It’s the sense of anticipation that gives me the biggest thrill, says writer James Fair. Whether I’m back on a familiar Scottish island or the Pembrokeshire coast, or in uncharted waters, I look around and wonder – what will I see?
That’s why I cannot wait for my next wildlife holiday – not for the opportunity to tick a new species or to explore new horizons, but to wallow in expectation and hope. It’s not even “What will I see?”, but “How do I feel?” That’s all that matters.
From spotting otters to kayaking with puffins and catching a glimpse of a minke whale, here is our pick of the UK’s best wildlife watching holidays.
Spot otters, Isle of Mull
“CLUNK!” The sound of our eight-year-old clattering over an upturned kayak surprised my partner and I and caught the attention of the otter that had been swimming just metres away – so close, I’d been counting the whiskers on its face. Our son had a few precious moments to focus on the beast before it duck-dived, furry tail following toothy face into the loch’s dark depths.
While staying on the Ross of Mull for a week, we saw the otter five times. Thanks to the terrible weather, I spent hours gazing out at the loch, hopefully mistaking everything from seals to random waves for everyone’s favourite marine mammal. And, some of the time, I spotted one. At which point, I booted the household outside with as many binoculars as we could muster. It became not just any common-or-garden otter – it was our otter.
Not for nothing has Mull earned a reputation as Britain’s wildlife capital. On Loch na Keal, white-tailed eagles swoop silently to pluck mackerel from the water metres from your boat. On the Sound of Mull, we watched 15 bottlenose dolphins work their way towards Tobermory. We’ve seen grey seals in abundance, and golden eagles mob ravens. Near Loch Frisa, our then-three-year-old was blissfully unaware of almost stepping on an adder. The Isle of Mull – where snakes in the grass and otters in the loch are absolutely free.
• The Old Church, Pennyghael (above)has three bedrooms; from £575 a week. isleofmullcottages.com/cottage/the-old-church
• Mull Charters runs white-tailed eagle trips; £45pp. mullcharters.com
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- Britain’s best winter wildlife spectacles
Bird-spot by bike , Shetland Islands
Pedalling slowly through a summer mist in a remote part of Yell (the island north of Shetland’s Mainland), I became aware of the excited screams of dozens of Arctic terns (pictured). By chance, I had stumbled upon a small breeding colony. That’s Shetland for you – wildlife in droves where you least expect it. On the west side of Mainland, there were 70 or more oystercatchers in a single field and, later, I caught two or three ‘surfacings’ of a minke whale. Once you get a few miles outside Lerwick there’s not much traffic; if you leave the main roads, there’s none. None of the hills are very big but the terrain undulates. So take it easy – the slower you go, the more you’ll see.
• Islesburgh House Hostel, Lerwick, has beds from £17 per night. shetland.gov.uk/islesburgh/Hostel.asp
• North Link Ferries from Aberdeen to Lerwick; adults from £22, bicycles travel free. northlinkferries.co.uk
Kayak with puffins Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire
Watching puffins on Skomer is delightful, and there is something extra special about leaving the land and the crowds behind you and taking to the water with these marine birds. My partner and I spent a day paddling around the island with Martin Leonard of Sea Kayak Guides, watching the vast rafts of puffins, guillemots and razorbills whiling away the hours between fishing trips, while keeping an eye out for porpoises. Departing from Martin’s Haven, the whole adventure – including an hour’s sojourn on Skomer itself – takes 4–5 hours. If you have any energy the following day, walk a circuit of the headland on the coastal path – the section to Marloes Sands, especially, is good for wildflowers, butterflies and kestrels.
• Monk Haven Manor, St Ishmaels has double rooms from £100. monkhaven.co.uk
• Runwayskiln does fabulous food. runwayskiln.co.uk
• Sea Kayak Guides offers wildlife tours from £95 per person per day. seakayakguides.co.uk
Whale watch, North Yorkshire
It’s no exaggeration to say the three hours I spent watching minke whales off the coast of Staithes was one of the best wildlife experiences of my life. The minkes come here in August to feed on herring, and while they may not breach in the style of exuberant humpbacks, to be surrounded by six or seven for several hours is unforgettable. Extend your wildlife adventure with a nightjar safari or some spectacular gannet action at Bempton Cliffs.
British marine life
Learn all about Britain’s dolphins, porpoise and whales – including identification, the best places to see them and boat excursions – with our guide to the UK’s most common cetacean species.
