of seabirds, such as razorbills, guillemots, and kittiwakes, while gannets from the nearby Scare Rocks perform fly-pasts and break-neck dives into the sea far below. The coastal heath is a mass of flowers such as rock sea lavender and golden samphire. Butterflies, including wall browns and graylings, can be seen. You might also spot wheatears, stonechats, and even a peregrine dashing overhead. Offshore, dolphins, harbour porpoises and Atlantic grey seals are seen, and, occasionally, minke whales. This is also a prime spot for autumn migrations, and bad weather can produce sudden "falls" of redwings, linnets or other songbirds.



Near Brampton, Cumbria

Here are classic North Pennine habitats: moorland, blanket bogs, heath, upland farms, woods, and a tarn where otters can occasionally be seen. Flowers and butterflies are at their best in summer, and the bogs are superb for insect hunters. But it is the birds that are most spectacular. Rare upland species such as ring ouzel, curlew, golden plover and merlin can be seen, and this is a prime English spot for hen harriers. The barn owls have had a difficult year, but short-eared and long-eared owls have done better. Black grouse are one of the site's star species, but are best viewed in autumn and winter. A great place for walking, with four waymarked trails. The reserve also has regular owl and bat discovery evenings.


Near Middlesbrough, Cleveland

Pools, reed beds, wet grassland, and a cockleshell island make this an urban oasis in the industrial heartland of Tees Valley. A large colony of common terns nests on the island, and this time of year is great for seeing the young of the impressive duck populations – gadwalls, pochards, tufted ducks, shelducks and mallards. If you're lucky, you might see one of the fluffy, striped great crested grebe babies riding around on their parents' backs. There are yellow wagtails, black-tailed godwits and, at the end of the summer, the beginning of an impressive migration fly-past. Recent sightings include the hummingbird hawk moth, little-ringed plovers, sandwich terns, and a spoonbill.

Bempton Cliffs

Near Bridlington, East Yorkshire

These three miles of the tallest chalk cliffs in the country (they reach to 400ft) are one of the best places to see seabirds on mainland Britain. There will be thousands upon thousands of gannets rearing chicks and puffins. Guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, and fulmars also abound – more than 200,000 seabirds in all. If the wind is in the right direction, the gannets fly right in front of visitors watching from viewing platforms – which, with care, are wheelchair accessible. For the serious sufferer from vertigo, the visitor centre shows CCTV images of the clifftops. This is a great place to watch spring and autumn migrations, and sometimes porpoises can be seen playing off shore.

Old Moor

Near Barnsley, South Yorkshire

In the heart of post-industrial South Yorkshire, this site has open water, marsh, grassland and reed bed. More than 16 butterfly species are known here, including holly blue, speckled wood, small skipper, common blue, small copper, meadow brown, gatekeeper, small heath, large white, small white, green-veined white, peacock, tortoiseshell, comma, red admiral and painted lady. The dragonflies include banded demoiselle, brown hawker, emperor, common darter, black-tailed skimmer, ruddy darter, common darter, broad-bodied chaser. Common blue, azure, blue-tailed damselflies are also here. The birds include bullfinches, kingfishers, willow tits and the endearing tree sparrow. Mammals such as brown hares, water voles, weasels and stoats tend to be busy near the meadows and ponds. Orchids include spotted heath, northern and southern marsh.

Leighton Moss

Silverdale, Lancashire

Here you'll find coastal lagoons, a pool named after that great birdwatcher and comedian Eric Morecambe, and the largest reed bed in North-west England. The result is an opportunity to see marsh harriers, bittern, black-tailed godwit, kingfisher, osprey and avocet, plus the beautiful bearded tits balancing on a reed. In the evenings, red deer graze the Jackson and Griesdale meres, and otter sightings have been good recently. More than 300 species of moth have been recorded here. An overnight trap set at the beginning of July caught more than 130 species in one night, including the lilac beauty, chalk carpet and large emerald. The butterflies at nearby Warton Crag include the pearl-bordered and high-brown fritillaries.

