Britain’s best nature reserves for walks and wildlife
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
Autumn is a fantastic time for wildlife watching, a season of spectacle as nature prepares for the colder months ahead. Summer visiting birds depart for warmer climes, replaced by travellers from the far north, fleeing the Arctic winter. For some mammals, thoughts turn to storing food, for others it’s a time of passion. Wherever you are, there are autumn wonders waiting to be discovered.
Here is our expert guide to the best nature reserves to visit in Britain, with contribution from the Wildlife Trust
Rutland Water, Rutland
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. www.rutlandwater.org.uk
Wildlife to spot
Nestled in the beautiful Cambrian Mountains, in the heart of Wales, Radnorshire Wildlife Trust’s Gilfach Nature Reserve is a spectacular landscape as rich in history as it is in wildlife.
A winding path threads through oak woodland and over moorland, blushing pink with heather under the weak autumn sun. Where the track shadows the rushing waters of the River Marteg, scan the rocks for signs of movement. A splash of white against the dark stone could be the gleaming breast of a dipper, bobbing energetically on long, slender legs before plunging into the torrent to feed.
The rocks themselves are worthy of closer inspection, bristling with miniature forests of lichen – 425 species have been found on the reserve! A wooden platform offers a bird’s-eye view of the spectacular waterfalls and, if you’re lucky, the acrobatic finale of one of nature’s greatest migrations.
Each autumn, Atlantic salmon return to the rivers in which they were born, having spent the last five years maturing in the Atlantic Ocean. These fearless fish force their way upstream, hurling themselves over weirs and waterfalls in their determination to reach their spawning grounds. In late October and November, Gilfach’s viewing platform offers the chance of front row seats to this amazing performance. www.rwtwales.org/reserves/gilfach-farm
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. www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/insh-marshes
Wildlife to spot
Fungi can be found all over the UK, from sun-dappled forest floors to pavement cracks and roadside verges, and autumn is the time to discover them. Ulster Wildlife Trust’s Slievenacloy Nature Reserve, in County Antrim, is the perfect place for a foray into the world of fungi.
Lying in a picturesque valley of the Belfast Hills, this grassland paradise is the best site in Northern Ireland for waxcap fungi, with 27 species of these colourful, shiny-capped mushrooms recorded on the reserve. Splashes of colour amongst the grass could reveal crimson, golden, snowy and scarlet waxcaps, or the blushing parasols of pink waxcaps, their frilled caps curling with age until they rise upwards like a wind-ravaged umbrella.
But it is the view that is often the most striking feature of a visit to Slievenacloy. From one viewpoint, you can see five of the six counties of Northern Ireland, as well as the shining expanse of Lough Neagh, the UK’s largest body of freshwater. www.ulsterwildlife.org/reserves/slievenacloy
Gibraltar Point, Lincolnshire
Impressive views are also a feature of Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s Gibraltar Point. A rugged, windswept stretch of the Lincolnshire coastline, the spectacular landscape of this expansive reserve is rivalled only by the scale and variety of birds that can be seen here during spring and autumn migration.
October is one of the most exciting months to visit, and there’s no better place to start than the visitor centre’s rooftop viewpoint. With so much sky on show, it’s a great spot to search for birds of prey. The slender shape of a merlin, or the stiff, deliberate wingbeats of a short-eared owl could be glimpsed above the saltmarsh, and rarer visitors include the threatened hen harrier. Look, too, for common seals hauled out along the river, with hundreds more on the sandbanks offshore.
Patches of scrub glisten with colourful berries, a welcome food source for tired migrants. Look for the glossy blue-black of privet, the vibrant orange of sea buckthorn and the rich red of hawthorn, the blackbirds’ favourite. Check any flocks of small birds you find for the rare yellow-browed warbler, a stunning Siberian sprite that is becoming an increasingly common autumn visitor.
Hides look out over freshwater pools, where wildfowl and waders can be seen close-up. Wigeon dabble in the open stretches, dwarfed by the majestic whooper swans that sometimes stop off on their southward migration. A few late dragonflies shimmer along the margins, common darters and migrant hawkers the most likely to be seen.
On a high spring tide, over a hundred thousand wading birds can be seen from Mill Hill viewpoint, roosting on the shores of the Wash. They’re mostly knot, with softly toned feathers of grey and white. As the tide creeps in, the waders take flight in swirling flocks that rival the more famous murmurations of starlings. www.lincstrust.org.uk/get-involved/top-reserves/gibraltar-point
Blacka Moor, Sheffield
Autumn also marks the rutting season for our largest land mammal, the red deer, and you don’t need to venture into the Highlands of Scotland to see strutting stags. In fact, a magnificent moorland on the outskirts of Sheffield could provide you with an early morning experience that will stay with you forever.
