Twelve of the best ways to see wildlife in the UK in 2016

| 04 January 2016

Defy the darkness and rain and plan your days out in nature with a dozen of the Wildlife Trusts' best throughout the year

A photo of crane birds flying into a blue sky
Common cranes flying in Norfolk© Jackie Dent
Hear Britain’s tallest bird (January and February)

Standing on a chilly bank in the flatlands of Norfolk on a winter’s day, as the sun drops towards the horizon, may not sound like much fun. And then the cranes arrive - a family group of two vast adults and their ginger-headed youngster fly low and slow over the field, bugling as they come, before dropping on the edge of a patch of reeds.

The adults throw their heads back, flap their wings at each other, their curly tail covert feathers fluffed up, and stamp their feet as they reinforce their pair bonds. The dance of the cranes makes the cold wait worth it.

The common crane was once just that: common. So common were they that at the banquet for the investiture of the Archbishop of York in 1465, the gathered bigwigs ate a staggering 204 roast cranes.

We can only assume they tasted good; not good news for the cranes. Overhunting, along with the draining of the great marshlands, led to their disappearance as a breeding bird about 400 years ago.

In 1979 a trio of birds were blown off course from their migration across mainland Europe and ended up in Norfolk, and there they and their descendants have stayed ever since.

Thanks to careful protection of those first nesting birds and some landscape-scale habitat restoration projects, there are now thought to be around 75 cranes in Britain, with birds taking up territories at several wetlands in the east of the country, and a reintroduction project currently underway in the Somerset Levels.

For the common crane and its mournful bugle, things are looking up. But waiting for cranes to come in to their winter roost is a chilly business. Wrap up warm, with thick socks, gloves and a hat.

During the day the birds will be feeding quietly out in the fields, so keep your eyes peeled as you drive the country lanes. During late winter, the pairs are more likely to indulge in a little pair bonding, so you have a better chance of catching their courtship dance.

Where to do it

There are some great film clips of common cranes in the Wildscreen Arkive. Your best chance of seeing and hearing common cranes is at their winter roost at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hickling Broad reserve, where up to 20 birds gather on a good night, sometimes more.

Arrive an hour before dusk and watch out for marsh harrier, hen harrier, barn owl and bittern, as well as the chance to see Chinese water deer grazing in the fields. You could also see them at The Great Fen and The Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire and Westhay Moor in Somerset.

Pay homage to the Russians (January-March)

A photo of a green field full of yellow and lilac plants
Park Gate Down in Kent© Selwyn Dennis
Dark-bellied brent geese gather in their largest numbers in February, preparing for the long flight back to the Arctic. Around 91,000 travel to Britain each autumn from their nesting grounds on the Taymyr Peninsula, in Siberia, to spend their winter in our sheltered estuaries and coastal marshes on the east and south coasts, from the Humber round to Portland.

Our smallest goose, around the same size as a mallard, these geese have spent the winter feeding on eel grass and grazing in coastal fields. As spring approaches, they gather together in their largest numbers at the start of February, preparing to make the long journey back up to Arctic Russia, and this is a great time to pay them a visit.

Large flocks collect together, a continual conversation of “ronking” and “cronking” as they discuss the best feeding places and the best time to set off.

How to do it
Wrap up warm and head to one of their favoured haunts on the coast with a pair of binoculars. Spend the day enjoying your wild goose chase, and then finish it off with a bag of chips.

Around 5,000 birds of the pale-bellied sub-species visit Lindisfarne from their breeding grounds on Svalbard, while around 35,000 fly all the way from eastern Arctic Canada to spend their winters around Ireland, mostly in Northern Ireland.

Cley Marshes is Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s oldest and best known nature reserve and one of the first nature reserves in the country and home in the winter to a large flock of brent geese which grazes on Eye Field, sometimes attracting individuals of the rare black brant, a visitor from America.

