Where wildlife comes first

Countryfile Magazine chooses its favourite National Nature Reserves


They are some of most magical places in the British Isles, areas where you can experience the sights and sounds of our natural world. They are by no means tourist traps, yet neither are they no-go areas for human beings. But one thing is certain; they don’t exist for us, they exist for some of Britain’s most important flora and fauna.
In Great Britain and Northern Ireland there are currently more than 400 National Nature Reserves (NNRs), covering over 230,000 hectares and managed by a whole host of organisations on behalf of all of us. Over the next few pages Julian Rollins, author of Land Marks: Impressions of England’s National Nature Reserves, reveals some of the best of these largely hidden gems.


Beinn Eighe NNR 

Kinlochewe, Ross-shire
The first and possibly the best, Beinn Eighe was named Britain’s first NNR in 1951, and it hasn’t been bettered for the drama of its scenery. The reserve’s main draw is its fragmented ancient pinewood, with Scots pines that are close to four centuries old, but it also takes in beautiful Loch Maree, ridges, scree-strewn slopes and a fistful of rugged peaks.
It’s a place to see typical Highland wildlife such as red deer, golden eagles and – if you’re very lucky – pine martens. Also look out for Scottish crossbills; they strip the seed from cones high in the branches of pines and leave tell-tale debris scattered on the woodland floor.
It is a great place for insects too – not just the all-too-common midge, but also some really impressive species including the golden-ringed dragonfly, which patrols the burns in high summer.
Find out more
OS Explorer map 435
Tel: 01445 760254 LINK 

Holkham NNR 

Stiffkey, Norfolk
The north Norfolk coast is a mecca for birdwatchers, and its beaches, marsh and dunes are nearly all covered by the boundaries of one nature reserve or another. But the 3,035 hectares of Holkham NNR are arguably the jewel in the crown. The reserve is an 11-mile long coastal strip that attracts huge numbers of birds during the winter, including internationally important populations of pink-footed geese and wigeon.
Its list of breeding birds is enough to get even the most casual of birders in a flutter – it includes marsh harriers, avocets and bearded tits. Not that birds are the only thing to go to Holkham for; in spring it’s a good place to hear one of British wildlife’s weirdest sounds, the mating call of the natterjack toad. The rare amphibian is small – just 8cm (3in) long – but has a big voice that sounds not unlike the revving of a motorbike engine.  
Find out more
OS Landranger map 132
Tel 01328 711183 LINK 

The Rhinog NNR

East of Harlech, Gwynedd
Snowdonia National Park is Wales at its best, but better-known parts of the park can be crowded in the summer. That’s one of the beauties of the Rhinog reserve – even in high season you won’t find yourself shuffling up hill in a queue of walkers. The NNR’s 600 hectares take in much of the range of peaks that includes Rhinog Fawr, Rhinog Fach and Y Llethr. It’s a rugged, rocky landscape and that doesn’t make for easy walking; it can be hard to follow paths and in parts you have to place each boot with care.
But the views from the summits are great, and there’s a chance you may see the wild goats that make the hills their home. They’re not that popular with the NNR’s managers (because they eat rare plants), but they do add to the wild spirit of a place that seems a long way away from the modern world.
Find out more
OS Explorer map OL18
Tel: 0845 130 6229 LINK 

Calke Abbey NNR 

Near Melbourne, Derbyshire
It’s a difficult call to pick out one NNR for its veteran trees because there are some classics, but for me Calke Abbey is a favourite that I love to revisit.
Calke Park has been owned by the National Trust since 1985, but still retains some of the private ambience. Countryfile filmed there last year, giving an insider’s view of an area that was closed to the outside world for much of the last century. The 240 hectare park made the NNR big league thanks to its wood pasture, open grazed woodland that is one of Europe’s rarest habitats. Livestock and deer roam free in the park, as they have since at least the Middle Ages.
Many of Calke’s trees are more than 300 years old. At its core it is dominated by more than 200 huge oaks that are real survivors – one is thought to be around 1,200 years old.
Find out more
OS Landranger map 128
Tel: 01332 863822 LINK 

