The popularity of incredible wildlife documentaries by world-famous conservationists such as Sir David Attenborough means many of us have become familiar with exotic creatures in their natural habitats, or even have been inspired to encounter them for real on far-flung holidays.
But while we may be able to tell a leopard from a cheetah, we are often much less familiar with the wildlife species found right here in the UK. Yes, the offerings are slightly tamer, as our countryside hasn’t been prowled by wolves, bears and lynx for hundreds of years, but the species that remain can impress in numbers, size and behaviour.
One of Britain’s most spectacular wildlife experiences occurs on winter evenings in Norfolk. The county is renowned for its populations of wintering waterfowl, from whooper swans on the Ouse Washes to the Yare Valley’s rare bean geese. But the much more common pink-footed geese steal the show, as about 60 per cent of the world population spend their winters in the UK, and almost a third of them in north Norfolk.
Natural wonders: Showstopping starlings are on the bill at Brighton’s West Pier
The go-to spot here is Holkham National Nature Reserve, whose wetlands welcome a roost that can be 35,000 strong. Numbers peak in midwinter, when a whirling mass of birds fills the sky as they fly in at dusk, honking loudly, to spend the night.
With a supporting cast of 6,000 wigeon and 17,000 lapwing, it’s an abundance of life rarely seen beyond a wildlife documentary.
Stay overnight a few minutes’ walk from the sandy beach of Holkham at The Victoria Inn, owned by the Earl of Leicester, whose family seat is nearby Holkham Hall. Expect delicious local fare with B&B from £150 a night (holkham.co.uk).
Springtime sees a massive shift in bird populations. Swallows arrive from Africa and seabirds return to their colonies after wintering far from land. Britain has some of the world’s biggest seabird cities, home to staggering numbers of razorbills, guillemots, gannets and puffins.
There’s no better place to see puffins than Northumberland’s Farne Islands, where the wildlife encounters are as good as any you’ll see on screen. When the puffins are present – from April to July – it’s possible to observe them at ridiculously close quarters both on water and on land, where they often nest within feet of the footpath.
Get there by boat (from £20pp, farne-islands.com) from the fishing village of Seahouses, where B&B at The Olde Ship Inn, which sits above the harbour, is from £100 a night (seahouses.co.uk).
Sea mammals are a feature in Norfolk, where Blakeney Point hosts colonies of both of the UK’s seal species
Head over to the west coast, where summer is the season of basking sharks – the world’s second-largest fish. Growing to more than 30ft, they may have intimidating dimensions but these benign behemoths eat only plankton.
Their triangular dorsal fins are easily seen when they swim close to shore – a frequent occurrence between May and August at the Isle of Man. Better still, book a sea-facing room at Aalin View in Peel and you might even spy them without getting up. B&B from £95 a night (aalinview.co.uk).
Travel further north to the Hebrides, which ranks among the best places in Europe to see whales and dolphins. Some are year-round residents, others visit for a season and yet others – including blue whales – pass through on occasion.
A puffin takes flight over the Farne Islands
Most commonly encountered are harbour porpoises, bottlenose dolphins and minke whales. Spot them from land at any of the viewpoints on the Hebridean Whale Trail (whaletrail.org), or sail out to seek them with Staffa Tours (from £45, staffatours.com). The best conditions for whale-watching are when the sea is calm between May and September. Base yourself on Mull at the family-run Tobermory Hotel, with B&B from £165 a night (thetobermoryhotel.com).
Sea mammals are also a feature back down in Norfolk, where Blakeney Point hosts colonies of both of the UK’s seal species.
They breed in different seasons, which means seals are present pretty much all year round. Common seals are best seen from June until August, with grey seals taking over the beach from October to January. Boat trips (£15, beansboattrips.co.uk) leave from Morston Quay, affording unforgettably close encounters. Stay nearby at The Globe in the pretty town of Wells-next-the-Sea with B&B from £120 a night (theglobeatwells.co.uk).
As winter rolls back in, birds again take centre stage, and this final wildlife spectacle is a showstopper. Starlings may be unremarkable individually, but when they come together in flocks they are nothing short of magical.
As evening falls, they gather to put on aerial displays before bedtime, wheeling across the darkening sky like a shape-shifting smoke cloud, the birds moving with mesmerising synchronicity.
Ham Wall on the Somerset Levels attracts an impressive murmuration – as such gatherings are known – but more accessible are urban locations such as Belfast’s Albert Bridge. Most scenic of all is the roost that forms on Brighton’s rusted West Pier. Catch the show in comfort from the Hilton Metropole, whose pier-facing rooms offer ringside seats for this spectacle (B&B from £180 a night, hilton.com).