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Five of the best places to see wildlife in the UK

Wildlife journalist Simon Barnes shares some great wildlife-watching experiences all nature enthusiasts can have on British shores.

Published 10 Aug 2021, 11:05 BST
Appreciate the beauty of nature from a cautious and responsible distance with the Swarovski Optik long-range ...

Appreciate the beauty of nature from a cautious and responsible distance with the Swarovski Optik long-range optical instruments.

Photograph by Swarovski Optik

There’s wildlife everywhere. But if you know where to look, you’ll get to see a wider and more exciting range of species — not to mention the chance to explore new habitats in often remote destinations. From marvelling at Scotland’s eagles and spotting dolphins in New Quay to searching for Britain’s largest butterfly in the Norfolk Broads, below we recommend five of the best wildlife-watching destinations around the British Isles.

1. Northern gannets at Bass Rock

At first sight, the steep, black sides of Bass Rock, in the Firth of Forth, Scotland, might seem covered in snow; look closer, and you’ll make out countless northern gannets. Between February and October — when they set off to Africa’s west coast — more than 150,000 pitch camp on this volcanic island. To learn about Britain’s largest seabird — a species able to dive into the sea from astonishing heights — head to the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick, or join a boat trip to glimpse the colony up close.

2. Ospreys at Rutland Water Nature Reserve

Ospreys became extinct in England in the 19th century due to intense persecution and habitat loss. They made a natural comeback to Scotland in the 1950s and were later reintroduced to Rutland Water Nature Reserve, where they’ve thrived (since 2001, when the first healthy chick hatched, over 150 of these birds of prey have fledged from nests in the area). Visit the Lyndon Visitor Centre, on the South Shore of the reservoir, open from mid-March to early September and complete with interactive displays and livestreams of the ospreys. To view the birds, meanwhile, head to one of the hides in the surrounding meadows or join a guided wildlife cruise.

3. Bottlenose dolphins in New Quay

Cardigan Bay is home to Britain’s largest resident population of dolphins, and in the Welsh town of New Quay, home to the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre, you’re almost guaranteed a sighting. Go in the summer, when you can sometimes spot them from the harbour wall. Otherwise, the charter boat trips out into Cardigan Bay will increase your chances of seeing them break the surface and spotting other marine species, including harbour porpoises, Atlantic grey seals, razorbills and guillemots. Sometimes, the dolphins will leap clear of the surface, apparently just for the fun of it; and it’s a hard-hearted person who can hold back a cheer.

White-taled eagles can be spotted in the Isle of Mull, Scotland soaring over lochs and rocky inlets.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Swallowtail butterflies in the Norfolk Broads

You may have thought insects were the preserve of specialists, but swallowtails can make entomologists of us all. The UK's largest and rarest butterfly — with yellow-and-black wings pointed like a swallow’s tail and spanning almost four inches — is only found in the Norfolk Broads. To see it, visit Strumpshaw Fen or Hickling Broad in the early morning on a sunny, still day from late May to mid-July, when the adult butterflies emerge, keeping binoculars at hand (swallowtails are fast-flying creatures, and rarely sit still). A few tips: before you visit, learn how to identify milk parsley, the host plant where the females lay their eggs, and keep an eye out for yellow and purple flowers, such as red campion and yellow iris — their food of choice.

5. Eagles in the Isle of Mull

In the past decade or so, Mull has become a place of wildlife pilgrimage. It’s home to some fantastic birds of prey, with the eagles arguably the most impressive. White-tailed and golden eagles — both of which had become extinct across the UK by the early 20th century — are now thriving in this Highland habitat and are easy enough to see on boat trips and at observation points. See them soaring over the island’s lochs and rocky inlets (preferred by white-tailed eagles), or remote glens and moorland (preferred by the golden eagles).

The new NL Pure 32 premium-class binoculars by Swarovski Optik.

Photograph by Swarovski Optik


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Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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