As the blooms of spring finally emerge, so too does Britain's wildlife…
Ballycastle, Northern Ireland
Did you know that baby puffins are called pufflings? Well, there’s a chance to see hundreds of the adorable critters lining the coast of Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland. During April they return to land to raise their young after months of bobbing at sea, so it’s the perfect time of year to dust off your binoculars.
A visit to the island’s seabird centre—accessible via a 25-minute direct ferry ride from Ballycastle—offers the chance to explore a working lighthouse as well as getting up close with these beautiful birds.
Other rare birds on the island include guillemot, kittiwake, razorbill and fulmar as well as Northern Ireland’s only pair of breeding chough, making it a must-visit for bird lovers.
Says Orlagh McAteer of Rathlin Ballycastle Ferry, “Rathlin is the only inhabited island in Northern Ireland. Just six miles long and one mile wide, it boasts stunning views of Ireland’s north coast, Scotland and beyond.”
With only around 300 of them left in the wild, trying to spot a British wildcat is something of a needle in a haystack mission. For your best chance, head to Scotland, the only part of the UK the notoriously elusive felines now populate, where their preferred habitat involves upland woodland for stealthy night time hunting and hill ground, where they can relax during the day.
These wild kitties look remarkably similar to their tabby cousins, but can be differentiated through their wide, flat heads, bushy blunt tails and distinctly striped coats.
The Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie is home to a small number of wildcats, who can be spotted lounging on tree branches, enjoying the shade of the stone cairns or prowling down the aerial walkways.
Since they were hunted to extinction during the reign of Henry VII, wild beavers have never been spotted in the UK. Until 2005, that is, when an ambitious reintroduction programme at the private Lower Mill Estate in Gloucestershire sought to bring this cocker-spaniel-sized animal home.
With the run of a 550-acre estate, the critters are thriving, and new kits are born each May and June. Their schedules are full, building lodges, felling trees, building networks of mini canals and supporting up to 32 other endangered pond species in the process.
Says Dr Phoebe Carter, chief ecologist at Habitat First Group, “As ecosystem engineers, the beavers have had an amazing impact, enhancing the site for a range of nesting birds, including nightingale and Cetti’s warbler, dragonflies and amphibians—to name a few. Seeing them swimming across the lake at dusk on a summer’s evening is an experience hard to beat.”
To see these busy beavers for yourself, you can book a stay in several comfortable accommodations on the cosy Lower Mill Estate.
Semi-wild ponies have thrived in Dartmoor since prehistoric times, and thanks to the extreme conditions of the moor, they’ve evolved into a particularly hardy breed. The ponies have adapted to eat almost any and everything. Although some irresponsible tourists have discovered their taste for a 99p Flake, they mainly graze on grass, heather and gorse, which they shake before eating to remove sharp prickles.
The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust offers free guided walks for the uninitiated, where they introduce visitors to the unique landscape of the moors, explain the ancient history of the site and offer a little more knowledge about this much-loved creature.
Says Clare Stanton of the DPHT, "The iconic symbol of Dartmoor, these ponies are tough but gentle. Visit our pony centre on open days or by special arrangement; or book a free guided walk to enjoy some of the best scenery, archaeology and moorland landscape in the whole of Dartmoor."
Could there be a more majestic sight than the mighty fork of a whale’s tail crashing into the surf? And where better to spot one for yourself, than Wales, where a sail from St Davids in Pembrokeshire could have you cruising the waves surrounded by dolphins, basking sharks, minke and pilot whales and even orca.
Operating for over 40 years, boat trips with Thousand Islands take visitors on tours of the Ramsey, Skomer and Grassholm islands—home to some of the strongest currents in Britain—where they can bear witness to all manner of marine life.
Says owner Cindy Pearce, “During Thousand Islands trips we see the spectacular Grassholm Island Gannet colony, puffins and Atlantic grey seals hauled out on the rocks. Pods of common dolphins—often with calves—playing around the boat and the beautiful Rissos dolphins. For the lucky ones a magnificent whale, orca or basking shark. No two trips are ever the same.”
Part of the Blakeney National Nature Reserve, Blakeney Point is undoubtedly the best seal-watching spot in Britain. 2019 has been a record-breaking year for their grey seals, with 3,012 fluffy pups born over the winter. And seal-lovers will be pleased to hear that the Norfolk spot boasts an impressive infant survival rate, with the vast majority of the pups making it to adulthood.
Boat cruises are the best way to see these majestic silver seals, taking visitors up close to them without disturbing their habitat. Undoubtedly the most sought-after trips are with the National Trust, where visitors land on the point and enjoy a tour with a knowledgeable watcher, rather than observing from the water alone.
Remember to look to the waves as well as the shores during your tour, where you’ll see the sweet faces of seals surfacing between enjoying a dip in the water and hunting for food.
The most picture-perfect way to spot bats is undoubtedly punting down the river Cam by moonlight in one of Scudamore’s Bat Safari tours. As the boat drifts into the gathering dusk, expert guides hold their torches and bat detectors aloft, searching for the familiar flapping of wings, buzzing and squeaks.
Each tour donates 50 per cent of sales to the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust, working to protect the habitats of these often misunderstood mammals.
Say the Scudmore team, “Grab this chance to see our fantastic local bat population as they emerge from hibernation in May until their return to a snug hideout for winter. The chauffeured tours are led by knowledgeable Wildlife Trust bat experts and they'll make sure you get the most from your experience. You'll identify exactly which species of bat are flying close to your punt and find out about our amazing local species.” Tickets are on sale from mid-April.