Donna Nook and Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire, The Naze in Essex, Rye Harbour in Sussex, Farlington Marshes in Hampshire and Two Tree Island in Essex are also good spots.

Follow a sat-tagged osprey (March-September)

A photo of lots of white birds flying in the same direction over an estuary
Golden plovers over Camel estuary in Cornwall© Adrian Langdon
Once just a single pair of ospreys survived in Scotland: now they are back, and March sees the return of nesting birds across Scotland, England and Wales.  

There are few species that evoke the wonder of bird migration quite like the osprey. This spectacular fish-eating bird of prey undertakes a remarkable 3,000 mile migration from the UK to winter in sub-Saharan West Africa.

After spending the winter on a Senegalese or Gambian beach, the birds head north again in early March, battling their way across the vast wilds of the Sahara, through Europe and back to their nest in England, Wales or Scotland; often arriving on the same day as they did the previous spring.

In the UK, ospreys are a conservation success story. Having been driven to extinction through persecution in the Victorian era, they have made a remarkable comeback.

The first birds to return were a single famous pair in Scotland in 1954. Thanks to a lot of hard work from conservation bodies, there are now 300 pairs in Scotland and, together with a successful reintroduction at Rutland Water, the birds have recently become re-established in England and Wales too.

How to do it
The four reserves listed all have hides overlooking active osprey nests, with telescopes available for a closer look and volunteers on hand to tell you more about the birds.

For something a bit different, join an osprey cruise at Rutland Water on board the Rutland Belle. There is a good chance of seeing fishing ospreys from the boat and you can enjoy wonderful views of the area at the same time. World Osprey Week also takes place from April 11-15 2016.

You can now follow the day to day lives of ospreys at the nests via webcams, beaming live images from nests around the country.

And it’s not over when the birds have left their nests. An increasing number of individuals are now fitted with satellite transmitters each year, so you can also follow their awe-inspiring journey in minute detail as the young birds head back down to Spain, across the straits of Gibraltar and down the west coast of Africa for another season in the sun.

Four Wildlife Trust nature reserves give you the opportunity to watch nesting ospreys go about their daily business. At the Loch of the Lowes, in Perthshire, a pair have nested each year since 1969 - at the time, it was one of just five nests in the whole country. A new female arrived in 2015, replacing the previous incumbent who had been present an impressive 24 years.

Ospreys were extinct in England until Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust and its partner Anglian Water stepped in. A translocation project was started in 1996, with young ospreys brought from nests in Scotland to be released at the reservoir.

In 2001, a single chick was raised by one of those translocated birds together with his mate, the first time ospreys had bred in England for 150 years. And they’ve bred every year since.

In 2015 the Rutland population stood at eight pairs, with more than 100 chicks having fledged over the years. One of those pairs nests on the Lyndon reserve, from where you can get great views of the birds during the summer.

The Dyfi estuary in Powys has been a regular stopping off point for migrating Scottish ospreys for many years. In 2007, Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust built a nesting platform at their Cors Dyfi reserve in the hope of attracting some of these passers-by to stay, and amazingly, the very next year, a male bird did just that.

Monty, as he has been christened, was finally joined by a female in 2011 and then by another in 2013 when his first mate failed to return from Africa. Both females were birds hatched at a Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust reserve, Rutland Water.

The pair which breed at Foulshaw Moss in Cumbria are relative newcomers, first nesting there as recently as 2014. Many chicks are now fitted with coloured leg rings, and so we know that the female (known as Blue 35) was hatched from a nest in Kielder Forest in 2010, while her slightly older mate (White YW) is a local boy, from Bassenthwaite Lake in 2008.

Enjoy the great rush north (March-June)

A photo of a bird flying over a river
A Bittern in flight over Yorkshire waters© Philip Watson
For wildlife fans, migration time is the time. The great annual tide of wildlife washes across the country, a mass movement of life in general and birds in particular.

As the long cold winter comes to an end and the warmth of spring soaks into the countryside, everyone is in a hurry to head north and make the most of the opportunities the summer has to offer.

