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We tend to think of the South West corner of Britain as ‘holiday country’ – cream teas and sandy coves. This delightful region is wonderful for wildlife, too, from the porpoises and dolphins off the coasts of Cornwall and Devon to the wide Dorset heaths and the flowery meadows of Somerset and Wiltshire.
ISLES OF SCILLY, LAND’S END AND WEST CORNWALL
A rugged region, the most southwesterly in the British Isles, with granite an outstanding feature from the weatherbeaten Isles of Scilly, 28 miles off Land’s End, through the cliffs, coves and sandy bays of west Cornwall to the small farms and wide uplands of the Cornish interior.
BODMIN MOOR, DARTMOOR AND NORTH DEVON
The West Country possesses three great moors, the largest expanse of wild country in the region. Bodmin Moor in east Cornwall and Dartmoor in south Devon are both founded on granite, which outcrops in castle-like tors on their skylines. Below these expanses of heather and moor grass lie wooded valleys and a rich farming landscape.
EXMOOR, THE CHANNEL ISLANDS AND EAST DEVON
Exmoor, underpinned by warm sandstone and home to a large herd of red deer, straddles the borders of Devon and Somerset. The wild beauty of the moor inspired Henry Williamson to set his classic novel Tarka The Otter here. The wildlife of the Channel Islands benefits from their relatively isolated situation in unpolluted seas.
THE SOUTH WEST
Wildflower meadows are one of the simple glories of the countryside. There is nothing so evocative of childhood, of free and easy summer days, than the image of running through a field of flowers.
SOMERSET LEVELS TO THE ISLE OF PURBECK
The Somerset Levels may be flat, but these peat moors that fill the centre of the county are famous for bird-watching and wild flowers. The downlands and ancient woods of Dorset lead south to the ‘Jurassic Coast’, the great pebble bar of Chesil Beach and the Isle of Purbeck, the heart of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex.
The South East has London at its core and is Britain’s most built-up and populous region. Yet beyond the well-heeled conurbations and satellite towns of the Home Counties – and even among them – you’ll find woods, farmlands, heaths, chalk downs and coasts where wildlife thrives and is expertly protected and encouraged.
HAMPSHIRE, NEW FOREST AND THE ISLE OF WIGHT
The well-wooded chalk downs of Hampshire run south to the tangled woodland, heath and wetlands of the New Forest, designated a National Park in 2005. There are more chalk downs in the Isle of Wight, and a jigsaw of islets, peninsulas and huge tidal mudflats in Chichester Harbour on the Hampshire/West Sussex border.
EAST KENT AND EAST SUSSEX
From the Isle of Thanet to Folkestone, Kent’s famous white cliffs form the eastern terminus of the great chalk barrier of southern England. The North Downs decline towards the flatlands of Romney Marsh, reclaimed from the sea, and a stony, flinty shore, most notably in the enormous pebble spit of Dungeness.
CAMBRIDGE SOUTH TO THE CHILTERNS AND LONDON
The flat fens and wet woodlands of Cambridgeshire and the Bedfordshire plain give way to the great chalk escarpment of the Chiltern Hills, the Home Counties’ own rural backyard with flowery chalk grassland and the long ridge-top beechwoods known as ‘hangers’. London itself has a surprisingly rich wildlife, from wetlands to woods, commons to parkland.
THE SOUTH EAST
The landscape and geology of South East England is dominated by the broad formation of chalk that stretches from Salisbury Plain to the North Downs of Kent.
SURREY, SUSSEX AND WEST KENT
Surrey is bounded by the M25 London Orbital motorway. There are heaths, commons and woodlands along the county’s stretch of the North Downs, which are separated from the chalk billows of the South Downs in West and East Sussex by the thickly wooded lowlands of sandstone, clay and greensand known as the Weald.
Industrial south, mountainous north: the quick-fix view of Wales. Birds, frogs, flowers and insects thrive alongside the industries of South Wales, which are mostly defunct now. Those big mountains possess a wonderful, delicate flora. In between are lonely uplands, ancient bogs and woods, and a long and beautiful coastline rich in estuaries, dunes and marshes.