Fairburn Ings

Near Castleford, West Yorkshire

Lots of water and tall grass, and so one of the best spots in Yorkshire for sheer numbers and variety of our most colourful insects. There are around 28 species of butterfly, from ringlet, small copper, peacock, small skipper, common blue, comma, painted lady, speckled wood; and 20 species of dragonfly, including the UK's largest – the emperor. Sometimes, a hobby is seen hunting them. On the masses of rosebay willowherb lining the trails, you might find a mighty elephant hawk-moth caterpillar fattening itself up. Recent bird sightings include a pair of turtle doves, increasingly rare green sandpiper, spotted redshank, little ringed plover, black-tailed godwits, quail and spoonbills. The reserve has pond dipping, other events and walks, and a large visitor centre.

Blacktoft Sands

Goole, near Selby, East Yorkshire

Some 270 species of bird have been recorded at this largest tidal reed bed in England. Young marsh harriers start being seen around the middle of July as they attempt flights over the reserve. During August, the reserve is full of birds migrating south after leaving their Arctic breeding grounds. From now through to September is a good time to see wading birds from the hides. Recent sightings include: wood sandpiper, black-tailed godwit, avocets, spoonbill, yellow wagtail, hobby, and scores of bearded tit.


Portmore Lough

Near Aghalee, County Antrim

Damselflies and dragonflies, such as the ruddy and common darter, dazzle as they dart in the clean ditches and sun themselves on the boardwalk to the hide. Fields of wildflowers such as ragged robin and ox-eye daisies recreate the feel of the countryside before the widespread use of chemicals. Lapwings bringing up their broods and Konik ponies, which help manage the wet grassland, can sometimes be seen in the distance. On the water, great crested grebe and common terns create a contrasting spectacle. Reed warblers can be heard from the floating hide. Tree sparrows, linnets, house martins, sand martins, swifts and reed buntings fly overhead. There are also several species of butterfly, including tortoiseshell, small copper and red admiral.

Rathlin Island

Near Ballycastle, County Antrim

This island, lying off Antrim's Causeway Coast, gives one of the country's best seabird spectacles, with gannets, auks, kittiwakes and fulmars on the cliffs or fishing off the coast. There are ravens and buzzards all around the island, as well as an occasional chough – a species extinct in Northern Ireland for nearly 10 years until it returned in 2007. The place is full of wildflowers and, in season, blazes with gorse and heather. With no predators on the island, Irish hare are present in great numbers. The golden-coloured hare of Rathlin can be seen quite easily on walks. Eider ducks and ringed plover breed in the harbour, while seals congregate around the harbour, Church and Mill Bay.

Lower Lough Erne

Enniskillen, County Fermanagh

One of the largest freshwater lakes in the UK, and home to Europe's only inland colony of sandwich terns. The islands are off-limits while the birds are breeding, but they can be seen easily from boats. There are forest trails, all with wonderful views of the 40 islands, which, together with a backdrop of mountains, make this a remarkable landscape. Birds include snipe, lapwing, curlew, redshank, all the martins, swallows and dippers. Wildflowers such as the bee orchid are also found around the place, and mammals include pine marten, red squirrels and otters. White Island North has pre-Christian Celtic carving and a lot of great plants and insects. A magical place.



Near Conwy, Llandudno

Three million tons of silt excavated when the Conwy road tunnel was built 20 years ago helped create this reserve of coastal lagoons and estuary grassland. This year, two decades on, the RSPB is auditing the wildlife to assess how well a brownfield site has been reclaimed by nature. This is a good time to see colourful insects. Butterflies such as common blues flutter over the bright-yellow bird's foot trefoil that carpets the grassland through the summer. Speckled wood butterflies feed on flowers in the shaded scrubland. July sees the first migrants return from the Arctic, with whimbrels, dunlins and green sandpipers dropping in on their way to west Africa. To celebrate RSPB Cymru's centenary, Conwy reserve will be hosting wildlife activities, a farmers' market, craft stalls and guided walks next weekend.


