Britain's best nature reserves for walks and wildlife

Explore meadows, wetlands, ancient woodlands, moorland, heathlands, coast and mountains at Britain’s nature reserves. Here is our guide to Britain's best nature reserves and the wildlife to spot in rural and urban areas



15th November 2017
Puffins on Skomer Island


Set in the heart of the East Midlands, Rutland Water is one of the largest man-made lakes in Europe. Created in the 1970s, the reservoir serves the Peterborough area with drinking water and is also home to an internationally renowned nature reserve. Managed by the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, the site has been instrumental in re-launching the British osprey population and is home to the first Ospreys to breed in Britain for 150 years, in a scheme that began almost two decades ago.

Top Spotters:


Water Vole

Spoon Bill

2. PENTHORPE Norfolk

Home to Springwatch in 2008 and 2009, this East Anglian nature park stretches over 600 acres either side of the River Wensum near Fakenham and focuses its conservation efforts on the breeding of endangered and threatened species and habitat restoration. In 2004 the River Wensum was made a European Special Area Of Conservation to protect the wildlife there. 

Top Spotters

Red Squirrel

Grey Crowned Crane

Eurasian Crane 

3. INSH MARSHES Scottish Highlands

Considered to be one of the most important wetlands in Europe, Insh Marshes is home to lapwings, redshanks and curlews as well as row deer and foxes in what are versatile and varied habitats along a 10 kilometre stretch of the River Spey. The marshes that line the river flood during the winter months, providing a home for swans, geese and waders which can be observed from the hides around the site.

Wildlife to spot:

  • Lapwing
  • Curlew
  • Snipe


This award-winning reserve is owned and run by Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust and is just four miles to the west of the city centre. This eco-friendly centre provides a place for the people of the city to experience the best of British wildlife, right on their doorstep and from small beginnings it now covers 145 hectares of lakes, wetland, grassland and scrub.

Wildlife to spot:

  • Woodpecker
  • Kingfisher
  • Sand Martin

5. INVERSNAID Stirling

On the eastern shores of Loch Lomond, it’s hard to find a more striking nature reserve on the British Isles. The woodland that rises from the shore gives way to moorland, opening up some truly inspiring views. Red deer and pine martens frequent these parts, as do buzzards and black grouse. If you’re lucky you might even catch a glimpse of a twite; a red status finch that is closely related to the linnet.

Wildlife to spot:

  • Black Grouse
  • Wild Goats
  • Wood Warbler

6. SKOMER Pembrokeshire

Supported by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, this small island off the coast of Pembrokeshire is home to an array of life which shelters in its bays, inlets and in the waters surrounding. The island is only open to visitors between 1 April - 30 September and in this period is a popular destination for photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. 

Wildlife to spot:

  • Puffins
  • Seals
  • Bluebells

7. LOCH GARTEN Abernethy

In the vast surroundings of the largest native Caledonian pine forest, there is a buzz of wildlife, from the birds and red squirrels in the trees, to deer in the forest and grouse, bog flora and invertebrates in the highland shrub and bog.

Top Spotters:



Roe Deer

8. DONNA NOOK Lincolnshire

Stretching over 10km of the Lincolnshire Coastline, from Grainsthorpe Havena and Saltfleet, the Donna Nook nature reserve is home to one of Englands biggest grey seal populations. Every winter they choose to give birth to their calves and breed again on the beaches here.

Wildlife to spot:   

  • Grey Seals
  • Whooper Swan
  • Lapland Longspur


The Marshy grassland and ponds of Chapmans Well, is considered one of the best bird watching sites in the country. Home to five species of Owl and many other predatory birds. The natural landscape is maintained by the conservationist with the help of some Exmoor ponies who nibble away at the grasses preventing more dominant species from taking over and allowing wildflower meadows to develop.

Wildlife to spot:

  • Little Owl
  • Exmoor Pony
  • Marsh Harrier

10. WOODWALTON FEN Cambridgeshire

A rare and isolated part of Fenland lying at the most westerly point of the East Anglian fens, Woodwalton was bought by Charles Rothschild in 1910. These days the fenland is home to some very special flora and fauna, supporting 47 endangered species of invertebrates and two extremely rare plants, the Fen Violet and Fen Woodrush.

Wildlife to spot:

  • Chinese Water Deer
  • Fen Woodrush
  • Otter

11. RSPB MINSMERE Suffolk 

The ‘Disneyland’ of bird reserves, because it has so much in terms of habitats, species and facilities including many rarities and ‘super birds’! A family-friendly must.

