5 incredible wildlife encounters in Britain

From badgers, to bottlenose dolphins and basking sharks, Britain is filled with extraordinary creatures!

8 mins

With the help of Bradt Guides new A Summer of British Wildlife we guide you through the best animal experiences in Great Britain. 


Where: Northumberland
Targets: Amble Puffin Festival & roseate tern
Accessibility: 4
Child-friendliness: 5

Puffin (Oliver Smart)
Puffin (Oliver Smart)

Where to go: RSPB Coquet Island ( NU293045 tinyurl.com/RSPBCoquet) lies
offshore from Amble ( NU267047), which is off the A1068 southeast of Alnwick.
Dave Gray operates trips, or phone Amble Tourist
Information Centre (01665 712313) for sailing times. The Amble Puffin Festival runs annually each spring; check website for dates.
Flexibility: Puffins are on Coquet from March to August, roseate terns from May to
July. The festival lasts one to two weeks.
Make it a weekend: Take a boat trip to the Farne Islands for a different type of
seabird experience
Alternative locations: Puffin: Farne Islands, Bempton Cliffs, South
Stack (Anglesey), Sumburgh Head (Shetland) and Skomer (Pembrokeshire). Roseate
tern: nearby Hauxley or Cemlyn Bay (Anglesey).

There is a compelling rationale for placing the puffin centre-stage on the front cover of A Summer of British Wildlife. It is an avian superstar, right here in Britain. Puffins are instantly recognisable and smartly attired: proper pin-ups. With clown-like bill, but wistful eyes, puffins are both comical and endearing – who doesn’t want to mother one? Little wonder that no species has featured more frequently on the front cover of the RSPB members’ magazine. Little wonder that the puffin reached the Top 10 in the 2015 vote for the UK’s national bird. And little wonder that the Northumberland town of Amble dedicates its spring festivities to its most famous resident.

For a week or more each spring, centered on the Whitsun school half-term, this routinely sleepy seaside town awakes – and how! First held in 2013, the rapid success of the ‘Amble Puffin Festival’ has enshrined it as a firm fixture on the county calendar. To see puffins breeding on Coquet Island, a RSPB reserve offshore, take a Puffin Cruise. Boat trips operate once or twice daily, with timings decreed by tide times. Landing on the island is not permitted, so boats bob gently beside Coquet’s rocky shoreline, enabling fine views. Several thousand puffin pairs breed here, making Coquet England’s second-largest colony.

This is exciting stuff, but poignant too. At a European level, the Puffin – formally the Atlantic Puffin – is officially endangered. This means that it is at considerable risk of extinction within our lifetimes. Sobering stuff. Coquet protects much else besides puffins. Among several thousand nesting pairs of Sandwich, Arctic and common terns which make a blizzard around the island, filling the air with noise and wings, there are more than 90% of Britain’s roseate terns, which reached 100 pairs in summer 2015. Let’s take time out to reflect on that. Nine in every ten pairs of this graceful, globally threatened seabird breeding in Britain do so on this single island. Coquet is some lump of rock.

Bottlenose dolphins

Where: Highland
Targets: common bottlenose dolphin, harbour seal & long-tailed skua
Accessibility: 4
Child-friendliness: 5

Bottlenose dolphin (Peter Moore)
Bottlenose dolphin (Peter Moore)

Where to go: Chanonry Point lighthouse (NH749557) is 2.5km southeast of Fortrose. Boat trips depart from Cromarty. The Moray Firth dolphin population can also be seen from nearby locations including North Kessock, Burghead and Spey Bay.
Flexibility: Dolphins and seals: year-round but May–September is best. Skuas: May.
Make it a weekend: In an early spring, try for chequered skipper around Fort William (June 4), with a fallback of pine marten and otter.
Alternative locations: Common bottlenose dolphin: Inner Hebrides, Cardigan Bay and Durlston.

With a frantic shimmy, a large fish wriggles itself clear of the sea. Dotted flanks reveal it to be a sea trout – and its airborne leap heralds the arrival of the pinnacle of the Moray Firth foodchain. And there it is! Powering out of the water, muscled sleekness in silver armour, is a common bottlenose dolphin. Then another, and another. For ten glorious minutes the sea surface freeze-frames a confusion of snouts and dorsal fins as a pod of dolphins feasts on salmon and trout that the returning tide is funnelling along a deep-water trench. There are two main ways to enjoy the world’s northernmost bottlenose population. You can join a boat trip from Cromarty to get close views while bobbing in the swell. Alternatively, landlubbers can position themselves at the tip of the pebbly spit kneeling below Chanonry Point lighthouse and look eastwards offshore. If daylight permits, why not dedicate one approach to each of the day’s two high tides?