As the sun slowly rises above the heather on Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust’s Blacka Moor, a ferocious roar fills the still morning air. A tall shadow emerges from the distant gloom, a jagged skeleton of antlers rising from its head. The stag throws back his head and bellows again, his breath erupting in a cloud. A challenge to every other male on the moor. The males compete for a harem of females, rivals coming to blows when posturing isn’t enough to settle the dispute.
Early mornings offer the best chance of a bellowing stag, but always enjoy the rut from a safe distance and leave dogs at home or on a lead. Pumped full of testosterone, rutting stags can be highly aggressive.
As the day brightens, the landscape fills with colour. Bronzed fronds of bracken spread between trees wreathed in shades of autumn, silver birches gleaming beside still-green pines. Red clusters of rowan berries tempt flocks of winter thrushes, branches alive with the pastel plumages of redwings and fieldfares.
Between the birches, look for the fairytale figures of fly agaric fungi, white-spotted red caps delicately balanced on slender stalks. The archetypal toadstool, these beautiful mushrooms are actually poisonous! Careful searching on Strawberry Lee Pastures could reveal the macabre scarlet caterpillar club fungus, growing from the subterranean remains of a caterpillar or pupa.
With over 2,300 Wildlife Trust nature reserves around the UK, wherever you live there are seasonal wildlife delights to be discovered. Head to our website to start planning your next autumn adventure. www.wildsheffield.com/reserves/blacka-moor
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. www.pensthorpe.com/pensthorpe-conservation-trust
Wildlife to spot
Grey Crowned Crane
Montrose Basin, Angus
As the first cold, autumn winds brush the UK with icy Arctic air, look to the heavens for another great migration. Announcing their arrival with an unrelenting stream of “wink-wink” contact calls, skeins of pink-footed geese pour south through the skies of the UK each autumn, escaping the cold, harsh winter of their breeding grounds in Greenland and Iceland. The incredible sight and sound of thousands of geese flocking together is one of our most unforgettable wildlife experiences.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Montrose Basin in Angus plays host to one of the largest autumn gatherings of pink-footed geese in the UK. Small flocks appear from late September, roosting on the water and feeding in surrounding fields. Numbers swell in October, until tens of thousands of geese can be seen and heard travelling between feeding and roosting grounds – 90,000 have been recorded on a single October day.
Huge flocks of wigeon whistle on the water, while the mudflats are alive with wading birds; thousands of redshanks and oystercatchers stalk the shore, sinking long, bright bills into the mud as they probe for worms. The bubbling calls of curlew echo around the estuary, and flocks of golden plover glimmer in the autumn sun. As the tide creeps in, waders are pushed closer to the Wigeon Hide, affording excellent views of these winter visitors. scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/reserve/montrose-basin
Attenborough Nature Centre, Nottinghamshire
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. www.attenboroughnaturecentre.co.uk
Wildlife to spot
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. www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/inversnaid
Wildlife to spot
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. www.welshwildlife.org/skomer-skokholm/skomer
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. www.lincstrust.org.uk/get-involved/top-reserves/donna-nook
Wildlife to spot
Chapmans Well, Durham
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
Woodwalton Well, 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. www.greatfen.org.uk/visit/places/WoodwaltonFen
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. www.woolstoneyes.co.uk
Wildlife to spot
Bass Rock and the Scottish Seabird Centre, North Berwick
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! seabird.org
Wildlife to spot
Smardale Gill, Cumbria
This magnificent, relatively unknown limestone landscape became a part of the Dales in the 2016 boundary extension. It oozes the character of a time long-gone. Sheep farming keeps the uplands open, tiny villages and hamlets claim the more sheltered locations and wildlife prospers. Wild birds, aquatic denizens and myriad mammals, insects and floral beauties conspire to enhance this natural wonderland, protected, in part, as the Smardale Gill National Nature Reserve.
Sutton Mark, West Midlands
Sutton Park is a miraculous survival – 2,400 acres of wild country just six miles north of the bustling heart of the UK’s Second City.
Holly blue butterfly
Great crested grebes
Bystock Nature Reserve, Devon
Bystock Nature Reserve and its mosaic of lily ponds, heaths and open meadows sits on the doorstep of the Jurassic Coast. Of the 50 reserves managed by Devon Wildlife Trust, it remains a firm favourite among visitors and Devonians alike.
Great spotted woodpeckers
Best urban nature reserves in the UK
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.
London Wetland Centre is a perfect spot for bird watching in the city/Credit: Getty
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.