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The spring sees Britain burst awake from its winter slumber, welcoming new animal arrivals and the return of thousands of migratory birds. If you want to be surrounded by the sounds of birdsong and lambs bleating, get hands-on with farm animals or spy some of the world’s rarest species, here’s where to experience the magic of Britain’s animal world.
Where? North York Moors National Park, North Yorkshire
With its sweeping hills, heather moorlands and rich woodland, the North York Moors National Park comes alive in early spring. From spying badgers as they first emerge from their setts in February to listening out for the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker, the park is a hive of activity. By March, the meadows and grasses are full of hares ‘sparring’, an exciting show of courting behaviour, while curlews and lapwings are among the elegant wading birds to return to the high moors to breed. Look out for pairs of turtle doves on the park’s southern fringes from April, with the Sutton Bank National Park Centre a great spot for spying the ‘bird of love’. This Nature Calendar details where you can spot the creatures in the North York Moors National Park throughout the year. Around 15km along the coast to the south, more than half a million seabirds flock to the chalk cliffs of the Bempton Cliffs Nature Reserve between March and October, with the site home to England’s only mainland gannet breeding colony. This region is also renowned for its puffins - you’ll be able to spot their distinctive colours at the Flamborough Cliffs Nature Reserve.
Where? Amble, Northumberland
A celebration of all things puffin-related, the annual Amble Puffin Festival from 23-24 May takes its inspiration from the 20,000 strong colony of puffins that inhabit the nearby Coquet Island, an offshore RSPB reserve. While the island itself is protected, you can embark on a Puffin Cruise to see newly hatched pufflings up close. Alongside bird watching and guided nature walks, the festival is designed to appeal to those of all ages and includes a craft fair, live music and an array of other activities at locations throughout Amble.
Where? Brecon Beacons, Wales
What better way to explore the majestic surroundings of the Brecon Beacons this spring than accompanied by miniature donkeys? Join sweet miniatures Maverick, Goose, Bertie and Betty for a hillside picnic and enjoy sweeping views of Pen y Fan, the highest peak in the national park. Run by Good Day Out, there’s also an opportunity for you to play games and negotiate obstacles with the donkeys in a schooling area, while learning about how they respond to body language and voice commands. Or embark on a piggy walk and ‘Pig-Nic’ with Kunekune pigs Holly, Hazel and Willow. During the warmer months the route passes the Senni River, meaning visitors can paddle with the pigs before venturing back for tea and cream cakes. Maybe you’d like to try your hand at commanding a traditional Welsh Border Collie to move sheep around a field while learning more about life on a working farm? With expert help from a trainer who competes at international sheep dog trials, you can master the commands and hand signals and discover just how easy – or hard – it can be!
Where? Isle of Mull, Scotland
See the magnificent golden eagle in flight in the western parts of the Scottish Highlands from late April, and if you’re on the Isle of Mull you may also spot Britain’s largest bird of prey, the rare white-tailed eagle. Successfully reintroduced to Scotland after becoming extinct in the UK in the early 20th century, the majestic birds use the region’s lochs and moorland as a breeding site, making these vast open lands some of the best spots in Britain to see them up close. Mull Eagle Watch is open from April and offers ranger-led tours to view the impressive bird of prey, while you may also catch a glimpse of otters and deer alongside a host of other wildlife.
Where? Northumberland National Park, Northumberland
Get hands-on with iconic birds of prey that are native to Northumberland National Park while surrounded by the fresh shoots of spring and the park’s tranquil countryside. You can handle, feed and fly several birds as part of a falconry experience at Lady Hill Farm, including the resident kestrel, buzzard, barn owl, tawny owl and peregrine falcon.
Where? Dartmoor National Park, Devon
You can explore the mysterious surroundings of Dartmoor National Park and meet Dartmoor ponies on the Wild Ponies, Wild Lands experience. Part of The English National Park Experience Collection, the 3-4 hour trip takes in part of the historic Haytor Granite Tramway before a visit to the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust, where you can try your hand at grooming, hoof-picking and walking ponies around a show ring. Discover the history of ponies in the region and see how the species has supported the lives and work of farmers across Dartmoor, from the fields to quarries and everywhere in-between.
Where? Exmoor National Park, Somerset
With scenery that inspired great poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Exmoor National Park also offers an opportunity to fly back to nature. Wander through the magical Owl Garden of the Exmoor Owl & Hawk Centre, found at a 15th century National Trust farmstead, see owls up close and watch the spectacular sight of a hawk flying in to land. All flying experiences must be booked in advance.
