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UK Wildlife Destinations

Whole books could be written on topics like these but here are just a few suggestions to get you started on some easy but enjoyable outings. None of these locations are arduous and at many you can even buy coffee or ice-cream!  Some basic binoculars and the odd identification guide might be useful but are definitely not obligatory - these are not the haunts of nerdy birders.  If you are thinking of buying some gear many 'showcase' reserves have a small stock field guides and optics, often you can try them out in 'field conditions' too. All photos by Neill / Dilys King.

New Forest, Hants:  Try some short walks round the pools in early to mid summer to see dragonflies and summer nesting birds plus a few young waterfowl here and there, even Snipe if you're lucky.  The large pool at the road junction on the B3056 just South East of the Station is an excellent place to start with a pleasant circular walk that we usually do anti-clockwise.  You can even start and finish with an ice cream from the seller in the car park.  There are of course many other walks and cycle tracks in the Forest taking in fine trees, vistas, birdlife, deer and the famous ponies.  There are several good campsites run by Forest Holidays (Forestry Commission) with the ones at Matley Wood (no toilets), Aldridge Hill and Denny Wood offering a more informal experience; I think all the sites have walks going off directly into the forest.
Formby Point, Lancs:  Owned by the National Trust this is a perfectly normal access to the coast and car park but the speciality is Red Squirrels.  The pines just inside the entrance can be alive with them and many become quite tame as the summer progresses, some will take nuts out of your hand.  There is a parking fee for non-members and they'll sell you squirrel food too but we try to take monkey nuts and hazel nuts with us, the squirrels really do like those!  Short walks through the woods with both nuts and children can be very entertaining.  There are picnic tables near the road and often an ice-cream van too but do watch small children near the cars.  The squirrels are there all year but are less active in the colder months while mating chases take place from late winter through to summer.  Natural Food is often in short supply in July but you'll find the Formby squirrels totally satiated come every Sunday afternoon in fair weather for visitors!  A note for photographers - take plenty of film or memory and watch out for red-eye! 
Martin Mere, Lancs / Slimbridge, Glos:  Both are Wildfowl and Wetland Trust Reserves (WWT) with captive collections as well as wild birds.  Pretty dismal at peak summer holiday time these reserves come alive in winter when thousands of migrating duck, geese and swans come to the UK to escape the severe weather to the North.  They are also great places to visit in spring when chicks seem to be everywhere.  There is an admission charge for non-members but there's also a cafe, things to do for younger children and all-weather paths.  There's a Caravan Club CL just down the road from Martin Mere (but it's not very good for motorhomes in wet weather) and there's a campsite near Slimbridge too, near the canal but we've never stayed there.  The whole of the coast near Martin Mere from Formby just below Southport right up to Grange over Sands is excellent for birds and peppered with top notch reserves. 
Bradgate Park, Leics:  Often very busy with dog walkers and joggers but an early morning visit in Autumn - mid October - is favourite if you want to see the deer.  Red stags at rutting time are really quite impressive beasts and the park offers some semi-natural habitat in which to see and photograph them.  A caution though, don't ever get too close to rutting Deer, they are dangerous close up but not overtly aggressive otherwise; they'll leave you well alone if you don't crowd them.  Admission is free, we often park on the West side but there are several pleasant walks all round the park and both a folly and a memorial as well as the deer.
Titchwell, Norfolk:  An RSPB reserve on the North Norfolk coast with a public footpath running through the reserve from the road to the coast. There's a parking charge for non-members but otherwise it's free.  The pools attract wintering wildfowl and migrating waders or shore birds as the Americans call them.  The North Norfolk coast attracts all manner of strange migrants so almost anything can turn up at any time.  In summer harriers hunt low over the marsh and in late evening barn owls might be seen taking over from them on the night shift.  There are also a few resident oddities all along this coast from Hunstanton to Cromer but Blakeney and Cley are favourite places for a walk with binoculars.  Cley reserve is owned by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and there is a non-member admission fee to their reserve - just check in at the centre above the car park just to the east of the village.  If you do the winter walk past Arnold's marsh and then along the Shingle bank be sure to stop for warming soup at the shack, the food is much better than the architecture!  Further along the coast Salthouse Heath is a good spot for Nightingale and Nightjar - a wonderful after dark experience on a warm early May evening.  Campsites are not too obvious but there are a number of CS & CL sites along the coastal strip and a very pleasant site called Old Brick Kilns north-east of Fakenham at Barney - not far from Thursford, home of a mighty collection of steam engines, mechanical organs and a wurlitzer.
The Farne Islands, Northumberland:  A little adventure for the seafarers amongst you.  The Farne Islands are National Trust owned and home to thousands of breeding seabirds from May to mid July.  Boats go from Seahouses on 'short' or 'all day' trips neither of which are very lengthy.  We've always favoured Billy Shiel's operation as experienced and committed.  There's a tour round several islands with landing on Inner Farne and sometimes on Staple too - usually on the 'all day' trips where an island transfer takes place at lunch time.  When disembarking non-members are charged an NT landing fee after which you make your way to St Cuthbert's Chapel by running the gauntlet of breeding terns defending their nests by dive bombing you.  Although access is restricted the nesting seabirds are very close - as is the smell!  The Bass Rock further up the coast at North Berwick is a special Gannet Experience either on shore by video or out there on the rock with 30,000 pairs of them!  For visits to both the Farnes and the Bass do wear old clothes and stout footwear and take water & windproof clothing just in case.  There are no real facilities on the islands so go prepared.
