For many visitors, the United Kingdom is synonymous with its cultural capitals and fascinating history. And yet, if you travel beyond its urban areas you will also discover some truly spectacular (and often unexpected) wilderness areas, many of which are renowned for their incredible wildlife encounters. From swimming with seals and basking sharks to watching badgers gambol through twilight woodlands, this article takes a look at a few of the nature experiences that deserve a place on your U.K. bucket list. Some occur all year round while others are seasonal, so be sure to check carefully and plan your trip accordingly.
Badgers: Tewin Orchard, England
Of all the wild animals native to the United Kingdom, the red fox and the European badger are probably the most iconic. The first can be encountered with relative ease in most urban areas; but badgers are notoriously difficult to spot. This is partly because of their nocturnal and naturally shy nature; and because their numbers are dwindling due to a number of different conservation issues. For the best chance to spot these charismatic, black-and-white striped creatures, book a badger watching evening at a hide built especially for the purpose. One of the best is the Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s mammal hide at Tewin Orchard, which overlooks a sett with a resident family of around 10 badgers.
Grey Seals: Farne Islands, England
The grey seal colony that lives on Northumberland’s Farne Islands is the biggest in England with up to 4,000 seals resident in the area at any given time. These inquisitive, playful mammals can be seen basking on the rocks at the water’s edge or frolicking together in the water. Late September to early December is breeding season, and visitors will be treated to the sight of countless fluffy white seal pups. There are several different ways to meet the seals of the Farne Islands. Billy Shiel’s Boat Trips offers dedicated grey seal cruises for up-close encounters from the water; and also underwater adventures for those that want to snorkel or dive with the seals in their natural habitat.
Basking Sharks: Inner Hebrides, Scotland
For those that are willing to take the plunge into Scotland’s chilly waters, a close encounter with a basking shark (the world’s second-largest fish) is an unforgettable privilege. Despite their huge size, these endangered animals are plankton-feeders and are harmless to humans. They are also very difficult to spot; but there are a few places in the U.K. that offer a good chance of a sighting. Our top pick is the Inner Hebrides archipelago in Scotland. Eco-conscious tour operator Basking Shark Scotland runs dedicated, marine-biologist led trips out of Oban, giving you the chance to observe the sharks from the boat or from the water. Basking shark sightings are seasonal, with peak season being July to September.
Ospreys: Cors Dyfi Reserve, Wales
Seeing a wild osprey – a majestic species once pushed to the brink of extinction in the U.K. – is one of the region’s most rewarding birding experiences. These incredible raptors can be seen at various sites from mid-March until the end of summer, when they undertake a 3,000-mile migration to Africa. Cors Dyfi Nature Reserve in the Welsh county of Powys has earned a reputation as one of the best places to see ospreys, since it became home to a breeding pair in 2011. Today, the Dyfi Osprey Project hosts an incredible observatory that allows for close-up views of the nest. Before your visit, keep an eye on the reserve’s osprey activity via the project’s 24-hour (in season) live nest cameras.
Otters: Isle of Mull, Scotland
The Eurasian otter is another sought-after and elusive U.K. species, and one of the best places to spot them is on Scotland’s beautiful Isle of Mull. Elsewhere, otters typically live in freshwater and are most active at dawn and dusk. On Mull, the otters have adapted to hunt for prey in the seaweed that litters over 300 miles of shoreline, and can be seen at any time of day or night. The optimum time to look for them is a few hours either side of low tide, when they are most active and easiest to spot. Take a walk or drive along the island’s spectacular coastline, keeping your eyes peeled for movement on the beach or in the water.
Bottlenose Dolphins: Chanonry Point, Scotland
Scotland’s Moray Firth (located on the east coast of the Highlands) is widely acknowledged as the best place in the U.K. for bottlenose dolphin sightings. That’s because the firth is home to the world’s most northerly population of this much-loved species, numbering around 200 individuals in total. The dolphins can be seen throughout the firth and all along the Moray Coast (along with harbor porpoises and minke whales). For the best chances of success, head to Chanonry Point near Inverness, where the dolphins are frequently spotted hunting for food in the channel, within a few metres of the shore. The best time to go is on a rising tide, when you’ll share the viewpoint with many other dolphin watchers.
Red Squirrels: Brownsea Island, England
Eastern grey squirrels are ubiquitous in the U.K.; you’ll see them in every urban park and rural woodland area. And yet, this highly successful species is not native. It was introduced from North America and has drastically affected populations of the U.K.’s own eurasian red squirrel. As such, red squirrels have become a rare and special sight, with their gleaming chestnut coats and tufted ears. There are several red squirrel strongholds throughout the U.K., where special efforts have been made to conserve them. One such place is Brownsea Island, located off the coast of Poole in southern England. There are more than 200 red squirrels here; to see them, simply wander the National Trust walking trails that meander through the island’s pine woodlands.
Puffins: Skomer Island, Wales
With their smart black-and-white plumage and distinctive multi-colored bill, Atlantic puffins are probably the U.K.’s most iconic seabird. Despite this, they are found in only a few locations around the coast with Pembrokeshire’s Skomer Island being one of the most famous. Located less than a mile from the Welsh mainland, Skomer hosts a colony of nesting puffins from April to July every year. You can visit on a day trip or stay overnight, and get amazing close-up views of the birds as they go about their business. Skomer is also an important site for other seabird species, including Manx shearwaters, razorbills, gannets and fulmars. Keep an eye on the water for possible glimpses of grey seals, porpoises, and dolphins.
Red Deer: Exmoor, England
Every autumn from October onwards, the U.K.’s largest land mammal puts on a spectacular display in parks and wilderness areas across the region. The red deer rut sees sexually mature stags fight for the right to lead (and breed with) harems of female deer. Sometimes conflicts are vocal, sometimes the stags lock antlers in a heated show of strength. One of the best places to see the rut is on the moors of Exmoor National Park in southwest England, where there are more than 3,000 red deer in residence. The stags are at their most active in the hours right after dawn and just before dusk; consider joining a tour with Red Stag Safari for the best sightings and photo opportunities.
Salmon: Gilfach, Wales
The Atlantic salmon run is one of the U.K.’s lesser known natural spectacles, but is nevertheless an awe-inspiring lesson in perseverance. During October and November, adult salmon return to the river of their birth after spending around five years at sea. They then travel upstream, leaping up waterfalls en route to their freshwater spawning grounds. One of the best places to witness the run is at Gilfach Nature Reserve in Powys, Wales. The reserve is bisected by well-known salmon river, the River Marteg; and includes a special trail that culminates in a viewing platform above a waterfall. From here, you can watch and take photos of the salmon, remembering to keep an eye out for the reserve’s resident otters as well.