Birds which have spent the winter with us - the massed ranks of waders and wildfowl on our reservoirs and estuaries - have the Arctic in their sights, as do many birds which have wintered further south, all now passing through in their brightest breeding colours.

Our own countryside will rapidly fill up with returning warblers and wheatears, swallows and martins, redstarts and flycatchers, cuckoos and swifts and yellow wagtails and turtle doves. The list is endless.

Everyone has just one thing on their mind: the need to breed. The air is full of song, courtship displays, bright colours and the promise of new life. What better time is there?

How to do it
For the real rush, head to one of the major migration hotspots around our coasts. Be prepared for an early start, as sometimes the first few hours of the day are the busiest. Take sandwiches to avoid missing the action at lunchtime.

The migrants are coming, whether you make it to the coast or not. In March, listen for the first chiffchaff plink-plonking his jaunty song; watch for the first swallow and house martin of the summer over head during April; and the first days of May should see the return of that great aerial wonder, the swift.

Jutting out into the North Sea at the mouth of the Humber estuary, like a drip of wax hanging off the end of Yorkshire, Spurn Head is amongst the very best migration hot spots.

Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire, Cley Marshes in Norfolk, the Isles of Scilly, The Naze and Gunners Park in Essex, Rye Harbour in Sussex, Flamborough Cliffs in Yorkshire, East Chevington in Northumberland, Dawlish Inner Warren in Devon and Brownsea Island in Dorset are also top spots.

A photo of a group of people sailing towards a cliff on a small boat
Living Sea Safaris in Yorkshire© Kirsten Carter
Fall for the fastest bird (June)

The peregrine - the fastest bird in the world - has found a place to live in the middle of our cities. This falcon epitomises wildness: a powerful hunter that specialises in catching birds, swooping down onto its prey at high speed, it is the fastest animal on the planet, having been clocked diving at a staggering 242 miles per hour.

Once a bird of wild places, windswept moorlands, craggy mountain tops and remote coastal cliffs, the peregrine has experienced something of a renaissance during the 21st century, and nesting birds have developed a taste for urban high rise living.

Replacing cliffs and mountain ledges with cathedral spires and power station window ledges, you are now probably more likely to see a peregrine in town than you are out in the wilds, where it still suffers from persecution.

How to do it
Many of our cities now have their own pair of nesting peregrines, with peregrine pairs resident on such iconic buildings as Durham Cathedral, the Arndale Centre in Manchester and Tate Modern in London.

Derby, Sheffield, Cambridge, Norwich, Nottingham, Exeter, Southampton, Winchester and Bath are just some of the cities where peregrines are now a familiar part of the scenery. Just find the tallest building and look up, or find out about special viewpoints that may be set up during the summer.

Birds are most obvious during their noisy courtship early in the spring, and then through the summer as the adults bring food in to the growing chicks.

You can get up close and personal with nesting peregrines without having to leave the comfort of your laptop. Watch the antics of the pair who have nested on Derby Cathedral since 2006 via live footage streaming direct from the nest and enjoy free ‘peregrine watchpoints’ on Saturdays and Wednesdays between the middle of May and the start of July.

In Aylesbury, a webcam portrays a peregrine nest on County Hall. And in Nottingham, webcam footage shows another pair of urban nesting peregrines.

If you prefer a rural setting, head to Scotland, where peregrine falcons nest from the end of March at Falls of Clyde. There is live interpretation from the People’s Postcode Lottery Peregrine Ranger and a self-guided peregrine trail. Or visit Herefordshire, where peregrine falcons circle over the Wye Valley - follow the Wye Valley Walk which circles Herefordshire Wildlife Trust’s Doward Reseves.

And when the nesting birds are sleeping, try reading The Peregrine by J A Baker - a classic.