Near Machynlleth, Powys

This site of Welsh oak woods, wet grassland and saltmarsh on the south side of the Dyfi estuary was where the BBC based Springwatch. Chris Packham, Kate Humble and co will return next year. There are seven hides, from which you can see lapwings, greenshank, green sandpiper, golden plover and redshank. The birds of prey include peregrines and red kites. Little egrets, the white heron-like birds that have invaded Britain in the past 30 years, breed here. Their normal sound is a crow-like croak, but these elegant birds sound uncannily like Donald Duck when sitting on their nests. There is a well-stocked shop, and four nature trails – check with the staff which are suitable for wheelchairs.

Lake Vyrnwy

Oswestry, Powys

This is a good month to see the reserve's summer visitors. In the woodland, you can see wood and garden warblers, nuthatch, and treecreeper. Siskins are around in plentiful numbers and will have their young with them. Swallows, swifts and house martins are flying around the dam, catching insects that rise up into the warm air, and dipper and kingfisher may be seen along the river's edge. If you are lucky, in the sky above the lake, you may see this year's juvenile peregrines chasing their parents around in mock combat while they are taught to hunt. Other birds of prey here are buzzard, merlin, hen harrier, and, in the woods, the rare goshawk. This is also a good site for ravens.

Newport Wetlands


This site is a haven for wildlife on the edge of the city, complete with stunning views of the Severn estuary. Notable birds include the bearded tit, often seen perching at the top of reeds, and shovelers, with their spatula-like bills; also, little grebes, a tiny species whose "whinnying" cry, sounding like a child's mocking laughter, carries far and wide over the water. Grass snakes are often seen, as are around 16 species of dragonfly, 23 of butterfly, and 200 of moth. Varieties such as cinnabar and scarlet tiger moths are on the wing during the daytime. The new visitor centre has a café, and a shop selling ornithological essentials such as binoculars.


Coombes Valley

Near Leek, Staffordshire

The best of the birdsong heard on this reserve of steep-sided valleys, oak woods and rocky streams is now over. But there is still a chance of seeing grey wagtail along the brook, and perhaps woodcock. Among sightings at the start of the month were nuthatch and goldcrest. But the site is also worth visiting for its flowers and butterflies. The latter include green-veined white, large skipper, painted lady, peacock, purple hairstreak, red admiral, small copper, small heath, small tortoiseshell, speckled wood and wall. The wildflower species include betony, devil's bit scabious, field rose, meadow vetchling, harebell, lesser stitchwort, slender St John's wort, woody nightshade, common and greater bird's foot trefoil. Around this time there will be wild angelica, teasel, honeysuckle and sneezewort.

Middleton Lakes

Near Tamworth, Staffordshire

One of the newest RSPB reserves to open (it acquired the site in 2007), this has reed beds, meadows and woods, but, most importantly, lots of open water. The intention is that this should be the most important place for overwintering wildfowl in the Midlands. For now, there are swifts, barn owls, common terns, heron and the occasional – and now sadly rare – bullfinch. Among insects attracting hobbies are the common blue and banded damselflies; and dragonflies such as the emperor and brown hawker. Butterflies seen recently include the painted lady, ringlet, small tortoisehell and red admiral. Day-flying moths such as burnets, the chimney sweeper and cinnabars can be seen in the grassland, and grass snakes can be glimpsed bathing in the sun. There are also occasional sightings of otters.