PEMBROKESHIRE AND WEST GOWER
Pembrokeshire, forming the southwest extremity of Wales, is famous for its coast with sea stacks, sandy coves and bays, and a scatter of bird-haunted islands served by boats. The western tip of Gower offers superb rock-pooling and dramatic scenery around the causeway, tidal hummocks and blowholes of the Worm’s Head promontory.
The coasts of Wales are among the richest and most varied in the entire British Isles, from the marshy shores and mudflats of the inner Bristol Channel to the superb cliffs and coves of Pembrokeshire, the long west-facing sweep of Cardigan Bay with its great sandy estuaries, and the wild and rocky coastline of Llŷn and North Wales.
MID-WALES, BRECON BEACONS, THE SOUTH WALES VALLEYS AND COAST
The central uplands of Wales are rich in moors, bogs, hidden valleys and woods. The Brecon Beacons National Park is well known for its shapely mountains. Further south lie the parallel valleys, deep and snaking, where nature is recapturing the spoil-heaps of an all-but-defunct coal and iron industry, and the marshy shores of the Severn estuary.
NORTH EAST WALES AND THE NORTHERN WELSH BORDERS
Northeast Wales takes its mixed character from the flat shores of the Dee estuary, the upthrust of the Clwydian Hills and the forested uplands and moors around Lake Vyrnwy. Shropshire has lush low-lying farmlands in the east, rising westwards to the wooded Wenlock Edge, the moorland of the Long Mynd and the hilly Welsh border.
NORTH WEST WALES AND ANGLESEY
Anglesey, Wales’s largest island, contains wildlife-rich bogs and seabird cliffs. The splendid mountains of Snowdonia National Park, are home to communities of tiny delicate arctic-alpine flowers. At the western tip of the Llŷn Peninsula lies the lonely island of Bardsey. Further south are great upland bogs, and the coastal dunes and bogs of the Dyfi estuary.
The Industrial Revolution began in the Midlands, so rich in coal, iron and clay. Many of the region’s former industrial sites, in cities and in the countryside, are now wildlife havens. Here, too, are ancient woodlands, traditionally farmed meadows, canal and riverbanks, and old commons full of flowers and butterflies.
THE SOUTHERN WELSH BORDERS AND THE SEVERN ESTUARY
Herefordshire and Worcestershire run side-by-side with the Welsh border, two counties of green fields and red earth, wild flowers and hilly woods. The Severn Estuary forms another boundary, separating the ancient sprawl of the Forest of Dean in west Gloucestershire from the south Cotswolds with their bluebell-carpeted beechwoods.
NORTH AND EAST COTSWOLDS, OXFORDSHIRE AND THE SOUTH MIDLANDS
Flowery chalk grassland, fens and ancient woods abound in this region, where the oolitic limestone of the north Cotswolds stretches from Gloucestershire into Oxfordshire, almost as far as the chalk slopes of the Chilterns. The South Midlands, quintessential ‘Heart of England’ country, have long-established wildflower meadows, coppices and wood pastures.
The region of East Anglia – Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire – has plenty of flat land, around the coasts and in low-lying Fenland. Here you’ll find the fens and marshes, reedbeds and bird-haunted estuaries. But there are flowery hills and valleys, too, woods and heaths – not to mention the strange man-made waterways of the Broads.
SUFFOLK AND ESSEX TO THE THAMES ESTUARY
The intensely rural county of Suffolk contains beautiful woods and meadows. Nearer to the coast lie the ‘sandlings’ or heaths, a rare habitat these days. The East Anglian shore runs south from the pebble spit of Orford Ness to the complex creeks, estuaries, marshes and mudbanks of the Essex coast and the Thames estuary – prime bird-watching country.