A photo of a yellow and black butterfly on a plant under a blue sky
A Swallowtail butterfly in Norfolk© Brian Francis
Hunt woodland butterflies (June and July)

The UK is home to almost 60 resident species of butterfly. While some species are common and thriving, others are in decline and restricted to particular habitats in just a handful of spots. Among those species in trouble are a whole suite of butterflies that make their home in our woodlands.

Almost all our fritillaries are on the decline. The woodland species have particular plant requirements for their caterpillars.

Heath fritillary prefers cow-wheat; itself an uncommon plant. Violets attract pearl-bordered and small pearl-bordered, silver-washed, dark green and high brown, and marsh fritillary requires devil’s-bit scabious.

Our rarer hairstreaks favour mature blackthorn scrub along hedgerows or on the edge of woodland on which to lay their eggs, while the delicate wood white requires vetches and vetchlings along sunny woodland rides.

Luckily, a handful of woodland butterflies are bucking the trend. The large and impressive silver-washed fritillary seems to be doing much better than its rarer cousins, and is actually expanding its range northwards, along with the white admiral and speckled wood, both of which have also been pushing northwards over recent years.

How to do it
Sunny glades, rides and woodland edges are some of the best places to look for a variety of species, and locating the larval foodplant of specialist butterflies can make searching that bit easier.

Look to the skies for canopy-dwelling butterflies like purple emperor and purple hairstreak, which rarely come to nectar. Scan the tops of oak woodlands with binoculars for the best chance to spot them in flight.

Bramble patches are also good watchpoints for passing white admiral which are partial to the blossoms, and are a favourite feeding and resting place for black, brown and white-letter hairstreaks. Read the Wildlife Trust's children’s woodland butterfly spotter sheet.

An excellent site for visiting lepidopterists, Warton Crag, in Lancashire, is home to four species of fritillaries, including the rare high brown fritillary, which is best looked for in July.

East Blean Wood, in Kent, is among the best places in the country to find heath fritillary. The culm grasslands of Devon, rich in devil’s bit scabious, are home to marsh fritillary.

Try the reserves at Dunsdon or Stowford Moor. And one of the best sites for finding brown hairstreak is Grafton Wood in Worcestershire.

For a good chance of spotting black hairstreak, try Glapthorn Cow Pasture in Northamptonshire, Antrim.

You could also try Glenarm, in Argyll and Bute; Shian Wood in Avon; Weston Big Wood and Homefield Wood in Buckinghamshire; Whitecross Green Wood in Cambridgeshire; Brampton Wood in Cornwall; Pendarves Wood and Howe Ridding Wood in Cumbria; Marsland in Devon; Powerstock Common in Dorset; Milkwellburn Wood in Durham; Thrift Wood in Essex, Lavernock Point in Glamorgan; Siccaridge Wood in Gloucestershire; Pamber Forest and Roydon Woods in Hampshire; Balls Wood in Hertfordshire; Forest Wood in Lanarkshire; Sydenham Hill Wood in London; Foxley Wood in Norfolk; Juliet’s Wood in Northumberland; King’s Wood and Rammamere Heath in Northamptonshire; Eaton and Gamston Woods in Nottinghamshire; Gilfach and Ystradfawr in Powys; Jones’ Rough in Shropshire;
King’s Castle Wood in Somerset; Bradfield Woods in Suffolk; Norbury Park and Rodborough Common in Surrey; Blackmoor Copse in Wiltshire; Monk Wood in Worcestershire; Brockadale in Yorkshire.

A photo of people walking along a beach full of large stones and rocks
Reculver beach in Kent© Kent WT
Lounge with a lizard (April-September)

Our six native land reptiles are an under-appreciated yet very diverse bunch. Three lizards and three snakes, Britain’s reptiles can be found from the far north of Scotland to the south coast of England, from highland moors to lowland heaths, sand dunes to garden ponds.

Our most famous, or should that be infamous, reptile is the adder - our only venomous snake. Adders are quite a bit smaller than most people imagine, rarely reaching more than 50cm long.

