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As we welcome a new season, the red, orange and yellow leaves on footpaths framed by towering birch and moss-covered trees, some thousands of years old, make for enchanting walks. The country’s woodlands and wetlands, moorlands and marshes, are home to magnificent wildlife that live off the waters and farmland and swoop in the skies above. Here are 10 of the best nature reserves for seeing wildlife. Check ahead as some might require reservations and only allow visitors in time slots.
Donna Nook, Lincolnshire
From October to December, furry grey seals give birth to pups by the sand dunes in Donna Nook, a wonderful spectacle best observed from the foot of the dunes, from a distance. Several routes pass by the dunes, including a three-hour walk from Horse Shoe Point in Grimsby. Stop by Axe and Cleaver for a baguette or panini. Or, for a greater workout, start in Cleethorpe, grab some salmon fishcakes from the Folk Kitchen and Deli, then walk for more than five hours by the coast to Donna Nook.
Loch of the Lowes, Perth and Kinross
The Eurasian beaver was hunted to extinction but re-introduced to this habitat in Scotland in recent decades. While the prickly round creatures are spotted in the coniferous forests of this nature reserve from the spring until September, the area teems with other wildlife such as small red squirrels that can be seen year-round. The main walk is the Loch of the Lowes Path, but there’s also the Birnam Riverside Path which follows the River Tay and the Inchewan Path that starts near Beatrix Potter Garden. Have a bite at Dunkeld, perhaps a burger at the Perth Arms or haggis sausage roll from the Country Bakery.
Castle Woods, Carmarthenshire
Fuel up on some Welsh mussels and a cheese board at the Cawdor before heading to Castle Woods, a beguiling woodland forest of ancient moss-covered trees that form arches over wildflower-littered paths. The Wild about Woods circular trail is an easy walk that takes about an hour to complete, as will the walk that starts at Carreg Cannen castle. The reserve is home to the beautiful spotted fallow deer which can be seen grazing in pastures.
Chobham Common, Surrey
At almost 600 hectares, this is the largest nature reserve in south-east England and it’s also home to more than 300 species of wildflowers, carnivorous plants, many sunbathing lizards of all colours and sizes, as well as venomous adders. There are several stone paths to follow, including a 5.3 km circular walk which begins at the car park on Staple Hill and cuts through woodlands. Hungry? Try the halibut or fish of the day at Stovell’s or have some pub food at the White Hart, which is in a building from the 1500s.
Blakeney National Nature Reserve
Blakeney boasts England’s largest grey seal colony and though the best way to see them is to book a ferry that departs from Morston Quay, it might be possible to spot a few while walking, too. The coastal wildlife walk starts from the car park at Cley Beach and stays along the coast while the circular loop from Blakeney Quay navigates through freshwater and saltwater marshes. End the walk with a spectacular seven-course dinner at Morston Hall. The restaurant has a daily-changing menu that offers anything from sea bass to suckling pig.
Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire
The sunbathing seals and herds of grazing brown koniks and ponies are the star attractions in Wicken Fen, and they can all be spotted from the various walking trails emanating from the visitor centre. Wicken Fen Adventurers Trail snakes through wet grassland and reed beds, and for a more relaxing walk, head on the grass-fringed boardwalk trail. Reward yourself with a pan-roasted monkfish or slow-cooked beef brisket at the White Pheasant.
Sandscale Haws, Cumbria
Enjoy a huge seafood platter or a smoked meat platter at the Barrow Arms Restaurant and Bar before traversing the wetlands and sand dunes of Sandscale Haws. Six out of seven of the UK’s amphibians live in the area, among them the rare natterjack toad, distinguishable by its yellow stripe on the back, and whose croaks can be heard from more than 3 km away during mating season in the spring. There’s a 10 km circular walk around the reserve that’s a mix of coast, farms and sand dunes – just be careful not to trip over any frogs.
Elmley National Nature Reserve
It’s luxury living in the family-owned Elmley in Minster on Sea, Isle of Sheppey, just an hour’s drive from London. Elmley is also the only nature reserve in the UK that allows overnight stays and guests can choose among cottages and farmhouses, each tastefully renovated with spacious rooms and breakfast in bed. A circular route brings you to several different marshes and the River Stour. Look up to the sky and observe the birds of prey circling or redshanks and oystercatchers near the water. Before the sun goes down, retire to your room and order a beef pie with potatoes and veggies brought up in a basket.
Rutland Water, Rutland
Rutland Water boasts 393 acres of protected habitat, a vast majority of which is wetlands with lagoons that are inhabited by breeding ospreys, thanks to the efforts of the Rutland Osprey Project which brought the magnificent bird of prey back from extinction. The large bird has a wingspan of 1.5 metres and swoops in the water to adeptly catch fish with their feet – hurry to see them before they migrate to Africa in the winter. The main walk is a gruelling 23 km circuit and there are shorter routes such as the 8 km Hambleton Peninsula circuit. Order some mussels, scallop and cod at Hitchen’s Barn after a successful trek.
Blacka Moor, Sheffield
The giant red stags with their upturned antlers are hard to miss in the fairy-tale moorland with bracken-covered paths framed by tall birch trees. For a leisurely walk, head from the moor to Strawberry Lee plantation, then continue to the Dore Grill for sea bass and apple pie. Another option is the Blacka Moor loop with a descent into Devil’s Elbow which passes by apple and oak trees. Should time permit, celebrate the achievement with a John Dory or lamb at Rafters Restaurant.
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