LINCOLNSHIRE, FENLAND, THE WASH AND INLAND SUFFOLK
Ancient sand dune systems and long empty beaches, wetlands and saltmarshes line the flat shores of Lincolnshire as far south as the mighty square-sided estuary of The Wash – superb bird-watching country. South from here extends the great flatland known as The Fens, much of it below sea level, haunt of rare wetland birds, plants and insects.
East Anglia isn’t all as flat as a pancake; but the great central section of it known as Fenland is pretty flat, and the reason can be summed up in one word – water.
NORFOLK, THE BROADS AND NORTH SUFFOLK
The wide marshes of North Norfolk are the best-known area in England for winter bird-watching – pink-footed geese in particular. Seals, seabirds and marsh plants abound in summer. The Norfolk Broads, old flooded peat diggings, are home to very rare spiders, swallowtail butterflies, bitterns and marsh harriers. The coast runs south from sandy east Norfolk to marshy, shingly north Suffolk.
The North West is famed for the Lake District with its majestic fells and lakes. If you can tear yourself away from eagles, ospreys and the shade of William Wordsworth, you’ll find hen harriers, curlews and glorious spring flowers on the Pennine moors, natterjack toads in the dunes, and clouds of seabirds over the great sands.
SOUTH LAKELAND, LANCASHIRE AND CHESHIRE
The southern coast of Cumbria’s Lake District is a mass of huge sandy estuaries and tidal bays, Morecambe Bay being the biggest of these tidal larders for wildfowl. Lancashire possesses the wide moorland of the Forest of Bowland, reed-fringed lakes and a coast of enormous sands, while Cheshire’s wet meadows and meres are a naturalist’s delight.
THE NORTH WEST
LAKES, MERES AND POOLS
Cumbria and Lancashire are lucky in the number and variety of freshwater bodies they possess – lakes, meres, tarns, reservoirs, pools, ponds, lagoons, gravel pits and flashes.
YORKSHIRE DALES TO THE HIGH PEAK
The Yorkshire Dales are synonymous with green valleys, stone walls and barns, and high moorlands with Swaledale sheep. There are wonderful wildflower meadows here, areas of flowery limestone pavement, and merlin, hen harrier and nesting curlew and golden plover on the moors. Further south lies the moody dark gritstone of Derbyshire’s High Peak with mountain hares, peatbogs and ancient woods.
SOLWAY FIRTH AND THE LAKE DISTRICT
The shores of both England and Scotland are separated by the huge tideway of the Solway Firth, whose bogs and merses (marshes) attract wildfowl. Further south rise the mountainous fells of the Lake District heartland, with golden eagles, rare lake fish, ospreys and red squirrels. Out west the Cumbrian coast has seabird cliffs and dunes with breeding natterjack toads.
Sprawling Yorkshire is famous for beautiful dales; but wildlife also finds a home in the more easterly wetlands, old gravel pits and peatlands. The dales of west Durham are complimented by the county’s little-visited cliffs, the jungly denes and former coalfield. Northumberland offers a pristine coast, the wild Cheviot Hills, and giant Kielder Forest.
SOUTH EAST YORKSHIRE, NOTTINGHAMSHIRE AND NORTH WEST LINCOLNSHIRE
The ‘unfashionable’ end of Yorkshire, the east and south, contain some unregarded gems – the Yorkshire Wolds, the ings or wetlands, and the many post-industrial sites (sandpits, quarries, peat diggings) being reclaimed by nature here and in north west Lincolnshire. North Nottinghamshire has fine woods, and the wide parklands of Clumber Park.
EAST YORKSHIRE COAST, HUMBERSIDE AND NORTH LINCOLNSHIRE
The east Yorkshire coast declines from the 400-ft (125-m) cliffs at Bempton, alive with seabirds in the breeding season, to the flat sandspit of Spurn at the wide mouth of the Humber estuary. The marshy Lincolnshire coast attracts pupping grey seals and plenty of wildfowl. Inland are big tracts of ancient limewoods with spectacular autumnal fungi.
