Photographing Wildlife in the UK describes some of the best locations for photographing the most interesting wild animals in the UK. Included is where to go, advice on what to expect, what kit to take and how best to get the image you are hoping for. This is how Welsh naturalist and TV presenter, Iolo Williams describes the book:
This book tells you some of the best places to go to see particular species, gives tips on eld craft, techniques and equipment. It travels the whole country from the northernmost tip of Shetland down to Brownsea Island and from Skomer in West Wales across to East Anglia. Although it concentrates on the spectacular and the photogenic, it does not neglect the commoner species and it will prove invaluable to beginners and experienced wildlife photographers alike.
Wildlife in the UK
The Highlands and Islands create some of the most pristine wilderness in the UK ranging from the rugged coastline to the Caledonian forests and mountain highlands. Within these fabulous habitats exist some of the rarest and most exciting of the UK’s wildlife.
In the clean ocean waters here we find grey and common seals and at Chanonry Point the amazing sight of dolphins feeding close to the shore.
The Scottish islands are a great example of how wildlife thrives in areas of low population where urbanisation and large scale agriculture have not influenced the landscape. Of these islands the Isle of Mull stands out as a jewel amongst the best of the locations. Here eagles soar and otters thrive on the coastline, the existence of these apex predators indicates that all is well with the
Moving into the heart of the country there still remains areas of pristine wilderness represented by remnants of the Caledonian pine forest. A beautiful landscape of gnarled pines where red squirrels and crested tits can be found, together with that fabulous elusive mustelid the pine marten and if you are really lucky the incredible and rare capercaillie.
The Highlands dominate the landscape towards the centre of the country and the rugged mountain ranges here offer a further habitat where mountain hares stand out white against the spring heather and golden eagles soar over remote valleys. The steep terrain is an exciting and invigorating place to go, made all the better by rare and exotic-looking species like the ptarmigan. These birds are only found in the mountains where the snow can lie all year and the views here are simply spectacular.
The wildlife in the North of England benefits from large areas of relatively unpopulated land including the Lake District and the large areas of upland moors of the high Pennines.
The Lake District is stunningly beautiful offering picturesque mountains, lakes and rivers worthy of a visit in their own right, it’s a landscape photographers dream. The deciduous wooded valleys have remained isolated long enough to protect a good population of red squirrels as well as summer migratory birds like pied flycatchers and redstarts, and the fresh water habitats are becoming repopulated by otters and ospreys.
The north English coastline is hugely varied in character; at Bempton in the east the sheer limestone cliffs are home to colonies of sea birds soaring on uplifting sea breezes. On the west coast the salt marsh and mud at Martin Mere is an overwintering site for spectacular flocks of winter swans and the reed beds of Leighton Moss create a habitat for bittern, marsh harriers and bearded tits. Over on the Lincolnshire coast the wide mud and sand beaches at Donna Nook afford a home to a large and noisy colony of grey seals who haul out in winter to give birth to their white-furred pups.
Inland man-made habitats such as the Cromford Canal offer homes to water voles and little grebes; a great example of wildlife finding a place to exist in a once industrial landscape.
On the edge of the North York Moors the magnificent remains of Mount Grace Priory hide
a magical secret: families of stoats live in the ruins, making use of old human habitation.
There are fewer island habitats here but the rocky outcrops of the Farne Isles offer some of the most spectacular sea bird colonies in the country where puffins, shags, guillemots and razorbills can all be seen at incredibly close quarters.
Central and Southern England
Central and Southern England do not have dramatic mountains or rugged coastlines but the low lying countryside offers a different kind of habitat that is ideal for many species to flourish.
Large areas of arable and dairy farmland mean barn owls, brown hares and roe deer can find a niche that suits them, though the old stone barns and hedgerows they rely on are much reduced.
Wetland reserves managed by charities like the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust create and protect valuable ecosystems, especially reed beds, which otherwise might have been drained and developed. RSPB Otmoor represents a huge conservation success. The mixed meadow and reed bed habitat is home to a huge number of diverse species. Most important are those that rely entirely on this habitat including bitterns, hobbies and the recently reintroduced European crane.