There may be as many as 200 dolphins inhabiting the Moray Firth and environs, yet researchers from Aberdeen University can recognise individual animals by dint of their uniquely shaped dorsal fin. ‘Jigsaw’ is a mature female with a section missing from her fin; ‘Mischief’ has a slash at the base of his fin. Unique recognition allows the scientists to piece together life histories. Some Moray animals have even been spotted as far south as Yorkshire. Views from Chanonry Point are often very close indeed, and photographers may find themselves toting lenses with shorter focal lengths than they anticipated. The wildlife paparazzi can be rather numerous here, but they fill local coffers to the tune of £4 million each year. As well as dolphins, the transitory abundance of fish attracts other piscivorous mammals. Harbour porpoises are regularly seen, although they are as undemonstrative as the dolphins are exhibitionist. Both grey and harbour seals occur; if you don’t see the latter here, you can often spot them hauled out on roadside rocks flanking nearby Cromarty Firth.

Basking sharks

Where: Argyll & Bute
Targets: basking shark, minke whale, harbour porpoise & white-tailed eagle
Accessibility: 3
Child-friendliness: 3

Basking shark (Shane Wasik)
Basking shark (Shane Wasik)

Where to go: Boat trips to see basking sharks off Coll leave from Tobermory on Mull (charter advised) and Oban in mainland Argyll & Bute. You could probably watch basking sharks from Coll’s shoreline.
Flexibility: May–September for all targets.
Make it a weekend: Some operators offer a two-day trip, which maximises chances of swimming with sharks or visiting another location to swim with harbour and grey seals. Alternatively, overnight on Coll to track down Irish lady’s-tresses, a scarce orchid
Alternative locations: Shark: Lyme Bay, Lundy. Porpoise: Chanonry Point, Dungeness , Penzance, Skye. Eagle: Skye.

You are, to coin a phrase, tooled up. Fins, snorkel, mask: check. Wetsuit and GoPro underwater camera: check. Biggest fish in the sea... check! You perch on the boat’s gunwale. The sea off the Hebridean island of Coll was gurgling this morning, but is calmer now. Hand over mask, you fall gently backwards into the water. The rush of cold slams into you despite the Gulf Stream’s fairest efforts and your neoprene layers. You bob up to the surface, a human cork. Then you peer underwater at the largest creature you have ever swum with. Seen from the air above, a basking shark is simple geometry. An equilateral triangle (the dorsal fin) and an isosceles triangle (the tail fin) are its sole visible components. Seen from within the shark’s own substrate, however, this is a beast. A gentle giant, for sure, filtering tiny plankton from the water – but a behemoth nevertheless. Cruising leisurely a metre below the swell, the basker is indifferent to your presence. Relative to its own five-metre bulk, you are trifling. The width of its gaping mouth exceeds the length of your legs. But then you splash – a schoolboy error – and the shark flicks its isosceles and sinews into the murk. Spluttering with excitement, the icy water forgotten, you surface and pull yourself back into the boat.

The skipper squeezes the throttle and you are away in search of further marine fare. More basking sharks follow, but none stick around long enough for you to join them. Several pods of harbour porpoise arc along. A distant group of short-beaked common dolphin teases you by shifting trajectory towards the boat, before thinking better of it and reverting to course. Then – after shark, after dolphin – whale! A minke rolls a few times, its small, sharp dorsal fin pricking your interest before it submerges and disappears. Minkes plan the dive, then dive the plan. You won’t see it again. Just as you surmise that you must have exhausted wildlife possibilities between Coll and the nearby island of Mull, the Western Isles’ avian star flaps into view. The white-tailed eagle was driven to national extinction in 1918. Thanks to a determined reintroduction programme, the world’s fourth-largest eagle is once again a fixture in Scottish skies. Even better, its presence brings £5 million of tourist spend flooding into Mull’s coffers each year, supporting an extra hundred jobs on the island. Economy and environment working in tandem: another reason to bask in Mull’s glory.

Red squirrels (and butterflies)

Where: Isle of Wight
Targets: Glanville fritillary, small blue, common wall lizard, Dartford warbler & red squirrel
Accessibility: 3
Child-friendliness: 5

Red squirrel (James Lowen)
Red squirrel (James Lowen)

Where to go: Compton Bay is off the A3055, 2km southeast of Freshwater. Park at Compton Chine ( SZ371851) or Shippards Chine ( SZ378840); walk between them. Tennyson Down (car park SZ325856) is 2km southwest of Totland. Ventnor Botanical Gardens is on the A3055 ( SZ547769 www.botanic.co.uk); La Falaise car park is 1.5km east (SZ558773). Park in Alverstone for Alverstone Mead ( SZ580852). South of the bridge, follow the footpath east.
Flexibility: Glanville fritillary: mid-May to end June. Small blue: May–June. Red squirrel: resident. Common wall lizard: March–September. Dartford warbler: resident.
Make it a weekend: Try all three options suggested, or join PTES to explore Briddlesford Woods for hazel dormouse.
Alternative locations: Glanville fritillary: Hutchinson’s Bank (Surrey). Red squirrel: widespread. Dartford warbler: Dunwich Heath, Stoborough Heath, Thursley Common, Ashdown Forest

Of Britain’s eight species of fritillary, amber-coloured butterflies with embroidery for wings, the most special is Glanville fritillary. Granted, it is not the rarest or the most dramatic, but there are dimensions to the Glanville that set it apart. The first is its etymology, and, through that, its history: the butterfly is named after its discoverer, Eleanor Glanville, whose relatives successfully contested her sizeable will on grounds that pursuit of butterflies signalled insanity. The second is the Glanville fritillary’s current distribution, sadly now a smidgeon of its former range. Unless you visit a trio of sites on the English mainland, where Glanvilles have been illicitly released by lepidopterists seeking to play God, you must travel to the Isle of Wight to see this butterfly in Britain.