Where? Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk
Explore the bridleways and coastal paths of some of Norfolk’s most spectacular countryside while accompanied by one or more alpacas! Become an alpaca trekker for the day, learning more about the beautiful creatures while taking in striking views of the saltmarshes and keeping the alpacas fit – all against a backdrop of fresh spring blooms and lush greenery.
Where? Pensthorpe Natural Park, Norfolk
In addition to its eclectic range of habitats, from wetlands and woodland to water meadows, Pensthorpe Natural Park is constantly welcoming a number of new additions, including red squirrels. An active breeding and reintroduction project at the reserve, run by the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, makes it a great location for seeing the young squirrels, alongside an array of migratory birds. Located near Fakenham in Norfolk, a 45-minute drive from Norwich, the 700-acre reserve also includes the WildRootz adventure play area for children, a dedicated sculpture trail and a discovery trail where all of the family can learn more about the habitats in which Britain’s native wildlife thrives.
Where? Dartmoor National Park, Devon
Enjoy a tranquil ride through the open moorland and ancient woodlands of Dartmoor National Park on horseback and see the region’s stunning countryside from a different perspective as it blooms into life. Taking in some of the highest, oldest and least inhabited areas of protected countryside in the south of England, the luxury riding experiences come with knowledgeable guides and offer an array of dining options where you can get a taste for the best local delicacies. This experience is not available to beginner riders and those taking part must be able to control a horse going at all paces.
Where? Minsmere Nature Reserve, Suffolk
The breeding season of the iconic avocet, the emblem of the RSPB, usually takes place from May, with Suffolk’s Minsmere Nature Reserve one of the best spots to get a glimpse of their distinctive pied colouring. The wading birds flock to the reserve’s man-made lagoon, known as the Scrape, while the site also shelters around a third of Britain’s breeding bittern population – the nation’s rarest native bird.
Where? Moray Firth, Scotland
With a vast bottlenose dolphin population inhabiting Moray Firth, there are ample spots along the coast from which to spot the majestic creatures as they jump acrobatically out of the water. Chanonry Point on the Black Isle, near Fortrose, is one such location, allowing you to get as close to the action as possible without getting wet! An alternative is to hop on board an EcoVentures vessel from Cromarty in order to see the dolphins from out on the water. Warmer waters in the late spring and early summer increase the likelihood of sightings, while the Scottish Dolphin Centre, situated along the coast at the mouth of the River Spey, is also renowned as a prime location for spotting dolphins and a host of other wildlife, from seals and ospreys to the occasional otter.
Where? Old Henley Farm, Dorset
Badgers can be found across Britain, although seeing one of these predominantly nocturnal, and extremely elusive, animals in the wild can be tough. Organised badger watching provides one way of catching a glimpse of the creatures from the vantage point of a purpose-built hide. Badger Watch Dorset overlooks an extensive sett that is around 100 years old and you can join evening watches that run from early April – the time of year when badger cubs usually emerge from their setts and adults venture out foraging with the onset of warmer post-winter weather. Booking is essential.
Where? London, Bolton, Leeds, Newcastle
The spring heralds numerous new arrivals at city farms the length and breadth of the country, filling the air with the sounds of lambs, calves, foals and a host of other animals. From alpaca and micro pigs to pygmy goats and Shetland ponies, you can get up close and personal with a range of breeds at both Mudchute Park and Farm and Hounslow Urban Farm in London. Smithills Open Farm in Bolton hosts regular meet and greet sessions with its meerkats, piglets and reptiles, while children can also enjoy donkey rides and tractor rides around the farm. Don’t miss the chance to help bottle feed goats and lambs, alongside meeting all the latest new arrivals in Pets Corner. There are ample opportunities to pet and feed the animals and to explore the meadows of Newcastle’s Ouseburn Farm too – a hive of activity once spring arrives. Meanwood Valley Urban Farm in Leeds also celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2020 and is home to a number of rare breeds and a successful breeding programme for the endangered White-faced Woodland Sheep, meaning a number of new born animals are expected.
Where? Spitalfields City Farm, London
To coincide with the famous boat race along the River Thames between Oxford and Cambridge, Spitalfields City Farm hosts its own version of the event on 29 March 2020 – The Oxford & Cambridge Goat Race! Forming part of a goat-related mini festival, two goats – aptly named Oxford and Cambridge – race around the farm at their own pace, and you can also enjoy an array of music, games and entertainment.
Where? Ramsey Island, Pembrokeshire
Operated as an RSPB bird reserve, Ramsey Island off the Pembrokeshire coast is home to one of Britain’s largest Atlantic grey seal breeding colonies. About 100 seals can be seen in the waters around the 640-acre island all-year-round, but in the spring and autumn those numbers swell significantly. Climb aboard boats to spot the creatures during February and March, when hundreds of additional seals arrive on the island to moult.