Best wildlife to spot in Northumberland
Northumberland’s landscape is home to a rich and diverse range of wildlife, and winter is one of the best (and in some cases the only) times of year to see it. Its forests provide one of the last strongholds of Britain’s native red squirrel population, otters still live alongside the clear streams and burns, and roe deer and feral goats wander the rugged hills. You can see minke whales, dolphins and grey seals off the Northumberland coast – even a lone humpback whale has been spotted in these waters – while salmon and sea trout swim up the rivers to spawn, and some of its shallow lakes are home to Britain’s only native species of freshwater crayfish. There is a huge variety of birdlife, from raptors to waterfowl and waders: some depart with the onset of winter for warmer climes, while others remain through the year.
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One of Northumberland’s most distinctive landscape features is the Whin Sill. Stretching across the north of England from east to west, and fortified by Emperor Hadrian – or at least 80 Roman miles of it – in AD 122, this rocky furrow was formed by intrusions of igneous rock some 295 million years ago. Scattered about it are a series of shallow lakes, while to the north-east lie the Cheviots and the long, craggy ridge of fell sandstone that is Simonside, both in Northumberland National Park. Areas of marshland and blanket bog carpet the landscape, with wide open heather moorland and vast forestry reserves. Further to the east, the coast’s rolling sand dunes and broad tidal flats are home to enormous flocks of wading birds. A series of islands lie just offshore: Holy Island, site of Lindisfarne Priory, and the Farne Islands, where St Cuthbert spent his final years as a hermit. These are a continuation of the Whin Sill, which splinters off the coast into the wild grey North Sea.
A riot of colour during the late autumn, winter sees this landscape dusted with snow that, quite apart from looking picturesque, also makes it easier to spot animal tracks. During winter, the county becomes a temporary home to numerous species of birds migrating from Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard and Scandinavia. Some stop briefly before continuing their migration; others remain for the winter before returning north to their frozen breeding grounds.
Winter wetlands to visit
The loughs (pronounced ‘luffs’) – shallow freshwater lakes and wetland around Hadrian’s Wall – provide a temporary refuge to many of these winter visitors. Greenlee Lough, at the heart of Greenlee National Nature Reserve, is one of the best places to see birdlife. The whooper swan (distinguished from the mute swan by its longer, mainly yellow bill with a black tip) is a winter migrant, sometimes from as early as late October, along with greylag and other geese, wigeon, goldeneye and tufted ducks. A boardwalk protects surrounding marshland, which contains plant species such as sphagnum mosses and bog asphodel, and there is a hide on the northern shore. Slightly to the east and south of Greenlee, respectively, are Bromlee Lough and the appropriately named Crag Lough, beneath the north- facing cliffs of the Whin Sill. All have been designated European Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Further to the southeast is Grindon Lough, best viewed from the road with the aid of a good spotting scope.
These seasonal migrants arrive on the north Northumberland coast, in particular on the enormous tidal area south of Holy Island, Fenham Flats – which forms part of Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve – and Budle Bay. They can be seen in their thousands, from great skeins of shelduck flying overhead to huge flocks of grey plover grazing on the tidal flats. Fenham Flats is the winter home to six internationally important species of wildfowl and wader. The pale-bellied brent goose, which arrives from its breeding grounds in the Svalbard archipelago and for whom this is the only regular wintering site in Britain, is joined by pink-footed and greylag geese, wigeon, grey plover and bar-tailed godwits. There is a two-storey hide at Fenham Flats, with views of the whole sweep of coastline from the Lindisfarne Causeway and Holy Island in the north to Guile Point.
Rare wildlife sightings
Though the Farne Islands are well known for the thousands of breeding puffins that inhabit them in summer, they are also home to one of the most important grey seal colonies in Europe, and their pups (born from late October) can be seen here during winter months. Boat trips leave from Seahouses, sailing around the islands to view the colonies from several vantage points.