They are animals of moorland, heaths and rough grassland, where they can sometimes be seen sunbathing in groups early in the year as they emerge from their hibernacula.

In the spring, males engage in the famous "dance of the adders", as they raise up and twine around each other, ritually wrestling in the hope of winning the favours of a female.

You are much more likely to spot a grass snake. These are the largest of our reptiles, sometimes reaching up to a metre in length. Grass snakes’ favourite food is a tasty frog, and they are great swimmers, most often found in wetland habitats and with a particular penchant for garden ponds.

Our three lizards include the common lizard, our most widespread reptile and the only reptile native to Ireland; the beautiful slow worm, a legless lizard who spends most of his time underground feeding on slugs and worms; and the brightly coloured sand lizard, a real rarity of southern heaths and sand dunes on the Merseyside coast.

Another southern rarity is the shy smooth snake, now restricted to the heathlands of the New Forest, Dorset and Surrey.

How to do it
All our reptiles are sun-worshippers. Find a south-facing slope, with patches of bare ground that warm up quickly next to areas of cover into which the animal can flee if disturbed, and you have the perfect reptile spotting spot.

Your first sighting of a reptile is likely to be a quick glimpse of a tail disappearing into the undergrowth. But don’t despair. Individual snakes and lizards tend to have favourite sun-bathing spots, so if you sit still and wait they may well soon reappear.

Make your garden reptile-friendly. Wildlife ponds attract frogs, which in turn provide food for grass snakes, while compost heaps and log piles can be great places for both grass snakes and slow worms.

Higher Hyde Heath in Dorset is home to all six native land reptiles, as well as Dartford warbler, nightjar and silver-studded blue, all making their homes on an internationally important heathland site.

Other great spots include Chobham Common and Rodborough Common in Surrey; Roydon Common and Grimston Warren in Norfolk; Snelsmore Common, Greenham and Crookham Commons and Wildmoor Heath in Berkshire; Ockham and Wisley Commons in Surrey, Sutton and Hollesley Commons and Blaxhall Common in Suffolk; Tadnoll and Winfrith in Dorset; Bovey Heathfield, Stapleton Mire and Rackenford and Knowstone Moor in Devon; Abercamlo Bog in Powys; Gilfach Farm, Radnorshire; Potteric Carr, Allerthorpe Common, Strensall Common and Fen Bog in Yorkshire; Holystone Burn, Annstead Dunes, Whitelee Moor, Fords Moss and Harbottle Crags in Northumberland; Cors Dyfi in Montgomeryshire; Sandwich and Pegwell Bay and Reculver Country Park in Kent; Two Tree Island and Stanford Warren in Essex; Chun Downs in Cornwall; Fulbourn Fen in Cambridgeshire; Freshfield Dune Heath in Lancashire; Parc Slip, Glamorgan.

A photo of a small bat with its mouth open
A bat at Folly's Farm in Pembrokeshire© Avon WT
Go batty as night falls (August)

As dusk falls on a late summer’s evening, the swallows go to their roosts under the eaves and the swifts make one last screaming sortie over the rooftops before heading up high to dose the night away. The light thickens, the last robin sings his song, and then the bats come out.

Unseen and unnoticed by most of us, the countryside fills up with these nocturnal insectivores, fluttering out to feed for the night. Pipistrelles flit over the garden, brown long-eared bats swoop along the hedgerows, Daubenton’s bats skim over the river, noctules hawk high up above the canopy.

Bats find their way around by echolocation, using a series of very high pitched clicks and burps and listening out for the echoes that bounce off their surroundings and their prey.

Although not audible to the human ear, we can use a special bat detector to listen to the echolocation calls of bats. Each species has its own characteristic pattern and frequency of calls.

The pitter patter of a calling pipistrelle turns into a buzzing burp as it closes in on its moth meal, while a noctule shouts "chop chip chop chip" as he swoops over the tree tops.