Exe Estuary, Devon:  Devon as a county is still very rich in wildlife and the Exe Estuary is an exceptional place.  Like all estuaries timing is critical since most activity takes place in the couple of hours before and after high tide. The whole ecosystem is interesting and we've taken winter boat trips from Exmouth Quay, watched kingfishers from Exton Station, visited the reserve at Exminster Marshes, walked from Powderham along the sea wall and trudged along the beach to Dawlish Warren.  All were wonderful in their own way but some really stand out like the walk to The Turf.  Parking near Powderham Church and walking north along the side of the estuary on a rising tide is always special.  The tide drives the estuary birds ever closer to the shoreline and good views of Godwit, Dunlin and Curlew are regular with sightings of less common birds like Little Egret not uncommon.  As the tide gets higher still, small flocks of these shore birds wheel around looking for roosting places while the local sailing club takes advantage of the tide.  If you time it right, by the time the relative quiet of high tide arrives you're at The Turf PH where you can indulge in crisps and ale or coffee and biscuits or a bar snack of some kind.  Suitably replenished you can walk back on the falling tide or even take a diverting ferry over to Topsham and back, when you might see a seal or perhaps a wintering Avocet.  No wonder we keep going back!  There are numerous campsites all around the estuary but we tend to prefer the quieter ones grouped around Woodbury. 
Donna Nook, North Somercotes, Lincs:  Now this is a novel place, a combination of seal breeding ground and an RAF bombing range!  Bizarrely the range actually protects the seals from other disturbance. Note that the Grey (Atlantic) Seal pupping season at Donna Nook is only from mid-November through December.  A lane leads from North Somercotes down to the car park right next to the sand dunes and beach.  Park and take the very short walk through the dunes and turn right along the dune side of the fence to the warden's hut at the end.  He will tell you all about it and you'll most probably see many seals and pups along the way.  During the week there is no admission to the main beach because the RAF use it as an approach for low level bombing runs with live 'flashes'.  You can still turn up to look at the seals that come right up into the dunes but you'll find yourself winking at passing pilots and checking on their accuracy too!  All this is quite exciting or horrifying depending on your perspective!  At weekends the bombing stops and you can walk right out across the sandflats to a sandbar about a mile or so out where the seals haul out - a wonderfully wild spot.  I must emphasize that you need to organise this properly, you must know the tide times, set out as soon as the tide has fallen to give yourself time to walk out to see and photograph the seals and walk back again, wear sensible warm dry clothes and wellies, start back in good time before the rising tide and use the man-made landmarks to guide you.  I suggest you talk to a warden the day before to get the latest local advice.  If this doesn't sound up your street stick to the dunes, that's where the most pups are born in any case.  There's a CS/CL in North Somercotes with camping away from the road near a fishing pool.
Gigrin Farm, Rhayader, Powys:  The home of the Powell family and I believe of Kite Country too.  Every day at 2 pm in winter (GMT) and 3 pm in summer (BST) the farmer puts out beef scraps and bones - a tonne a week - for the birds.  They come for miles across mid-Wales for this feast, first the corvids and a few Buzzards and then the marauding acrobatic Red Kites who prefer to steal rather than scavenge!  There are several substantial hides that get you really quite close to these impressive birds, plus a small informal gift shop with coffee, bird food and the like.  On peak weekends there might be 200+ visitors and maybe a 100+ Kites.  Peak time for the Kites is winter - early winter for the highest numbers which are then mostly juveniles.  A frost or light covering of snow is wonderful for photography because it lights up the underside of the birds.  Many of the birds continue to feed on and off for a couple of hours and these later visits can be best for photography.  Be prepared to waste a lot of film!!  You can B&B and camp on the farm and there is splendid walk up the hill overlooking Rhayader and the surrounding hills - but not during the afternoon Kite feeding since people on the hill put them off.
Devon Badger Watch:  A rare opportunity to watch wild badgers as they go about their nightly lives. From a ground level hide in the woods you can watch up to a dozen badgers above and below ground and you might even get a glimpse of a Tawny Owl too. Open Mon - Sat April to October but places must be pre-booked. As well as the usual watch nights with commentary there are also special photographers' and children's sessions. Unsuitable for small children under 7 years or just plain fidgets!  www.devonbadgerwatch.co.uk  Motorcaravanners please note that the standard directions include a 3t weight limited bridge - so remember to ask for directions for heavy vehicles!
Galloway Coast:  One of our favourite winter trips especially between Christmas and New Year. There are lots of attractions here covering wildlife, walking, mountain biking, history, food, TV, allsorts in fact. We go mostly for the winter birding, bracing walks plus some excellent food and drink!  Some of our favourites include: Caerlaverock WWT reserve with winter wildfowl, swans and just thousands of geese plus maybe a hunting barn owl - not to mention the excellent cafe.  Nearby Caerlaverock castle and the Burns trail in Dumfries. The Galloway Smokehouse at Carsluith and Wigtown and the bay a major nature Reserve in itself. The Galloway Forest Park, the '2000 Acres of Sky' location at Port Logan, Loch Ryan by Stranraer for some easy roadside birding.  The Ken-Dee RSPB reserve plus the Kite feeding station nearby at Laurieston and then of course the extensive coastal bird-watching and occasional sunset wild camping all along the coast from Powfoot to the Mull of Galloway - Scotland's most southerly point.
Coming soon:  Wicken Fen, Cambs:  Paxton Pits, Hunts: 

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