• Endeavour, Staithes, is a restaurant with rooms; doubles from £100. endeavour-restaurant.co.uk
• Yorkshire Coast Nature runs brilliant whale trips; £90 per person. yorkshirecoastnature.co.uk
Spirits of the forest Cairngorms, National Park
You could spend a week in the Cairngorms and not exhaust its wildlife attractions. My absolute must-dos would be the hide on Rothiemurchus Estate, where pine martens are regular visitors, and the osprey centre at RSPB Loch Garten.
A trip up Cairngorm Mountain to see ptarmigan is essential, as is a morning walking through Caledonian Pine Forest in Glenmore for red squirrels, crested tits and crossbills. For a native species now technically extinct in the UK, visit Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, where a small herd roams semi-wild.
Best walks in the Cairngorms National Park
The Cairngorms teems with towering trees, shimmering lochs and busy wildlife. Take a hike through this vast, untamed area of Scotland with our list of the area’s best walks.
• Speyside Wildlife can do tailor-made trips, from £195 for the day (up to seven people). speysidewildlife.co.uk
• Cairngorm Lodge Youth Hostel is in an idyllic forest location. Bed in shared room from £19; private room £45. hostellingscotland.org.uk/hostels/cairngorm-lodge
Spot peregrine falcons, North Norfolk
Peering up at Norwich Cathedral’s 95m-high spire through a spotting scope, my eyes were met by the steely gaze of a peregrine falcon. It was a female keeping an eye on her chick, which was just days from fledging. Throughout the breeding season (March–July), the Hawk and Owl Trust has a tent in the grounds with volunteers on hand to help you spot the birds. Nearby Strumpshaw Fen is a haven for Britain’s largest butterfly, the swallowtail, while down the coast, Havergate Island is home to terns and docile brown hares to complete the weekend.
• Norfolk Mead Hotel has double rooms from £135. norfolkmead.co.uk
• Hawk and Owl Trust, hawkandowltrust.org
Dolphin Days, Cardigan Bay
Does anything make people smile more than a wild dolphin – especially one spotted just half an hour or so outside the bucket-and-spade seaside town of New Quay? A mother and her calf breaking the surface in perfect synchrony is one abiding memory. Take a walk along the coast path for choughs – crows with orange-red legs and bills.
• Fforest has bell tent, crog loft, dome or farmhouse accommodation; from £180 for two nights. coldatnight.co.uk
• Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre Learn to spot marine wildlife; free entry. welshwildlife.org
Butterfly Heaven, the Cotswolds
The distinctive, steep-sided valleys of Rodborough Commons and Minchinhampton are rich in rare butterflies, including Adonis and large blues (pictured). Visit Clattinger Farm in Cotswold Water Park, too, for spectacular orchids, while in April, North Meadow is home to an estimated 1.5 million snake’s head fritillaries. Cycle along quiet country lanes while admiring the Cotswold landscape.
Guide to British butterflies: how to identify and the best places to spot
Britain has around 60 glorious butterfly species. Here is our expert guide on where to see and how to identify British butterfly species.
• Lower Mill Estate has holiday lets with wildlife in mind. habitatescapes.com
• Cotswold Electric Bike Tours offers tours from £80. cotswoldelectricbiketours.co.uk
Hare and harriers, Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
My first ever sighting of England’s rarest bird of prey, the hen harrier (pictured), was the reward for a trip to Bowland’s rugged fells more than a decade ago, plus a short-eared owl, curlews and other waders and remarkably tame brown hares. Far more wildlife here than the comparably sterile Lake District.
• The Inn at Whitewell is an elegant rural inn with 23 bedrooms. Double rooms from £214. innatwhitewell.com
• Cobble Hey Farm is a working farm near Garstang with gardens, café, walking routes and a wetland bird reserve. Adults £5; children £4.50. cobblehey.com
Underwater Adventure, South Dorset
Strap on your mask and snorkel to spot ballan wrasse up to 50cm long, blennies and brown crabs on the Kimmeridge Bay snorkel trail. It might not be the Maldives, but I found it hugely rewarding. You can hire snorkel kit from the Wild Seas Centre. Nearby Arne RSPB Nature Reserve has all six native reptile species, while Charmouth along the coast is the UK’s fossil capital.
• Smedmore House can sleep up to 16 people. From £4,150 for a week. smedmorehouse.com
• Wild Seas Centre is located at Kimmeridge Bay.
100 Great Wildlife Experiences: What to see and Where, by James D Fair is out now (Pen & Sword, £25)