From rutting stags to leaping salmon, this is one of the best times of year to witness majestic natural sights amid beautiful autumnal colours. That gave us an idea, so here’s a calendar of easy family walks giving you the chance to spot the best British wildlife spectacles year round: breeding puffins to red squirrels, reindeer to sea eagles, otters to dolphins.
Red deer rutting in Glencoe, Scotland
Best time to see them: Late September and October.
Also look out for: roe deer, buzzards, golden eagles, foxes, wildcats, badgers, pine martens.
Autumn brings the sound of roaring stags to the glens, as testosterone-fuelled males compete for mates. Red deer are Britain’s largest land mammals and an iconic sight in Scotland. As they’ve been unchallenged by any natural predators since the wolf and lynx became extinct, over 400,000 of them roam wild. The best time to see them is early morning and evening. There are many ranger-led walks to see them throughout autumn, including this five-hour walk from 8am until 1pm, starting from Glencoe Visitor Centre on 25 October.
Red deer calling during rutting season. Photo: Mark Bridger / Shutterstock
Leaping salmon at the Falls of Shin in Sutherland
Best time to see them: October and November.
Also look out for: otters, great spotted woodpeckers.
Autumn is also high season for the unusual pursuit of fish-watching, as Atlantic salmon fight gravity to return to their breeding grounds, making their way back from the ocean to rivers and following them upstream. They tuck in their pectoral fins to make them streamlined enough to launch up the toughest bits. Early morning and evening after a spell of wet weather are the best times to see leaping salmon. An easy, two-mile walk begins from the Falls of Shin car park and follows two waymarked loops exploring the falls. There are plenty of longer options, too: this sparsely-populated corner of Britain is towered over by Stac Pollaidh and Suilven, for example.
The salmon rush. Photo: Shutterstock
Red squirrels in Kielder Forest, Northumberland
Best time to see them: late autumn is best, as there aren’t so many leaves on the trees for them to hide behind.
Also look out for: badgers, pipistrelle bats, ospreys.
Kielder Forest Park is England’s last red squirrel stronghold: home to 50% of the country’s native red squirrel population. There are around 140,000 red squirrels in Britain compared to 2.5 million of the American grey squirrel. If you spot chewed pine cones, look up: there may be a hungry squirrel above. The best place to catch a glimpse of one is at the red squirrel hide at Leaplish Waterside Park. A good eight-mile out-and-back walk starts from Tower Knowe Visitor Centre and takes the Lakeside Way around Bull Crag peninsula, with a detour up to Elf Kirk Viewpoint, to reach Leaplish Waterside park, and the hide.
Red squirrel. Photo: Menno Schaefer / Shutterstock
Otters at Gilfach Farm Nature Reserve, Radnorshire
Best time to see them: October to December, when they might be chasing leaping salmon.
Also look out for: birds – 55 species have been recorded here, including kingfishers, and butterflies.
Driven to near extinction in the 1970s, otters are a conservation success story: they can now be found across Wales, Scotland, Ireland and in every county of England. Look out for the distinctive webbed pawprints on riverbanks, and scat with fishbones in it. Dawn is the best time to spot them along the vegetated banks of clean waterways. Gilfach Farm is one of the best spots to see them – a family saw an otter and cubs walking along the nature trail last year. This 400 acre hill farm nature reserve features a restored 16th Century Welsh longhouse surrounded by fields and woodland, with the rocky River Marteg bubbling through it. Several waymarked trails tours the reserve and the Wye Valley Walk and Monk’s Trod pass through it if you’re looking for a longer option.
River otter tucking into a fish. Photo: Kjersti Joergensen / Shutterstock
Reindeer in the Cairngorms
Best time to see them: All year round, reindeer aren’t just for Christmas!
Also look out for: The National Park is a haven for 25% of the UK’s most threatened species, including the rare Scottish wildcat and the capercaillie grouse. The real prize is the trio of creatures that turn white in winter: ptarmigan, mountain hare, and stoat.
The Cairngorm mountains are home to Britain’s only reindeer herd. Although a native species, the placid animals were hunted to extinction around 1200 years ago and only reintroduced to Scotland in the 1950s. Now the herd numbers 130 and a walk amongst them makes a great festive leg stretch. Reindeer roam freely on the vast upland plateau, but it is worth visiting the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre first, and meeting the tame reindeer – they are beautiful and gentle creatures. After this, you could take a pleasant five-mile walk from Sugar Bowl car park up Silver Hill.
Red deer calling during rutting season. Photo: Mark Bridger / Shutterstock
White-tailed sea eagles on Mull, Inner Hebrides
Best time to see them: from mid-April to the end of summer.
Also look out for: golden eagles, buzzards, whales, porpoises, dolphins, puffins, hen harriers, red kites, kestrels, ospreys, merlins, and peregrines.
The white-tailed sea eagle, our largest bird of prey, has a wing-span of over two-and-a-half metres. After becoming extinct in 1918, the birds were successfully reintroduced on Mull, the second largest Inner Hebridean island. Now more than 10 pairs roam the forests, lochs and 300 miles of Mull’s stunning coastline. The best place to spot them is the Mull Eagle Watch hide. Mull is also home to our second-largest bird of prey – the world’s greatest concentration of golden eagles resides here and on Skye. There are many walking options. Mull’s only Munro is Ben More. It’s a six-mile out and back walk. Park at Dhiseig on the shores of Loch Na Keal.
Sea eagle flying over Scotland. Photo: Mark Medcalf / Shutterstock
Puffins on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire
Best time to see them: Puffins arrive on Skomer in late March, but don’t immediately settle on the island. Between May and early July is the best time to see them. They return to a life at sea in late July.
Also look out for: Manx shearwaters, dolphins, porpoises, Atlantic grey seals, razorbills, gannets, fulmars and the unique Skomer vole.
Skomer, less than a mile from the Western edge of Pembrokeshire, is home to the largest puffin colony in southern Britain. Each year around 6,000 of the photogenic birds return to breed on the tiny island, where they are easy to spot feeding their young with billfulls of gleaming sand eels, pottering around clownishly on the clifftops, and popping in and out of their burrows – they lay a single egg, which hatches in June. A four-mile walk circuit of the island takes in all the best bits. Beware of accidentally tripping in a burrow! Martin’s Haven, a small shingle-beached bay, is the embarkation point for Skomer ferries.
Atlantic puffin. Photo: Christiane Franke / Shutterstock
Dolphins in Falmouth, Cornwall
Best time to see them: They can be seen year round, but June to August is the best time.
Also look out for: grey seals, basking sharks, cormorants, fulmars.
There are many places around Britain where you can spot common and bottlenose dolphins, but a good one that can be combined with walks and beach activities for a weekend short-break is Pendennis Point near Falmouth. You get a panoramic 360-degree view of the Fal Estuary from here, across to the Roseland Peninsula and Falmouth Bay. It’s a pleasant walk around the headland and up to Pendennis Castle, which is fun for kids to explore, and from Pendennis Point it’s a 3.5 mile walk to Maenporth beach, passing two other beaches separated by small headlands: Gyllngvase and Swanpool.
Bottlenose dolphin. Photo: Tory Kallman / Shutterstock
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