Sandwell Valley

Near West Bromwich, West Midlands

This valley of woodland, pools, streams and meadow is just five miles from Birmingham city centre. There are also two working farms. A lakeside hide gives good views of waterfowl such as pochard, tufted duck and wigeon, as well as waders such as the little ringed plover and water rail. The woods and water margins have nine species of warbler, including willow, sedge and reed, plus garden and grasshopper. In the winter, snipe can be seen. Dragonflies attract the occasional hobby, and, in the meadows, teasel grows, as does chicory with its brilliant baby-blue flowers. Notable butterflies recorded at Sandwell include the Essex skipper, dingy skipper, brown argus and marbled white.


Frampton Marsh

Near Boston, Lincolnshire

This coastal wetland reserve on The Wash has been recently extended to include new freshwater scrapes and grassland. There are more than 70 occupied sand martin nests, and this is a good place to see migrating waders such as the common, green and wood sandpipers. Marsh harriers are present, and occasionally a glimpse can be had of a rare Montagu's harrier. Recent sightings include a quail, the small relative of the partridge with a quarrelsome-sounding, penetrating song. There is a visitor centre, binoculars can be hired (as at many RSPB sites), there are three hides (two of them with 360-degree views), and a variety of short and long trails. This is also a good place to come in early autumn to see migrants passing through.

Titchwell Marsh

Near Hunstanton, Norfolk

A main walkway starting by the visitor centre and café takes you past extensive reed beds and shallow lagoons to a shingle bank and sandy beach. A bittern or marsh harrier is liable to pop up from the reeds and the young harriers are being taught to fly now. By the end of the month, you will see migrating black-tailed godwits from Iceland. Spotted redshank and green sandpiper in breeding plumage started arriving at the end of June. Avocets and a wide range of ducks can be seen from the hides, and it is always worth taking the meadow trail, where water voles can sometimes be spotted. There is pond dipping for children on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a free moth event every Wednesday morning.

The Lodge

Sandy, Bedfordshire

There are five miles of trails through woodland, heath and grassland surrounding the RSPB headquarters – an estate owned in the 19th century by Captain William Peel, son of the prime minister Sir Robert Peel. You will see lots of woodland birds, including buzzards, woodpeckers, warblers, spotted flycatchers, and, if you're lucky, hobbies. This is also a good place to catch the nuthatch, the only British bird that hops down trees head-first. The formal gardens around the building look stunning in summer, and are managed on wildlife principles, so you could get some ideas for your own garden. There are various "Duskwatch" events at which you can see foxes, deer and badgers. There also are mini-beast hunts and children's discovery walks throughout August, plus an extensively stocked shop.


Near Framlingham, Suffolk

The pond near the visitor centre is superb for dragonflies, including emperor dragonfly, southern and migrant hawkers, common and ruddy darters. Nearby buddleia bushes will be dripping with butterflies – look for white admiral and purple hairstreak. The pale pink flowers and fluffy white leaves of marsh mallow are along the path edge between the west hide and sluice to the end of August. There will be churring nightjars at dusk on Westleton Heath and Snape Warren until mid-August, with glow-worms possible, too. This is a good time to look for kingfishers at Snape Bridge and Minsmere. North Bushes at Minsmere will be packed with migrant warblers, chats and flycatchers, gorging on blackberries and elder before migrating to Africa. Spoonbills on Havergate.

Lakenheath Fen

Near Brandon, Suffolk

Not so long ago, this was vegetable fields. But the RSPB is converting this arable farmland into a large wetland with reed beds and grazing marshes. Birds include marsh harriers, hobbies, bittern, bearded tits, sedge and reed warblers. It is also a promising site for the increasingly rare turtle dove. Recent sightings have included a honey buzzard and, although they are very difficult to see, there are now four bittern nests on the reserve. Also present are golden orioles – but seeing them, especially as they have now finished calling, is another matter. There are viewpoints (but no hides), and a busy programme of family nature events in the holidays.