Inland, the heather moorland on Simonside in Northumberland National Park is as good a place as any to see red grouse throughout the winter, and you may spot the much scarcer black grouse on the Cheviots. Simonside’s heather moorland has earned it the status of yet another SAC and SSSI and, to protect it from erosion, flagstones (taken from the floors of old mills) have been laid along its main hiking trails. Walking up here, don’t be too surprised to find a lone spruce with Christmas decorations – someone dresses it up every year, though no one seems to quite know who. Another rare species that you might be lucky enough to see on open areas of moorland is the hen harrier.
To the west of Northumberland National Park, deep in Kielder Forest, lies Kielder Water: the largest manmade reservoir in Europe. The ospreys for which Kielder is famous are long gone by winter; as compensation so are the hordes of voracious mosquitoes. Surrounding forest is a haven for red squirrels – over half of England’s red squirrel population lives here – and they are active throughout winter. There’s a squirrel hide at Leaplish; your best chance of seeing one is at the crack of dawn.
There are numerous other places where you can spot wildlife, including smaller and lesser-known nature reserves such as Cresswell Pond, an SSSI just inland of the extensive dune systems of Druridge Bay. This was home to a lone glossy ibis for some weeks at the end of 2009, albeit frequently harangued by the local grey herons, and there’s a good chance of seeing otters from the hide. Even the fields adjacent to the A1 are reckoned a good place to spot roe deer.
You can increase your chances of seeing winter wildlife considerably by joining an organised tour, such as those offered by Northern Experience Wildlife Tours, which give you the benefit of expert local knowledge and some very sharp eyes. “Look, over there”, says Martin Kitching of Northern Experience, pointing at something I can’t see until I borrow his spotting scope, “shelduck”.
This magical landscape is scattered with the remnants of a fascinating and remarkably long human history. Neolithic rock art is found in the form of cup and ring marks (look at the Lordenshaws car park near Simonside), while Bronze Age tumuli and hill forts abound (the largest of these is at Yeavering Bell, on the edge of the Cheviots). Britain’s Roman remains don’t get more vivid than Hadrian’s Wall, while the Anglo-Saxon monastery at Lindisfarne, founded in the seventh century, was responsible for producing one of Britain’s most celebrated medieval manuscripts, the Lindisfarne Gospels. There are also the numerous and very fine castles with which Northumberland is often identified, including Alnwick, Warkworth, Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh, perched photogenically on a crag above the sea. Many of the county’s inns are connected with the cattle-droving trade of the 17th-19th centuries, while there are a number of lonely, and quite well-preserved, lime kilns among its hills and valleys, remnants of a lost industrial past.
The Otterburn Ranges were the site of an extensive system of practice trenches for the First World War. Today, viewed from the air, they have the appearance of a strangely enigmatic geoglyph. Equally enigmatic is why, in stark contrast to the nearby Lake District, there are comparatively few visitors – though this must also be counted as one of the area’s great charms. You can stride into the Northumberland landscape and meet very few people indeed, Hadrian’s Wall and Holy Island aside. Following the wooden boardwalk down to Greenlee Lough one grey morning, surrounded by reed beds, I found I had the place entirely to myself – and spotted four whooper swans out across the water.
Best places to stay in Northumberland
Tosson Tower Farm B&B, Great Tosson, Rothbury
This is a lovely five-star B&B in a rambling old ivy-clad stone farmhouse, about two miles from Rothbury and just within the National Park boundary. Beautifully kept, warm and welcoming, it has spotless bathrooms and a truly stellar breakfast, served in a light-flooded conservatory with views out across Coquetvale towards the Cheviots. As well as offering first-rate B&B, there are three self-catering cottages available. The farmhouse was originally an old drovers inn (The Royal George), which closed at the end of the 19th century, and is just across the road from the remains of Tosson Tower (built in the 14th century, at which time Great Tosson was a larger settlement than Rothbury). Within easy walking distance of Simonside and only a short drive away from the loughs around Hadrian’s Wall, the coast and Holy Island. tossontowerfarm.com