Areas of deciduous and mixed forest remain here as a remnant of the extensive woodland that would have covered most of this part of Britain. Remaining pockets like the New Forest and the Forest of Dean are invaluable as a habitat for woodland specialists like fallow deer and the reintroduced wild boar, one of our most exciting British mammals to meet alone in a forest.
As a more populated area this part of England relies even more on the small pieces of land that remain protected thanks to the work of the Wildlife Trusts. Reserves such as College Lakes and Chimney Meadows are tiny but hugely important refuges for wildlife, both resident, for example roe deer, and for visitors passing through like migrating hobbies.
Down in Dorset the heathland reserve at Arne protects an important heather and gorse heath habitat. Home to endangered reptiles including the smooth snake and adder it is also a year round location for the delightful Dartford warbler.
Offshore from Poole harbour, Brownsea Island maintains a small isolated and very approachable population of red squirrels protected from the squirrel pox carried by their grey American cousins.
South East England and East England
On the east side of England lies Norfolk, widely regarded as one of the best wildlife areas in the UK, especially by birders. Here the coastline and low lying marshes have been of little use to mankind either to build on or for agriculture and have remained wild and relatively unvisited. Consequently wildlife has thrived; the coastline is an important overwintering site for waders and wildfowl with Snettisham, Titchwell Marsh and Cley Marshes all world famous reserves.
Norfolk is also famous for barn owls and Sculthorpe Moor and the other reserves just mentioned are great places to see this magical endangered species.
The fens and marshes are the habitat of the once almost extinct marsh harrier. RSPB Minsmere was the site for the resurrection of this spectacular wetland raptor and it is now almost commonplace across most of these reserves.
Suffolk is also home to some of these important wetland reserves and small almost unnoticed Wildlife Trust reserves like Lackford Lakes are absolute gems for close encounters with specialist species like kingfishers.
Further south we hit upon the sprawl of urbanisation that is the capital city, London. Even here we find small islands of peace and tranquility where wildlife survives.
Close and regular contact with humans has led to the wildlife becoming habituated to
people allowing close encounters with creatures that otherwise would be diffcult to approach.
The herons at Regent’s Park are a great example of this: try getting close to a heron anywhere else and you will be left with an indignant cronking call as he flaps off to find a quieter fishing ground.
In Richmond park the sights and sounds of the red deer rut are the highlight of many a wildlife photographers’ year.
South West England
The South West of England is a relatively small area of land with a lot of coastline. The central land mass rises up to the north coast to form the Exmoor National Park, an area of windswept moorland with steep-sided river and stream valleys or combes. Pockets of deciduous woodland are found here where redstarts and flycatchers nest in summer, and dippers and grey wagtails hunt in the fast owing streams. The higher moors are the rutting ground of the spectacular red deer which can be elusive and a challenge to photograph, especially compared to the relatively relaxed specimens found in Richmond Park.
The coastline is hugely varied as are the species found there. From rugged cliff outcrops like Baggy Point where ravens y over to gorse heaths where stonechats and meadow pipits hunt to the muddy estuaries and their large populations of waders and wildfowl.
At Exmouth the River Exe issues out into the sea depositing its suspended sediment to form mud banks. These are an important feeding point for ocks of waders including the striking black and white avocet with its amazing upturned bill and black tailed godwits which are spectacular in flight.
Further out to sea around Lundy Island grey seals bob amongst the waves and the comical puffins that were once far more common are struggling to make a comeback.
Wales is a wonderful location for wildlife; the wild interior holds wooded valleys and mountain regions that are remote and retain much of their natural habitat. The woodlands are managed for forestry and the uplands for sheep farming, both of which have positive aspects for many forms of wildlife.
In the centre of Wales near the town of Rhayader there are three locations worth visiting within a few miles of each other. The red kite centre at Gigrin Farm puts out food each day making this one of the best places to see and photograph this once incredibly rare bird of prey. Nearby the quiet and beautiful Gilfach Farm nestles on the wooded hillside above a river valley. This is a special place to find summer migrant birds like flycatchers, redstart and wood warbler with the added possibility of catching an otter moving through. Further up the Elan Valley the wooded slopes are a good spot to catch wood warblers and many different deciduous woodland species from woodpeckers and nuthatches to sparrowhawks.