Wildife to spot:

  • Great bittern
  • Dartford warbler
  • Moths and butterflies


A triumph of conservation, going from nothing to the best urban reserve in Europe in just a few years and accessible to millions. 

Top spotters:

  • Gadwall
  • Norther shoveler
  • Black-necked swan

13. MARTIN DOWN NNR Wiltshire

A fabulous stretch of old England with great botany and butterflies. The best picnic site in the UK, with the chance of spotting Montagu’s harriers.

Wildlife to spot:


A post-industrial gem, this oasis in the tangled wreckage of the ‘manscape’ comes complete with beautiful black-necked grebes and a fabulous team of volunteers. To visit, a booking is required.

Wildlife to spot:

  • Black-necked grebes
  • Starling roosts
  • Butterflies


The winner of our BBC Countryfile Magazine Nature Reserve of the Year 14/15 is vert well deserved. In summer, this gannet-capped island becomes the most exciting birding spectacle in the UK. The Seabird Centre has a video link but a boat trip gives you the essential smell experience, too! 

Wildlife to spot:

  • Gannet
  • Guillemot
  • Puffin

Urban nature reserves to visit

London Wetland Centre is a perfect spot for bird watching in the city/Credit: Getty
London Wetland Centre is a perfect spot for bird watching in the city/Credit: Getty

Living in a city doesn't mean missing out on your daily dose of nature. We take a look at some of our favourite urban areas bursting with greenery and wildlife.


The St Nicholas Fields in York spreads over 24 acres of former rubbish tip, in between a housing estate and an industrial area just a mile from the city centre. Various bird breeds such as brambling, finches, tits, siskins and kingfishers are regularly seen on the site, which became a nature reserve in 2004. It’s also a haven for butterflies, with over 20 species having been spotted, attracted by the wildflower meadow and rough grassland. The kilometre long tree trail guides visitors around the site as they take in sights and sounds of nature.


Bradford Environmental Education Service have created the BEES Urban Nature Reserve on land which they rent from the University of Bradford. The cosy spot has been a nature reserve of some description since 1990. Currently it boasts two ponds and an area of trees and wildflower grassland. In an area historically associated with the Britain’s industrial past, this soothing spot is prime dragonfly and damselfly territory. Teeming with birds and the insects that nourish them, the site is often a favourite to take youngsters on family days out, or school trips.

Sydenham Hill Wood. The wood is a surviving part of Great North Wood (after which a pub in West Norwood is now named).    © Copyright Bill Boaden and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Sydenham Hill Wood. © Copyright Bill Boaden and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The capital, stretching such a broad area, is bound to have some lovely areas of natural beauty despite the dense levels of human inhabitation. The Ripple Nature Reserve in Dagenham is one such example. Once a dumping ground for pulverised fuel ash, this industrial landscape has been reclaimed and turned into a rich mix of scrub, woodland and grassland. Its former industrial state has caused the soil to become alkaline, as opposed to much of London’s acidic land. This means there are many plants growing here that struggle elsewhere in the city, such as southern marsh orchids, grey club rush and wild basil.

Elsewhere, Camley Street Natural Park in King’s Cross provides a surprise little pocket of preserved wilderness next to the railway station. Created from an old coal yard in 1984, the site’s ponds woodland and meadows are home to all sorts of wildlife, from amphibians to birds and insects.

Sydenham Hill Wood in Southwark is a green mass of ancient and recent woodland combined with a Victorian garden. It’s a perfect spot to find woodpeckers, insects, bats and fungi.


The Miley Nature Reserve lies within the Lochee and Beechwood areas of Dundee and has been constructed on what was once an impassable rubbish tip, a mile in length. It is now a thriving habitat for birds and insects, complete with tall herbs, tress, grassland, cycle tracks and footpaths.

ings Meadow Nature reserve Founded on the site of the former Wilford Colliery and Power Station, it includes a number of transplanted species to create diversity. Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   © Copyright Alan Murray-Rust and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Kings Meadow Nature reserve
Founded on the site of the former Wilford Colliery and Power Station, it includes a number of transplanted species to create diversity. © Copyright Alan Murray-Rust and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

On the edge of an industrial estate in Lenton, Nottingham lies the King’s Meadow. This small nature reserves was created in 1992 in order to protect the unusual wildlife of the area, introduced by man thanks to the Wilford Power Station – decommissioned in the 1960s. The site is a veritable hotbed of rare plants and insects, many of which are found nowhere else in the county including the common spotted and southern marsh orchids.


