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Five of the best UK wildlife experiences for families

Wildlife-watching can turn a day outdoors into a wide-eyed family adventure. Here are five of the best UK experiences this spring.

Published 31 Mar 2022, 06:15 BST
Families can look out for wildlife including red squirrels, seals, puffins and eagles on one of ...

Families can look out for wildlife including red squirrels, seals, puffins and eagles on one of these five wildlife-spotting trips.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. Spot red squirrels on Brownsea Island

These little critters have been scurrying through our woodland canopies for around 10,000 years. Their decline in the face of grey squirrel dominance is well documented, although the reds aren’t as rare as you might think — the Wildlife Trusts estimate we still have some 140,000 bushy-tailed, perky-eared reds, found in spots as disparate as Anglesey and Northumberland. Few places are as renowned for their native population, however, as Dorset’s Brownsea Island.

This rambling, National Trust-owned island in Poole Harbour still feels like a remnant of another age. It’s reachable via a 20-minute foot ferry from Poole Quay, and a visit offers a strong chance of spotting these russet-furred acrobats in the wild. Come in spring or autumn to see them feeding on beech nuts and sweet chestnuts. Squirrels aside, the island is a brilliant place for a woodland wander and even has its own tree-climbing trail. Fun fact: Brownsea was the inspiration for Enid Blyton’s Whispering Island in the book Five Have a Mystery to Solve.

2. See deer and ponies on Exmoor 

The word ‘safari’ might put you in mind of more exotic species, but you don’t need to hop on a plane to give youngsters a memorable wildlife-tracking experience. The rolling slopes of Exmoor, spread between Devon and Somerset, are a haven for flora and fauna, with the area’s native ponies a particular highlight. Some 20 herds of this stocky, hardy breed still roam the open moors, meaning you’ll likely encounter them on the four-wheel-drive vehicle adventures offered by operators such as Exmoor Wildlife Safaris and Red Stag Safari.

On the same tours, you’ll also seek out red deer — the UK’s largest deer species — and train your binoculars on birds of prey such as buzzards and kestrels, as well as a twittering host of smaller moorland birds. For very young kids, it’s worth bearing in mind the Exmoor Pony Centre, near Dulverton, a charitable organisation home to around 20 native ponies.

Red squirrels are the famous residents of Brownsea Island in Dorset.

Photograph by Alamy

3. Search for puffins on Skomer Island

Skomer might be less than a mile off the Pembrokeshire coastline but arriving here still feels like landing on a distant shore. There’s a dramatic rawness to its rocky bays and high headlands, and its offshore setting makes it an annual magnet for nesting seabirds. During the breeding season (roughly April to early July), you can expect to spot sizable numbers of everything from razorbills and guillemots to speed-diving gannets, with fulmars and kittiwakes also busying the cliffs. And then, of course, there are the ‘Pembrokeshire parrots’ themselves: puffins.

Whether they’re tottering around on clifftops, bobbing in the waves or flying in great whizzing arcs through the sky, the paintbox-pretty birds are the main reason people make the trip to Skomer. Once you’re here, though — after a 15-minute boat trip from Martin’s Haven on the mainland — you’ll realise there’s plenty more for kids to relish, from vast carpets of spring bluebells to porpoises, seals and dolphins bobbing out at sea. Visitor numbers are capped each day, so try to book your boat trip well ahead of time.

Look out for puffins on Skomer Island, off the coast of Pembrokeshire.

Photograph by Alamy

4. Look out for eagles and otters on Mull

Scotland isn’t exactly lacking in wildlife-rich islands, but few of them provide such variety — or as spectacular a backdrop — as magnificent Mull. Undoubtedly one of the UK’s top destinations for naturalists, the Inner Hebridean island has superb birdwatching credentials and a rich marine life, too, with minke whales and bottlenose dolphins often spotted offshore. Red deer are another draw, while boat tours to smaller offshore islands such as Iona and Lunga hold the reward of puffins.

Back on Mull itself, however, arguably the biggest natural attractions are found up high and down low. Golden and white-tailed eagles — the former a Highland icon, the latter the UK’s largest bird of prey — can both seen riding the mountain thermals, while the rocky bays and shores around the coast are home to shy but spellbinding otters. Mull Magic offers themed wildlife tours, among them the Otter Detective Walk, the Eagle Walk and Birds, Beaches & Butterflies. Again, try to book ahead.

5. Watch seals in Norfolk

The Norfolk coastline is famed for its seals, with three key locations allowing you to admire colonies from a responsible distance. Hunstanton is a good bet in the summer months, and Horsey Beach is an excellent option for seeing pups during the winter breeding season, but Blakeney Point is the best year-round choice, with two species — harbour seals and the more numerous grey seals — almost guaranteed to be seen here in large numbers.

Various operators run family-friendly boat trips from nearby Morston Quay, with departures throughout the year, and it’s a genuine spectacle to watch hundreds of blubbery pinnipeds basking on the shore. The largest of the seals are actually far bigger than adult humans, and although they might look unwieldy on land, they twist through the water with astonishing grace when they return to the waves.

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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