Underrated, overlooked, and fabulous.
If your yearly activities revolve around planning your next foreign escape to sun and sand, you might view growing up in a family without the fancy or finance for holidays abroad, as a disadvantage. Rather than a sun tan from Portugal or Spain, I would return from the school holidays clutching a postcard from Exmoor, a buzzard feather from the heights of Dartmoor, a pebble picked up on a beach in Cornwall, a list of birds seen from a hide in the middle of a shingle spit at Dungerness in Kent. The holidays my parents took us on as a family instilled in me a love of the UK’s wondrously varied landscapes, deep history and fascinating wildlife.
Switch on the nature documentary channel on TV and you’ll easily spend several hours entranced by the world’s majestic and miraculous natural wonders. Blue Planet, Wild Canada, Frozen Planet, Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough, all fabulous productions.
You could be forgiven however, for thinking that all the very best wildlife resides in the far flung exotic locations of the travel agents brochure. Aside from the annual remote-camera-and-nest-box-drama-festival that is Springwatch, rarely do we get to enjoy programs on Wild Britain. From soaring seabird colonies, to the tiny harvest mouse, grey seals pupping on Norfolk beaches, to the garden birds that visit the peanut feeder outside my back door, the UK has some incredible, rare, fascinating, inspiring and stunning wildlife to experience.
A continual conversation with the weather
On one childhood holiday in Wales, I remember being told about the local weather forecast. It went something like; “if you can see that big hill in the distance over there, its likely to rain. If you can’t see it, it’s already raining!”
Of course, the UK is famous for its rain, a little unjustly in my opinion. It is however, an accepted fact that whatever the skies look like when you walk out the door in the morning, that could all change in the space of an hour! The changeable British weather is something that any UK nature watcher has to deal with; I always carry an extra jumper and keep a water proof and change of boots in the car just in case. It is a challenge however that I feel should be embraced whole-heartedly. If you have never been for a walk in the rain, I recommend it. Does that sound a little mad? Trust me. If you are dressed and booted appropriately, walking in ‘bad’ weather brings a whole new perspective and insight into our native landscape and nature. (Author Melissa Harrison has written an excellent collection of works on just this subject. The book is called ‘Rain; Four Walks in English Weather’ and is published by Faber & Faber, 2016. Well worth a read if you can pick up a copy.)
On the days when it is not raining (more often than our country’s reputation would have you suppose) the weather still plays a major role in any experience of nature. Try describing the detail of the moment you first encountered a kingfisher, or climbed a rugged Welsh mountain, or explored your local park on a spring day, without mentioning some element to do with the weather. Tricky isn’t it? The unexpected warmth of the sun on a early spring afternoon, the stillness of the air on a summers evening, the frost that seeps into your fingers on a crisp winter morning birdwatching on the edge of the mudflats…
On My/Your/Our Doorstep
I am very lucky that I not only have a small garden, and an allotment to call my own, but I also live beside a meadow on the edge of woodland, in the heart of the South Downs. However, not everyone lives in the countryside, or wants to. Even in an urban setting you can find nature, whether it is a balcony bird feeder, gulls flocking to feed at landfill sites, a city park, or peregrine falcons nesting on some of our tallest buildings such as cathedrals and hospital rooftops. From blue tits in the nest box outside your kitchen door, to keeping a note in your desk draw of the birds seen from your office window, or spending your weekends exploring one of the UKs 15 National Parks, nature is not only accessible, but everywhere you look. Nature reserves are also becoming increasingly aware of accessibility issues, introducing schemes such as mobility scooter hire, replacement of stiles with gates, and guided walks for those nervous of heading out alone for the first time.
Small but infinitely varied
Although rainforests may be one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, and coral reefs one of the most beautiful, for the size of our small island and its isles, the UK boasts an impressive diversity of wildlife species. This is thanks in part to the wide range of habitats within our landscape. Taking my local area as an example, I live in the heart of the South Downs National Park. If I was to travel just 50 miles north from the south coast, my journey would take me through coastal mudflats and estuary, shingle beaches, urban gardens and parks, mixed deciduous woodland, hazel coppices, beech hangers, yew forest, forestry plantation, pasture and arable farmland, wetlands, chalk downland, lowland heath, mixed hedgerows, chalk streams, and meandering sandy rivers.
The wildlife species we can encounter in the UK are just as varied, from seahorses and basking sharks off our coasts, to wasp spiders, sand lizards and Dartford warblers on our lowland heaths, farmland and woodland birds, garden favourites, and even elusive wild cats, pine martins, and corncrakes in the remoter mountains, forests and islands. Did you know that the UK is home to some 59 species of butterfly, 600 birds, 57 dragon/damselflies… not to mention the marine mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, trees…. there are even over 1100 wildflowers to discover!
And then there are the seasons; a lowland heath in winter is a starkly different place to the same location in high summer! With the transition from summer to winter and back, a whole host of species exchange places, with migrant birds and invertebrates coming here to breed or escape harsher conditions elsewhere.
Varied, accessible, underrated and fabulous; four reasons why I love UK nature watching.
Perhaps for my next holiday I’ll explore the highlands and islands of Scotland in search of red squirrel, pine martin and otter, or I’ll wander East Anglian Broads looking for the only UK population of swallowtail butterflies. I think on Saturday I’ll go for a walk in the woods behind my house, who knows what I might see?