To many of us outside of Northern Ireland, Belfast’s Falls Road is an area that not many would associate with natural beauty and wildlife. However, Bog Meadows is a reserve that offers a tranquil, peaceful space in he heart of this reinvigorated city.

ath in Leigh Woods With a gate marked "Private" as the path / cycle route descends towards Paradise Bottom. Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   © Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Woodland trails for walking and cycling in Leigh Woods, Bristol. © Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Bristol is an increasingly popular place to live. A small city centre with a sprawling residential area, this vibrant conurbation is home to a thriving arts scene and is also spoilt for choice when it comes to great countryside. The Somerset Levels, Mendip Hills, Quantock Hills and the Cotswolds are all a short drive away, but there’s plenty to be found within the city itself too. Leigh Woods and Brandon Hill Nature Park are two of the more are two well-known highlights, but the hidden gem of Coombe Brook Valley is perfect for wild adventures in the heart of the residential city, nestled in the middle of a housing estate in the Fishponds area of town. Visitors will find Oak, sycamore and hazel trees, along with spotted flycatchers, greenfinches, foxes and butterflies.


In the central region of England you’ll find the Centre of the Earth. Birmingham and the Black Country Wildlife Trust’s environmental centre specialises in educating visitors about the environment, sustainable development and wildlife. Situated by the side of the old Birmingham Canal route, the community centre offers learning resources for children and adults, as well as training and inspiration for teachers and community projects.

Deer’s Leap Wood is an evocatively named mix of meadows, ponds, brooks and woodland that can be traced back to the medieval era when the land formed part of the Rotton Park Estate, which is said to take its name from the Anglo Saxon term ‘Rot Ton’, meaning ‘cheerful farm’. Shireland Brook, which flows along the site’s northern boundary, historically formed the county boundary between Staffordshire and Warwickshire. Trees including birch, ash, cherry, oak, field maple, wych elm, hazel, alder, poplar, sycamore and willows can be found in the woodland. Greater Spotted Woodpeckers have been especially keen to make their home amongst them. Newts, moorhens, mallards and herons will often be found in the ponds, which are lined with meadowsweet, water mint, flag iris, and reedmace. 


Manchester’s Moston Fairway developed between 80 and 100 years ago. It once formed part of the Moston Exchange sidings and is now a base-rich marshland. It is unique in the city of Manchester, and rare in the country as a whole, as large marshland areas tend not to occur in urban surroundings. It is an area of special interest and ecological value due to the diversity of plant and animal communities it supports.

The site supports three species of rush and five species of sedge. Three species including White Sedge and Yellow Sedge are uncommon in Greater Manchester. Reed Bunting, Linnet, Kestrel and Snipe have all been seen on the site, which is close to the Manchester to Rochdale railway line. One more for the budding botanists, but still birds and animal life to be found too.


Lurking behind the petrol station at the bottom of Ecclesall Road is the small but perfectly formed Sunnybank Nature Reserve. It’s the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust’s most visited nature reserve, despite its less than salubrious setting. Statues and sculpture of frogs are to be found scattered around the site, which marks the end of a green corridor running through the city from the botanical gardens through Endcliffe Park and Whitely Woods to Derbyshire’s Peak District.

Once part of an industrial site, Sheffield’s Salmon Pastures is one of many areas of land that have been transformed from their original use and become a rural sanctuary in the heart of the urban sprawl. Tucked away, clinging on to the banks of the River Don, surrounded by the industrial estates of Attercliffe, this very small site provides shelter for wildlife, as butterflies warm themselves in the speckled sun filtering through the trees and birds swoop down to catch insects by the river.

 Pond, Cardiff Bay Wetlands Reserve by Richard Sutcliffe
Pond, Cardiff Bay Wetlands Reserve by Richard Sutcliffe

Just a mile and half from the centre of the Welsh Capital, the Howardian Local Nature Reserve is a tranquil oasis of wildflower meadows, ponds and reedbeds filled with orchids and butterflies. There’s even a stream and waterfalls hidden away in the woodland. 25,000 trees and shrubs have been planted to expand the coppices that already existed in the area. It all makes for special habitat covering 32 acres that is home to a magical menagerie of animals include newts, dormice, voles, slow worms, shrew, frogs and foxes.

Created in 2002, the Cardiff Bay Wetlands Reserve, is a massive area along the mouth of the River Taff and Cardiff Bay. Previously saline mudflats were transferred into freshwater marshland and a 400 acre lake. The site is home to many migrating and breeding birds including herons, grebes and kingfishers.

Main image: Puffins on Skomer Island/Credit: Getty

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