Even once you have crossed the Solent you don’t simply bump into Glanvilles. These rapid fliers favour warm, sheltered undercliffs carpeted with thrift and common birdsfoot trefoil along the ‘Back of the Wight’, its southern and southeastern coastline. Good locations are Culver Down, Tennyson Down and Compton Bay. Compton’s soft-cliff landslip – the classic site for Glanville – is rich in other critters too. Cliff tiger-beetles scurry across the friable clay on solar-fuelled legs. On the grassy clifftop above, a colony of bee orchids enthrals, whilst hoary stock and wild cabbage add botanical interest. For the remainder of the day, three options stand out. At Tennyson Down, wait respectfully by coastal gorse patches for a Dartford warbler to emerge. Visit Ventnor – either the botanical gardens or La Falaise car park – checking the sheltered, sunny base of low walls for the sun-addicted common wall lizard.

Finally, head deep into Wight’s peaceful interior. Alverstone Mead is famed for particularly confiding red squirrels. For wildlife-watchers who associate this scarce mammal with remote Scottish pine forests, feeding ‘Tufty’ by hand in a southern deciduous woodland feels dreamlike. Wherever you explore Wight, expect to succumb to the island’s unique enchantment. Flowery meadows, sunny villages and a laidback attitude to life impart a sense of an island community living happily in the 1950s. Nowhere else in Britain has such garlic farms, such tomatoes bursting with flavour or such a special fritillary. Here’s to Eleanor Glanville.


Where: Dorset
Targets: badger & fox
Accessibility: 5
Child-friendliness: 5

Badger (James Lowen)
Badger (James Lowen)

Where to go: Old Henley Farm ( ST696043)
is one of several locations countrywide that offer organised badger-watching
. The farm lies off the B3143, 1km south of Buckland Newton in north
Dorset. Booking essential.
Flexibility: Any time February–September works for badger-watching. Fox: resident.
Make it a weekend: Try Durlston and Kimmeridge for moths and marine life.
Alternative locations: The Badger Trust has
compiled a list of commercial and charitable badger-viewing operations.
Venues include College Barn Farm (Oxfordshire), Aigas (Highland), Falls of Clyde
(Lanarkshire), Ipswich, Rutland Water and Wakehurst Place

There can be few more controversial animals in Britain. Persecuted for centuries and stigmatised (culled!) for its unwitting role in perpetuating cattle malady, the badger has many foes. But Brock also has abundant friends; folk who cherish this hefty, monochrome mammal for its doughtiness and cultural resonance. The badger is familiar to us all – yet those who have seen one alive are surprisingly few. But there are three main ways to watch badgers intentionally. You could follow countryside clues – spotting badger walkways or tell-tale bare earth riddled with holes like a Gorgonzola cheese – to discover your ‘own’ sett, near home. Second, seek landowner permission to visit a known sett, closeting yourself into the crook of a trunk in pursuit of concealment and comfort.

Thirdly, pay to view from an established watchpoint over a sett. Landowners across Britain have cottoned on to the income-generating potential of enabling people to view badgers. Dorset’s Old Henley Farm is one such location. Here two spacious hides, each comfortably housing a dozen observers and filled with relaxed seating and carpeted floors, offer luxury badger-watching. Take your seat well before the gloaming deepens. As natural illumination dissipates, so floodlights flick on. Anticipation mounts. A smidgeon of movement! But just a rabbit. It starts and flees. A fox strolls through, indifferent to the pairs of eyes staring at it from behind glass.

Then – a tremor of white, the merest hint of badger. Minutes pass; nothing. Then a strange whickering noise, answered by an abrupt grunt. Adrenalin screams through your body. And is released when a black lump of coal expands into a snout sniffing the air. Having determined the coast to be clear, the badger emerges, incontrovertible and much appreciated. Then another. And another. Within minutes a handful of these grizzled, hunchbacked Old English sheepdogs are snorting up peanuts generously scattered around the viewing area. One badger grooms another. A third animal squats to mark the clan’s territory. A fourth and fifth, this spring’s cubs perhaps, snuffle in tandem. After 20 communal minutes, individuals part – each trundling off into the darkness, intent on a night of gainful foraging. Controversial they may be, but badgers are also stunning, engaging, mesmerising creatures. Never pass up an opportunity to spend a summer evening in their company.

A Summer of British Wildlife by James Lowen is out now. For an exclusive 25% discount, visit www.bradtguides.com and enter the code WANDERLUST at the checkout. Offer valid until 31 August 2016.

Main Image: Fox (James Lowen)

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