Further west the coast of Pembrokeshire is an incredibly beautiful, little visted and wild coastline inhabited by that charismatic and rare member of the crow family, the chough. Peregrine falcons are seen regularly along the cliff walks, and offshore lie the superb reserves of Skomer and Skokholm. Skomer is an absolute must-see for the wildlife photographer offering close encounters with many different sea birds but especially the puffins.
Ruabon Moor in North Wales during the spring is an excellent spot to witness the fascinating spectacle of a black grouse lek.
What And When?
Spring: March, April, May
As temperatures rise in spring the breeding season gets underway. Check out the woodlands for signs of activity around fox and badger dens.
With the bluebells emerging the backdrop turns from brown earth and dead leaves to the green of the first shoots and then to that fabulous blue. Timing is everything and each year is different, the warmer the spring the sooner the bluebells flower. The time frame is short and within two weeks the bracken may be too high to see the fox cubs at their den.
Birds are breeding and courtship displays such as great crested grebes and mute swans are beautiful behaviours to watch and photograph.
Mountain hares start changing their coats from white to grey but you can still catch them contrasted against the moss and grasses in the Peak District and camouflaged with the lingering snow patches in the Cairngorm Mountains. Ptarmigan also still dressed in white are easier to spot as the snows melt.
In March you might start looking for the mad March hares. Some brown hares may still be boxing now but in my experience most of this activity happens earlier in the year from January to February. Short-eared owls begin to move north again to the Isle of Mull and Shetlands. Badgers emerge in the warmer weather and red squirrels and avocets are active.
The first really warm days see grass snakes emerge from their winter hibernation, basking in the sun to warm their cold blood and gathering in groups to mate. Likewise frogs and toads can be seen en masse in March as they congregate in ponds to spawn. Look in the wetland reserves.
April sees black grouse lekking at Ruabon Moor, in the North Pennines and on the Glenlivet Estate. Pied flycatchers, wood warblers and redstarts return to the Elan Valley and Gilfach Farm.
May sees the return of the swallows and martins. With them the hobbies are back from Africa to feed on the now emerging dragon flies. For a brief few days large numbers of these beautiful falcons gather over wetland reserves before dispersing to nest and raise their young.
Kingfishers have changed from their autumn and winter locations and are now found on smaller streams and tributaries where they can find a suitable nest hole in a sandy bank.
Fox cubs appear from dens. Seabirds are busy nest building at Bempton Cliffs, Skomer,Lundy, Farne Isles and Shetland Isles. Bonxies and puffins are nest building in the Shetlands, stoats have kits at Mount Grace Priory and dolphins play close to the shore at Chanonry Point.
By the end of May the first broods of dippers may already have edged as summer rolls on, find them on Exmoor and in the Lake District.
Summer: June to September
Light is at a premium and the hours of daylight are longer giving increased opportunities.
The vegetation is high and lush making wildlife harder to spot but there is more of it around with summer migrant birds returned and putting their energies into raising the next generation. Reed beds are alive with reed and sedge warblers feeding their young and possibly the young of cuckoos. Roe deer rut in June and groups of young bucks can be seen chasing each other in the summer meadows.
Young swallows and martins edge in June and can be seen on wires and tree tops as they learn the skills of flight. Hedgehogs are active on warm evenings. Young kestrels are learning to hunt. Young animals are more naive and provide opportunities for photographers and predators such as sparrow hawks alike.
Little owls are noisy as their young edge in June/July, their cat-like calls at dusk and dawn reveal their presence.
In July young peregrines are edging and learning to fly, and wild flowers abound in the meadows.
Osprey young edge and learn to hunt their own food in time for their return to Africa. The first ospreys are leaving Scotland by mid August and can be seen briefly as they visit wetland reserves in England and Wales.
Puffins spend much of the year at sea, nest building begins in May but the adults won’t be bringing in sand eels until June, and by August they and the puffings have returned to sea and are out of the photographer’s reach.