Derbyshire Dales NNR

Near Bakewell, Derbyshire
The scenery of the south of the Peak District National Park, the limestone White Peak, has to rate as a favourite, if only on the measure of footfall that passes over it. The Peak District is the world’s second most visited national park (Mount Fuji in Japan is number one) and it’s the White Peak that most people want to see. It can be seen at its very best in the five neighbouring valleys that make up the NNR – Lathkill, Cressbrook, Monk’s, Long and Hay Dales. All five are beautiful in a subtle, dressed-down sort of way, but that changes in late spring. That’s when Lathkill Dale and its NNR neighbours go technicolour and the normally rather dowdy grey-green Derbyshire hills are blanketed with wildflowers in bloom. In places thousands of early purple orchids are in flower, so many that they create a stunning purple haze. 
Find out more
OS Landranger map 119
Tel: 01629 816640 LINK 

Lindisfarne NNR

Near Bamburgh, Northumberland
The boundary of the Lindisfarne NNR takes in a big chunk of North Sea mudflats and marsh that has Holy Island at its heart. It’s a place that is constantly changing with the tides; it is cut off by sea during much of the day, but at low tide exposed mud becomes a feeding ground for geese, ducks and wading birds.
St Cuthbert lived on Holy Island, and when fellow monks created the Lindisfarne Gospels in his honour after his death in 687, they were thought to have been written with quills from wild geese, while the designs also include likenesses of birds that the artists could have seen from the monastery, such as herons and sea eagles.
Vikings destroyed Cuthbert’s monastery, but it was re-established during the Middle Ages and became a place of pilgrimage.
Find out more
OS Landranger map 75
Tel: 01289 381470 LINK 

The Stiperstones NNR

Shrewsbury, Shropshire
Wild and romantic, the Stiperstones is an unspoilt ridge of hills that captures the imagination. For the poet AE Housman it was at the heart of “those blue remembered hills”, the upland horizon he could see from his Worcestershire home. 
The locals used to reckon that the Prince of Darkness was in residence when clouds obscured the Devil’s Chair, while Shropshire writer Mary Webb wrote: “The Devil’s Chair loomed over them… like a fist flourished in the face. It was dark as purple nightshade.” But for all its dark side the Stiperstones has a more cheerful face too, especially in late summer when the heather is in bloom.
Find out more
OS Landranger map 137
Tel: 01588 660618 LINK 

Axmouth to Lyme Regis Undercliffs NNR

Lyme Regis, Dorset
The Undercliffs NNR is a strange and remarkable place. A walk into the strip of tumbled, wooded coastline that makes up the reserve can seem like an expedition into a very un-British jungle.
What makes the place unusual is that its geology is active. The rocks, laid down in the Cretaceous period, perch shakily on top of older deposits, and because some of it is water-resistant and some is porous, it makes landslides inevitable. The biggest recorded slip happened on Christmas Day 1839, when 6.5 hectares of land shifted, but small slips happen all the time. Rich soil is exposed with each slip and quickly colonised by plants that thrive in the warm, sheltered conditions.
Find out more
OS Landranger map 193
Tel: 01297 442138 LINK 

The Giant’s Causeway NNR

West of Portrush, County Antrim
Northern Ireland’s best-known landmark is a World Heritage Site as well as a  NNR. Although people once believed that a giant’s footsteps created the causeway’s rocks, this spectacular stretch of coast was formed around 60 million years ago, when the lava that became the area’s basalt rocks cooled quickly, probably in contact with water. That resulted in the formation of the distinctive column shapes that give a weirdly uniform look to the rocks.
As well as all the geology there are lots of interesting plants to see, especially in early summer, and birds, including peregrine falcons and choughs. 
Find out more
OS Northern Ireland Discoverer map 5 
Tel: 028 2073 1582 LINK 

Moorhouse Upper Teesdale NNR

Middleton-in-Teesdale, Durham
There’s something wild and muscular about the North Pennine landscape that has had quite an impact on visitors over the years. J.M.W. Turner went to Teesdale twice and sketched both of the dale’s two impressive waterfalls, High Force and Cauldron Snout. Much more recently the poet W.H. Auden spent holidays in the area. He particularly liked the way the landscape had been scarred by lead mining, but was also impressed by the raw power of the falls. The area’s “long oppressed” basalt rocks break out in “wild revolt at Cauldron Snout”, he wrote.
It’s the underlying geology that makes Upper Teesdale so special. Volcanic activity created a dramatic escarpment of red dolerite, and it’s this obstacle that obliges the Tees to perform dramatic acrobatics – twice. The best of the two is the 21m (70ft) tall High Force, which was described by one of Turner’s contemporaries as “one of the finest cataracts in the island”. 
Find out more
OS Landranger map 91
Tel: 01833 622374 LINK 


Have we missed your favourite National Nature Reserve? Email us and let us know.