Stour Estuary

Near Harwich, Essex

This reserve comes into its own in autumn and winter, with huge numbers of waterfowl such as Brent geese, large waders like the black-tailed godwit, and smaller ones such as knot and dunlin. But the wood beside the water is well worth a visit in summer, not least for the butterflies, now replacing the nightingale as the site's star turn. This is one of (if not the) best places in Essex to see the white admiral butterfly, and its spectacularly spiny caterpillar. And last year saw the colonisation of the wood by silver-washed fritillaries. Moths include the attractive peach blossom moth. The woods – mainly oak and coppiced sweet chestnut – are home to the hazel dormouse.


Rye Meads

Near Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire

Wet meadows, open water, artificial sandbanks and reed beds in the Lea Valley. Here, not all that far north of London, common terns nest on rafts specially made for them, and tufted ducks and gadwall are among the water fowl. On the margins and in the reed beds and surrounding vegetation are warblers, including whitethroats and blackcaps, plus reed buntings. Kingfishers were showing well at the beginning of the month. Mammals include water voles, water shrews and harvest mice. In the autumn, this is a good place to spot snipe and green sandpiper. There is a visitor centre, three trails and 10 hides. During the holidays, family-orientated nature events are held most days.

Rainham Marshes

Near Purfleet, Essex

Closed to the public for 100 years, and once a military firing range, these medieval marshes are now being restored. Scattered throughout are numerous species of colourful insect, including the scarce emerald damselfly, and butterflies such as marbled white and ringlet. Keep an eye overhead for the flash of a hobby hunting dragonflies for its dinner. Marsh harriers often put in an appearance alongside pristine white little egrets patrolling the water gullies. Warm, sunny days bring out the basking lizards and grass snakes in force, grasshoppers and crickets chirruping on the summer air, and you may see some water voles lurking among the reeds. Recent sightings include the reserve's first yellow-necked mouse, and green sandpipers. In August, flocks of finches gather and autumn birds begin to return.

Tate Modern

South Bank, London

The popular peregrine "Date with Nature" at the front of Tate Modern, on the Southbank next to the Millennium Bridge, focuses on what are believed to be the first pair of peregrines to settle and breed in the capital some six years ago. Known as Misty and Houdini, they have successfully raised more than a dozen young here. There are now more than 20 breeding pairs of wild peregrines that call London home. RSPB experts will be at Tate Modern every day until 15 September. More information and live webcam action of another pair of London peregrines can be seen at

The Nature Discovery Centre, Thatcham

Thatcham, Berkshire

A wildlife haven in the middle of a small town in west Berkshire. The site has a rich mixture of habitats, including open water, grassland, ponds, streams, hedgerows, trees and reed beds. In summer, you can see migrants from Africa, such as the common terns. These can be watched as they nest on a specially built raft, with CCTV beaming images back to the gallery in the visitor centre. You can hear them, too, as they feed their young with freshly caught fish from the lake. Sand martins, another visitor, nest in an artificial bank on the lake. They can be seen through the RSPB telescopes and binoculars, and there are staff on hand to help with bird-spotting.

Northward Hill

Near Rochester, Kent

This reserve lies within the North Kent Marshes, just four miles from another RSPB reserve, Cliffe Pools, which sits on the south bank of the Thames. Northward Hill is wooded and hosts important colonies of grey herons and little egrets. From mid-summer the wet ditches on the marsh come alive with dragonflies; ruddy darter, black-tailed skimmer and the rare emerald damselfly (once thought extinct in Britain) are on the wing and often attract a passing hobby. This dashing falcon loves to snack on dragonflies and its pursuit flights are breathtaking. More than 30 species of butterfly have been seen in the woodland, including the scarce white-letter hairstreak which can be found in August with some careful searching close to stands of elm.

Broadwater Warren

Near Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Set in an area of designated outstanding natural beauty on the High Weald, this reserve has been owned by the RSPB since 2007. Much work is being done to reduce the conifer planting and restore heathland and native woods, ponds and rare woodland mire. At the Decoy Pond, there are dragonflies and grey wagtails. You might come across an adder sunning itself, and this is a good site to spot white admiral butterflies gathering nectar from honeysuckle. When the summer migrants leave, the site becomes a prime place for fungi, including the green elfcup, which turns dead wood a vivid emerald green.