THE NORTH EAST
MAN AND NATURE
You might not expect to find autumn gentians flowering on a quarry floor, seals suckling pups in the shadow of a chemical works, or marsh harriers hunting for frogs and sedge warblers over multi-coloured moors which not long ago were black wastelands stripped of their vegetation down to the last blade of grass.
NORTHUMBERLAND, WEST DURHAM AND NORTH YORKSHIRE
The massed conifers and huge reservoir of family-friendly Kielder Forest dominate central Northumberland, but here too are mosses or mires and deep wooded gorges. West Durham rises in folds and ridges of moorland, culminating in the very lonely and ecologically precious Moor House reserve above Teesdale.
EAST DURHAM COAST AND TEESSIDE TO THE NORTH YORK MOORS
Long dismissed as an industrial, then a post-industrial wasteland, East Durham’s narrow coastal denes or gorges are the North East’s own wildwood jungles. Seals breed and seabirds feed among the ironworks and shipbreaking yards of Teesside, while down on the North York Moors are great swathes of open moorland and hidden wooded valleys.
EAST LOTHIAN TO THE SCOTTISH BORDER AND NORTH NORTHUMBERLAND
This region’s coastline trends southeast by way of East Lothian’s cliffs and inlets, over the Scottish/English border into the sandy bays and dunes, clifftop castles and lonely basalt islands of the Northumbrian coast. Inland rise the remote, rounded Cheviot Hills with wild moors and mosses where golden plover and ring ouzels nest in spring.
More than anything else Scotland is associated with wild country. The great swathes of mountains and moors, bogs and lochs, lonely isles and untrodden beaches are refuges and breeding grounds for golden eagle and red-throated diver, the magnificent osprey, wild cats, rare arctic flowers, capercaillie and mountain hare.
GALLOWAY AND THE ISLE OF MAN
Geographical isolation means little disturbance and plenty of elbow room for wildlife. This is true of the cliffs of the hammerhead Rhinns of Galloway peninsula, the Solway shore and the wild hills of Galloway, one of the least frequented corners of Scotland; also of the lonely northern coast of the Isle of Man.
ISLAY, JURA AND SOUTHWEST ARGYLL
The most southerly island in the Inner Hebrides archipelago, Islay is one of the biggest, famed for its wildlife – Greenland white-fronted geese in winter, hen harriers and calling corncrakes in summer. Jura, a five-minute ferry ride away, has huge numbers of red deer; while over on the Argyll mainland are wooded peninsulas full of spring flowers.
THE TROSSACHS SOUTH TO AYRSHIRE
The shapely but small-scale Trossach Mountains have been described as ‘the Highlands in miniature’. The landscape levels out toward Glasgow, then climbs again more gently into the Ayrshire hills south of the city. The mountainous Isle of Arran lies in the outer Firth of Clyde, with the craggy volcanic lump of Ailsa Craig rising off the Ayrshire coast.
FIRTH OF FORTH TO THE SOUTH UPLANDS
The wide mouth of the Firth of Forth, dotted with tiny seabird islands and edged with wildfowl bays, opens from Edinburgh eastwards into the North Sea. From here big tracts of empty hills roll southwards across the Southern Uplands – wild country once dubbed the ‘Debatable Lands’, and fought over by the English and Scots for centuries.
ARDNAMURCHAN, MULL AND THE SOUTHERN HEBRIDES
In this region the tip of the Ardnamurchan peninsula is the furthest west you can go on the mainland, a great vantage point for spotting whales, porpoise and dolphin. The big island of Mull sprawls to the south with a spatter of basalt isles off its western edge – Iona, Staffa, Coll and the Treshnish Isles, the essence of romance.
LOCH LINNHE TO LOCH LOMOND
From the North Argyll oakwoods the sea lochs point eastwards towards Perthshire and the harshly captivating Rannoch Moor. Here the Black Wood of Rannoch with its red squirrels and capercaillies is a fragment of the ancient Wood of Caledon. Southwards lies tumbled country, with Ben Lui rising grandly over the north end of Loch Lomond.