How to do it
The best way to discover more about bats is in the company of an expert. Check your local Wildlife Trust website for bat walks and other batty events, where you will be able to use a bat detector and learn more about the lives of bats.

International Bat Night takes place during the last weekend in August. Put up a bat box and give them a helping hand in your garden. The location is all important: nail it up on a sheltered sunny spot, high up under the eaves if it’s on a building and preferably away from outside lights. You can buy one or make one.

Bats have declined in recent years, but they can still be found in towns and villages. At dusk, spend some time in the garden or go to your local park, and look up: you never know what you might see.

Enjoy watching bats swooping at the cave entrances at Brown’s Folly whilst overlooking the magnificent Bath skyline at dusk. Take a bat detector and listen out for the bizarre alien ‘space invader’ noises of the nationally threatened greater horseshoe bat, famous for its unusual leaf-shaped nose and large ears, just one of the species found here.

For a more laid back twist on the ‘traditional’ bat walk, join a special bat punt safari on the River Cam in Cambridge.

Essex Wildlife Trust’s Hanningfield Reservoir visitor centre is a fantastic place to see bats - hundreds of soprano pipistrelles roost in the centre and can be seen emerging on late summer evenings.

Other good spots include Brackett’s Coppice and Higher Kiln Quarry in Dorset; Aughton Woods in Lancashire; Montrose Basin in Angus; Falls of Clyde in Lanarkshire; Hilton Gravel Pits in Derbyshire; Alderney in the Channel Islands; Sprotbrough Flash in Yorkshire; Gwaith Powdwr in Gwynedd.
A photo of a small red squirrel on a tree looking towards the camera
A red squirrel in Northumberland© Rick Thornton
Go nuts over squirrel nutkin (September and October)

Red squirrels are at their most visible during the autumn as they forage and cache nuts. With distinctive russet fur, tufted ears and twitching tail, a red squirrel is a captivating sight.

Autumn is a great time to see them as they forage for nuts and pine seeds to cache for the winter months.  Once a common animal across the country, the red squirrel has disappeared from great swathes of the country.

The introduction of the grey squirrel from North America caused our native red squirrel to go on the retreat, perhaps due to direct competition from the larger American, but also due to the introduction of the ‘squirrel pox’ virus, which can cause local populations of red squirrel to die out altogether.

In England, red squirrels only survive on the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island, where there are no greys, on the Formby coast and in the extensive pine forests of Northumberland and the Lake District.

Things aren’t much better in Wales, although Anglesey has recently been declared grey squirrel free. Scotland and Ireland are where the red squirrel now has its main strongholds.

The total UK population is now thought to be as low as 120,000 animals, of which more than three quarters are found in Scotland.

How to do it
Like most wild animals, red squirrels tend to be shy of people. So keep as quiet as you can. A good first place to look is on bird feeders. Red squirrels are just as keen on peanuts as their grey cousins, and they may come to feeders if they are around.

Most visitors to Brownsea Island are guaranteed a sight of one of the 200 red squirrels on the island - one of only two populations in southern England. Red squirrels are more active in the autumn when they are nearer the ground, foraging for food.

With no grey squirrels present on the island, the Isle of Wight is one of very few places in England where a visitor can see red squirrels all year round. Try Bouldnor Forest, where red squirrels still thrive.

Situated in the picturesque Glens of Antrim, the hazel woods of Straidkilly are a great spot to see red squirrels. With help from the Glens Red Squirrel Group, these elusive mammals are making a welcome comeback with supplementary feeding and monitoring programmes in place.

Catch sight of the charismatic red squirrel at Hauxley reserve in Druridge Bay, Northumberland. These timid yet iconic stars of the wildlife world are increasingly rare in the UK - the north-east is one of their last remaining strongholds. There is nothing more joyful than to spot one of these radiant redheads.

Visitors can view red squirrels at Loch of the Lowes, either from the visitor centre during opening hours or with organised events such as Super Squirrels family fun days.