August sees the heather turning purple on the moors as a backdrop for red grouse. Young barn owls edge, gannets are now fully edged at Bass Rock and dolphins follow the salmon run at Chanonry Point.
In September young kingfishers leave riverbank nest sites and move to lakes and ponds. September is a good time to see bearded tits as they change from eating insects to feeding on reed seeds. As the leaves turn and the berry crops ripen the summer may seem all too short but warm Septembers can prolong the season. Look out for common lizards basking making the most of the last of the summer warmth.
The fallow deer rut begins in the Forest of Dean, New Forest and Richmond Park. Migrant birds such as wryneck appear as they migrate south. Red squirrels gather food in the Lake District, Forby and Brownsea Island. Wild boar are present in large numbers in the Forest of Dean and juvenile hobbies congregate before migrating.
Autumn: October, November
Autumn is a great time of year for soft golden light and colour. The sun is getting lower in the sky, temperatures begin to fall and you don’t have to be quite such an early bird to catch the worm.
Cooler temperatures create morning mists which can be both difficult and creative. Leaves, grasses and bracken change colour to russet browns and reds enriching the backdrop to one of the most exciting events of the wildlife photographers year: the red deer rut.
Wild boar also rut at this time of year and they can be more visible and audible as they gather in groups in the Forest of Dean.
As the trees are stripped of leaves it gets considerably easier to find and photograph red squirrels in deciduous woodland.
The autumn berries provide a nutritious crop for migrant fieldfares and redwings. Small flocks start to appear in Scotland at the start of November before moving further down the country as the temperatures drop.
In late autumn grey seals are hauling out from the sea to have their pups. This is the best time to photograph these large mammals gathered in large groups on the sometimes frozen ground.
Starlings begin to roost in huge numbers known as murmurations creating fantastic patterns in the sky at many different sites across the country including Gretna Green p.92, Leighton Moss, Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath.
On the coast huge numbers of knot and golden plover amass in the estuaries to create amazing aerial displays to photograph.
Visit Mull for otters and eagles. Fieldfares and redwings start moving south. Migrant birds like hoopoe occasionally turn up as they get blown off course.
Short-eared owls appear in southern overwintering spots and Bewicks swans start to arrive at Slimbridge p.160.
Winter: December, January, February
Winter used to be my least favourite season but as a wildlife photographer this can be the most interesting and dramatic. I love to head to Scotland and the Highlands for wildlife encounters in this harshest of seasons. The prospect of snow offers new exciting challenges with dramatic backdrops and the chance of catching species like stoats, ptarmigan and mountain hares in winter pelage. Cairngorm Mountain p.52.
Cold weather in the north and in Europe brings short-eared owls, sometimes in large numbers, being driven further south to winter on southern marshes such as Wicken Fen. Likewise a waxwing winter will bring flocks of these exotic looking birds further south in search of ripe berries.
Frozen water seems to improve the chances of catching the elusive bittern out on thin ice at Minsmere, whilst cold weather also improves your chances of seeing barn owls out in daylight hours.
Winter migrant robins feed in gardens whilst whooper swans congregate at Martin Mere and the entire population of Svalbard’s barnacle geese gather at Caerlaverock.
Winter is the time for two of the country’s great wildlife spectacles: flocks of knot and golden plover are spectacular in the estuaries, and at dawn and dusk in mid winter at Snettisham thousands of pink-footed geese fly in V-formation. Also catch the avocets on the estuary at Exmouth.
In January it’s a good time to catch garden birds on feeders such as gold finches, siskins, brambling and redpoll. Starling murmurations are ongoing throughout winter.
In February Dartford warblers are singing on warm days at Arne and Dunwich Heath. Adders emerge at Greenham Common and Braunton Burrows. Skylarks are singing and hen harriers can be seen at the southern wetland reserves of Cley Marshes and Titchwell Marsh. Brown hares begin boxing at Otmoor It’s a good time to see bittern at Lakenheath Fen and Minsmere. Peregrine falcon males display to females in the Avon Gorge and the Pembrokeshire Coast. Look for capercaillie in the Scottish Highlands before lekking begins.
By late February the bluebell’s green shoots are already up and promising the spring and you will be out looking for those mad March hares again.