THE ABERDEENSHIRE COAST
The coast of Aberdeenshire resembles a blunt arrowhead, running directly eastward along the Moray Firth to Fraserburgh where it makes an abrupt bend towards the south-southwest. Forvie Dunes lie between Peterhead and Aberdeen along this lower coast, midway between Aberdeenshire’s two great seabird colonies – at Troup Head on the Moray Firth, and south of Aberdeen at Fowlsheugh Cliffs.
CAPE WRATH AND SUTHERLAND
Cape Wrath marks the most northwesterly point of mainland Britain, and it’s inspiringly wild and hard to reach. From here the empty landscape of Sutherland stretches away south and east. Down in the southwest corner of the region lies Inverpolly, tremendously beautiful, with strikingly shaped mountains and a great variety of wildlife.
CAITHNESS AND THE FAR NORTH EAST
Here is where you cannot go any further north and east in mainland Britain. Caithness is low-lying, hugely boggy and bleak, with the great circle of the Flow Country at its heart – the biggest expanse of unbroken bogland in Britain. Up at Dunnet Head, the mainland’s most northerly point, you stare across the Pentland Firth at the Orkney Islands.
SCOTLAND – WEST AND NORTH
The islands off the west and north coasts of mainland Scotland lie in four distinct archipelagos – Inner and Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. They are famed far and wide for their beauty and for their unspoiled wildlife.
THE OUTER HEBRIDES
The island chain of the Outer Hebrides lies some 30 miles (50 km) west of the Scottish mainland, and measures about 130 miles (200 km) from its smallest and most southerly isles to the tip of Lewis, its biggest and most northerly. A causeway road connects the main islands nowadays, but this is still a remote-feeling, magical archipelago.
THE ORKNEY ISLANDS
Of the two neighbouring archipelagos, Orkney and Shetland, collectively known as the Northern Isles, the Orkney Islands are softer in atmosphere and shape, sandier, lower-lying and greener. Lying just off the northeast tip of the Scottish mainland, they are centred on the big, sprawling island of Orkney Mainland, from where good boat and plane services connect with the off-islands.
THE SHETLAND ISLANDS
The Shetland archipelago, 50 miles (80 km) north of Orkney, is a ragged splash of long, thin islands, founded on granite and deeply indented with geos or rocky inlets – the whole chain is 70 miles (110 km) long, but nowhere is more than 3 miles (5 km) from the sea. Tiny Fair Isle, famous for its birds, lies halfway between Orkney and Shetland.
SCOTLAND – SOUTH AND CENTRAL
MOORS AND MOUNTAINS
There is a glamorous allure to the wildlife of Scotland’s moors and mountains.
GLENS OF ANGUS SOUTH THROUGH PERTHSHIRE TO THE OCHILS
The Glens of Angus descend southeast from the skirts of the Cairngorm Mountains. Below rolls Perthshire, with Ben Lawers as an iconic central peak and lovely woodlands along the Linn of Tummel and the Loch of the Lowes. Southward rise the Ochil Hills, a last wave of ground before it smooths out into the Firth of Forth.
ANGUS, SOUTH TO FIFE AND EDEN ESTUARY
Angus is a region of fast-flowing salmon rivers and deep-cut glens making their way east towards a coast of splendid sandstone cliffs, indented by the huge tidal ‘inland sea’ of Montrose Basin. The proudly named Kingdom of Fife pushes its blunt dog snout out east between the Firths of Tay and Forth.
SKYE AND THE COCKTAIL ISLES
The Isle of Skye has been tethered to the Scottish mainland by a bridge since 1995. Out beyond Dunvegan Castle in the north west, Loch Pooltiel is a little-visited treasury of wildlife. South of Skye lie the three ‘Cocktail Isles’ – Rhum, Eigg and Muck. Rhum, the largest and most mountainous, has red deer, sea eagles and huge numbers of seabirds.