Other sweet spots include Smardale Gill and Wreay Woods in Cumbria; Freshfield Dune Heath in Lancashire; Tony’s Patch, Holystone North Wood and Holystone Burn in Northumberland; Gight Wood in Aberdeenshire; Spey Bay in Moray; Stenhouse Wood in Dumfries and Galloway; Loch Fleet in Sutherland.

A photo of a sunset over a pond and countryside
Oare Marshes in Kent© John Cullen
Go on a winter ghost hunt (November and December)

The barn owl is one of those birds that everyone can recognise, one of the most familiar birds of our countryside and yet many people have never seen one.

If you’ve never seen a barn owl before, winter can be a great time of year to look, as they often extend their hunting hours into daylight to find the extra food they need to get them through the colder months.

Barn owls famously hunt on silent wings, a soft fringe along the outside of their flight feathers reducing the noise of their flight. This helps them to creep on their prey unannounced, and also means they are better able to listen out for the rustling of the small mammals among the grass, without any background noise of flapping.

They feed almost exclusively on small mammals, with 50% of their food being made up of field voles. So to stand the best chances of seeing this ghostly silent hunter, look for areas of rough grassland, the favourite habitat of voles.

How to do it
Like many owls, barn owls find it harder to hunt in windy conditions, so still evenings are best to try to spot them.

Scan the sheltered side of fields in the lea of hedgerows for your best chances. If a barn owl is hunting nearby, you can try attracting it closer by making a squeaking noise by kissing the back of your hand. The hunting owl may come over to see what’s making the noise.

Barn owls are found throughout the lowlands of the UK. Two other daytime hunting owls to look out for are the short-eared owl, which especially likes moorland and coastal flood meadows, and the diminutive little owl, who especially likes to hunt from veteran trees along old hedgerows.

Thanks to the work of the local drainage authorities, farmers and landowners who manage grassland edges, drains and field boundaries to benefit the field vole (the barn owl’s main prey) and put up nesting boxes, Lincolnshire has one of the highest densities of barn owls of any county in the country.

Barn owls can be seen throughout the county on a number of Wildlife Trust nature reserves such as Willow Tree Fen and Gibraltar Point, as well as throughout the wider landscape as they hunt alongside ditches, tracks and roads, particularly at first dusk.

At Vine House Farm in south Lincolnshire, 13 pairs of barn owls bred in 2014, producing 63 young. Vine House Farm holds open days and farm walks where the lucky visitor may just catch a glimpse of these ghostly residents.

Blue House Farm is a very reliable site for Barn Owls, at all times of year. Four pairs bred there in 2015, including a pair in Essex Wildlife Trust’s live webcam nest.

Other sites to head to include Blakehill Farm in Wiltshire; Hickling Broad in Norfolk; The Great Fen, Grafham Water and The Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire; Folly Farm in Avon; Lorton Meadows in Dorset; Westhay Moor in Somerset; Hen Reedbeds and Snape Marshes in Suffolk; Lunt Meadows in Lancashire.

A photo of a white seal resting on stones by the sea
A fine example of a seal at rest© Wildlife Trusts for South and West Wales
Fall in love with a pup (November and December)

An amazing 40% of the entire world population of Atlantic grey seals make their home around the coats of Britain, especially on the rocky northern and western shores and islands.

Along the more sheltered east coast there are just four breeding site, with the largest amongst the dunes of Donna Nook in Lincolnshire. Having spent the lazy summer days out at sea, as winter bites the seals return to the shelter of the dunes to give birth to their young and do their courting.

The bull seals, measuring up to two metres in length and a whopping 300kg in weight, arrive first, spending the end of October and early November staking out territories along the beach.

The females follow, looking for a quiet spot to give birth to their pup. Quiet, unfortunately, is something that you don’t get much of in a seal colony.

The arrival of the females leads to clashes between the big males who want to claim them for their ‘harem’, and this only intensifies once the pups are born as the mothers come back into season.