Near Lydd, Kent

Together with East Anglia's Brecks, this is the closest Britain comes to having a desert landscape – mile upon mile of shingle, where only the most tenacious plants, such as viper's bugloss and yellow-horned poppy, cling on. In summer, redshanks, lapwings, common tern and reed-bed birds breed here. And, in 2007, marsh harriers bred here for the first time. Recent sightings have included a red-headed goosander, great white egret, a squacco heron and three ravens. There are trails, a series of hides, and the site is a great place to watch autumn migration. Butterflies include red admiral, common blue, and small tortoiseshell. The visitor centre has a large picture window overlooking a gravel pit.

Pulborough Brooks

Pulborough, West Sussex

This reserve consists of wetland, woods and heath beside the River Arun. Butterflies and dragonflies are the main attraction in high summer, with red admirals, ringlets, meadow browns, small and large skippers, and brown hairstreaks hiding in the ash trees. Moths include the day-flying cinnabar, and there are also decent numbers of elephant hawkmoths. Lapwing juveniles can be spotted, frisking around; while, in the eveninswallowgs, barn owls hunt over the brooks. There are several trails, including one across heathland that is being restored. The reserve has an excellent visitor centre and café, a well-stocked shop and a children's play area. In the school summer holidays there will be events several times a week, including insect safaris, and guided nature walks.



Near Wareham, Dorset

Overlooking Poole harbour, this old oak woodland and lowland heath is awash with purple heather in high summer. Above, hobbies twist and turn, chasing dragonflies, of which there are 22 species. Down below, miniature predators, such as raft spiders and tiger beetles, pursue smaller prey still. Butterflies seen here include the silver-studded blue, purple and green hairstreaks, and skippers. It is also one of the best places in Britain to see the hummingbird hawk-moth, looking, as it feeds, exactly like the tropical nectar-gatherer for which it is named. The nightjars will have stopped their "churring" soon, but common and sandwich terns will be feeding offshore. A double-decked hide overlooks Arne Bay.

Radipole Lake

Weymouth, Dorset

This reserve in the centre of Weymouth attracts a surprising amount of uncommon wildlife. The latest proof of this was at the beginning of July when a stone curlew was spotted. This, a long-legged species with bulging yellow eyes, looks like a child's painting of what a bird should be. Other recent sightings include a marsh harrier, and the dramatic-looking scarlet tiger moth. There are also bittern, and, among the reed beds, bearded tits, plus sedge, reed and grasshopper warblers. The place abounds in dragonflies, and hobbies are often on the wing hunting them. There are two trails, a visitor centre, shop and a regular programme throughout the holidays of family-friendly events and workshops.

Ham Wall

Near Glastonbury, Somerset

Newly created, but fast becoming one of the UK's premiere wetlands. Bitterns frequent the reed beds in increasing numbers and, for a normally secretive species, can often be seen in flight. Hobbies are common here, too, and barn owls can be seen hunting. And this site is not just for birds. Otters have been glimpsed along the edges of ditches and in pools where marsh frogs can also be seen – if you're patient. They are more likely to be heard, making a noise which, for the uninitiated, is often mistaken for that of a duck. And, being a wetland, the site is superb for dragonflies.

Labrador Bay

Near Teignmouth, Devon

One of the RSPB's newer reserves, this wonderful site, perched high above the Devon coast, is worth a visit just for the views. But there is much more on offer. This one of the UK's best places to see cirl bunting, a delightful songbird being rescued from extinction on our shores, thanks to the hard work of conservationists and farmers. Visitors can also enjoy the sights and sounds of hedgerows alive with butterflies such as marbled whites and small coppers, meadows buzzing with bees and grasshoppers – and, if you are lucky, maybe the odd dolphin or two, or even a basking shark, in the warm seas below the red sandstone cliffs.

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