WESTER ROSS, LOCH NESS AND THE MONADHLIATH MOUNTAINS
Wester Ross is the classic Highlands – high and wild back country, with deep glens, tall mountains such as Beinn Eighe and Ben Wyvis, and a maze of long, thin lochs. Eastwards lies the long straight slash of Loch Ness, sunk in the dividing line of the Great Glen, on whose eastern flank rise the lonely Monadhliath Mountains.
MORAY FIRTH, SPEYSIDE AND THE CAIRNGORMS
Peninsulas, estuaries and sandspits shape the inner angle of the Moray Firth, whose long southern shore runs away eastwards from Inverness. The Spey is the region’s chief waterway, a splendid salmon river flanked by marshes, pastures and woods as it tumbles northeast towards the coast between the great mountain ranges of Monadhliath and Cairngorm – tough, snowy country in winter.
The West of Ireland is justifiably famed for its stunning mountains, rugged coasts and scatter of out-of-this-world islands. But don’t overlook the enormous, wildlife-rich bogs of the Midlands, and the great estuaries and sandy bays of the east – not to mention the basalt cliffs, rolling hill ranges and deep-cut glens of Northern Ireland.
THE FAR NORTH WEST: DONEGAL TO SLIGO
Donegal’s ragged coastal profile of north- and west-facing headlands gives way as you go south to the ‘Fermanagh Lakelands’ – limestone hills rimming the big lake of Lower Lough Erne. Co. Leitrim’s large dome of Sliabh an Iarainn, the Iron Mountain, looks over Lough Allen, while Sligo boasts wonderful basalt hills and a sandy coast.
THE ANTRIM COAST TO CARLINGFORD LOUGH
This region comprises most of Northern Ireland, from the ancient woodlands and flowery sand dunes of Co. Derry to the basalt cliffs and deep-cut glens of Co. Antrim, the Sperrin Hills and wide peat bogs of Tyrone, the magnificent volcanic scenery of South Armagh, and the Mourne Mountains and wildfowl coasts of County Down.
THE WEST COAST: MAYO, GALWAY AND CLARE
Here is the real-deal West of Ireland, all ragged coasts, modest but wild mountain ranges, a scatter of islands and a spatter of lakes. Co. Mayo’s Nephin Beg Mountains are as remote as Ireland gets; the region of Connemara in west Galway is a byword for romantically rugged landscape; and Co. Clare’s Burren limestone is world famous for wild flowers.
Ireland possesses about 3 million acres (1,200,000 ha) of bog – that’s about one-seventh of the country’s total surface area.
The Midland counties are the most overlooked region in Ireland. Don’t hurry through, but linger to enjoy the sombre but beautiful boglands of Longford and Offaly, Europe’s largest planted beech forest in Co. Westmeath, an ancient Roscommon wood on the shores of Lough Ree, and the hidden pleasures of Co. Laois’s mountain range of Slieve Bloom.
THE SOUTH WEST: LIMERICK, KERRY AND CORK
Ireland’s favourite holiday destination is the south west, where the Atlantic has fractured the coast into five peninsulas – Dingle, Iveragh and half Beara in Kerry, and Beara’s other half, Sheep’s Head and Mizen, in Cork. Inland are the mountains and lakes of Killarney National Park; offshore lie the extraordinary Skelligs, and the island-dotted inlet of Roaringwater Bay.
THE SOUTHERN COUNTIES
Going east from Cork and Limerick, you come into a region of small, compact hill ranges – Ballyhouras, Galtees, Knockmealdowns, Comeraghs – dignified with the title of mountains but really no more than fells, beautiful to walk and bird-watch in. Several big rivers – Blackwater, Suir, Nore, Barrow and Slaney – make their way south to a coast of cliffs and bays.
DUBLIN, WICKLOW AND THE SOUTH EAST
Ireland’s south east is the driest and sunniest corner of the island, with the capital city of Dublin lying centre-stage. On Dublin’s southern doorstep rise the Wicklow Hills, from where a curiously unfrequented coast of low cliffs and long, sandy strands leads south towards the big muddy slobs or tidal wetlands around Wexford.
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