The colony reaches peak noisiness in mid-December, with fighting males and upwards of a thousand pups of various sizes. By the end of January, the parents have left, and the last of the seal pups makes her way to the sea. And that’s it, one of the greatest spectacles of them all, over for another year.

How to do it
Visit in the morning, when the light is at its softest. Remember to bring your camera, as there will be plenty of photo opportunities here.

If cute pups are your thing, come at the end of November. For a better chance of seeing the bulls fighting over the females, the peak in activity is mid-December.

The seals of Donna Nook are very popular so, if at all possible, visit on a week day to avoid the crowds. Dogs and baby seals don’t mix, and our four-legged friends can pass diseases on to seals, so leave the dog at home. And no matter how appealing they may look, don’t touch.

Grey seals live all around our coasts, from the Isles of Scilly to the Shetland Isles. Pupping season is different in each colony: September is the best time in Cornwall and Pembrokeshire, October in the north of Scotland.

Anytime you’re by the sea, keep an eye out for an inquisitive head bobbing up out of the waves. They can be told from their smaller cousin, the harbour or common seal, by their profile.

Grey seals have a long sloping forehead with a ‘Roman’ nose’, like an English bull terrier. Common seals have a shorter, stepped snout and a cuter face, more like a cat.

The best place to see grey seal pups (and the second largest colony in the country) is at Donna Nook NNR in Lincolnshire. Here, up to 3,000 adults return to breed every winter, with more than 1,000 pups produced in a good year. The wardened viewing area in the dunes gives you the opportunity to get up close to the action.

Seals can also be spotted at the Isles of Scilly; Skomer, Pembrokeshire; Eigg, Highland; Hill of White Hamars, Orkney.

On the Isle of Man, The Calf of Man is a seal breeding and pupping area – 53 pups were born there in 2014, and annual pup surveys have taken place every October since 2009.

The seals can be seen all year around the Island but the main places to see them are from the Sound looking over to the Calf of Man and Kitterland. They can also be seen around Maughold head and Langness; including Peel harbour.

If you want to see the seals on the Calf of Man you will need to book a boat trip with a local skipper out of Port St Mary. But seals can be seen from the coasts around the Isle of Man.

A photo of an otter causing a currant by swimming through a calm river
An otter in Warwickshire© Paul Thompson
Kiss beneath the mistletoe (December)

Everyone knows mistletoe: that familiar pair of leaves with the sticky white berry in the middle. Yet few really know the plant.

The evergreen mistletoe grows as a parasite high up among the branches of other trees, tapping into the boughs of trees such as willow, poplar and especially apple for nutrients.

It was once a common sight in apple orchards but has declined in recent years as this traditional working habitat has slowly disappeared.

To spread from tree to tree, mistletoe has a clever way of getting around. Mistletoe offers its irresistible white berries to birds, most notably the mistle thrush.

The berries are coated in a sticky goo. Once the bird has had its fill, it moves on and wipes off its beak on the branch of the next tree, often leaving a seed or two behind in its own special glue.

How to do it
Keep your eyes peeled for the round clumps of mistletoe growing high in the canopy. And maybe take someone special along with you, for that perfect mistletoe moment.

Mistletoe can be found throughout the country and there are some spectacular hanging globes in one of London’s Royal Parks, Bushy Park. Walk down the great avenue where about 70 of the limes are hosts to mistletoe, and about 150 of the hawthorns, that give Bushy its name, also have good mistletoe growths.

The commonest places are in ‘cider country’: Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire.

Though many have been lost over the past century, Herefordshire is still famed for its orchards which can be both havens for wildlife and a source of produce for people.

Herefordshire Wildlife Trust manages the orchards at Lower House Farm and Common Hill, where mistletoe still grows in profusion.

Knapp and Papermill in Worcestershire and Pennington Flash in Lancashire are also highlights.

Visit for more inspiration.

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