Yorkshire has so much outdoor space for wildlife from rolling countryside to the stunning Dinosaur Coast. Its rich abundance of natural wildlife habitats are home to everything from puffins and red kites, to deer and red squirrels, as well as countless bird species. There’s lots of wildlife to see at the many Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s).
A wild day out for everyone – Yorkshire Wildlife Trust
With three of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s flagship reserves to explore, the Yorkshire Nature Triangle is a great place to start your wild adventure, bounded by the east coast from Filey Brigg in North Yorkshire, to Spurn Point; by North Cave, the Wolds and the River Hull catchment to the west; and by the Humber estuary to the south.
In Yorkshire’s south east corner, you’ll find the county’s very own ‘lands end’ – Spurn Point. Like nowhere else in northern England, Spurn’s 3.5 miles of wilderness-like sands and pebble beaches are home to terns, avocets and birds of prey, while spring and autumn finds the point become a mecca for migrating birds and birdwatchers alike. The Spurn Lighthouse restored in 2016 provides an unrivalled 360 degree view for miles around, and special 4×4 tours provide a wildlife ‘safari’ experience.
Further north, Flamborough Cliffs is a spectacular headland with an equally impressive sea bird population and fascinating marine ecosystem. Europe’s largest mainland seabird colony is scattered along chalk white cliffs with unrivalled views of puffins, making it the best place to see them on the UK mainland at spring time. Don’t forget the wealth of wildlife underneath the waves too – the Living Seas Centre on the south of the headland is the perfect place to discover what lies beneath the surf with events such as seashore walks, boat trips and even snorkel safaris! The centre also has the latest information on whale, dolphin and porpoise sightings from across the East Coast.
To the west, North Cave Wetlands, between Goole and Hull, is fast becoming an unmissable destination for wildlife watchers visiting the county. One of the largest populations of breeding avocets is complimented by dragonflies and butterflies in the summer months, and colourful flocks of wildfowl in winter – under the watchful eye of birds of prey like peregrines, harriers and regular red kites. There are accessible viewing hides and picnic areas for all ages.
Elsewhere, Potteric Carr, Doncaster, is the largest of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s 90 reserves and is the largest inland wetland outside of London. There’s 200 hectares of protected meadows and wetlands and a rich diversity of wildlife to discover for all the family, including the rare and secretive bittern. With small meadows, open water, reedbed, woodland, and marsh habitats, there’s so much wildlife all year round, plus a fabulous café and lots of all-access trails.
Staveley Nature Reserve, near Boroughbridge, is a former working quarry and is now home to more than 200 bird species, with spring and summer seeing the reserve burst into colour from orchids and wildflowers – much to the delight of resident butterflies and dragonflies. Otters are a regular sight amongst the calm wetland pools, with terns and sand martins also popular visitors in summer.
Birds Galore & More at RSPB Reserves
Binoculars ready, because Yorkshire’s world famous RSPB sites are a real treat for twitchers. The RSPB’s reserves are superb places for seeing all kinds of wildlife, not just birds, dragonflies, butterflies, water voles, hares, insects…
Bempton Cliffs, near Bridlington, from April to August, is home to over 200,000 nesting sea birds, as well as countless field species. From viewing points on the cliffs and back in the visitor centre where live images are beamed back using CCTV, you can watch fat little puffins setting off on fishing expeditions from which they return with their multi-coloured beaks stuffed with silvery sand eels – food for the chicks which huddle in cliff-side burrows. Visitors can join the hour long puffin patrols to seek out these elusive seabirds every weekend from Easter until July.
While the puffins are the stars here, there is a strong supporting cast. Gannets soar over the waters close inshore and Bempton is the only place in mainland England where these birds breed. Dainty little kittiwakes huddle on precarious nesting ledges, and razorbills and guillemots – immaculate in their black and white plumage, like miniature head-waiters – crowd rocky perches.
Blacktoft Sands, near Goole, is the largest intertidal reed bed in England and a haven for various bird species, including bearded tits, bitterns and marsh harriers, visible from six hides. Over the summer months, the Humber estuary is transformed into a bustling avian airport as thousands of birds stop off to refuel on their migratory journey south. Arriving from as far away as North America, wading birds come to the Humber to feast on the calorie-rich insects and invertebrates that live in the mud of the estuary. You’ll get to see anything between 10 and 20 different species of wading bird during late summer, including the spotted redshank and the green sandpiper.
It’s also a great place for watching the breathtaking courtship display of marsh harriers and see wild ponies grazing on the reservce.
Fairburn Ings in Castleford, has a rich array of wildlife and birds, and with pond dipping, regular fun events and walks, it’s the perfect place for the family. Kingfishers, reed and sedge warblers, little ringed plovers and garganey ducks are among the star species here in spring and early summer.
There’s scenic walks along the riverbank, a discovery trail, a wildlife garden, a family room and feeder cams, so even on the coldest of days, you can watch the birds up close.
Old Moor near Barnsley, is a green oasis hidden in the heart of the Dearne Valley. Set in 250 acres of wetland, Old Moor is a thriving wetland habitat, great for spotting birds from the six hides along the nature trails. The kingfisher is just one of the stars of the show here. Bring a picnic or watch from the balcony of the café as thousands of golden plovers take to the sky – it’s a sight not to be missed.
There’s even more for bird watchers to get excited about. At Malham Cove in the Yorkshire Dales, and in Scarborough town, you’ll find peregrine falcons nestled within the dramatic limestone cliffs. With high-powered telescopes provided by the RSPB at both sites, (Malham, every Saturday to Wednesday from 7 April until 31 July and Scarborough, every Friday to Monday from 11 May until 15 July), getting close to one of the UK’s rarest birds of prey is refreshingly easy. The peregrines aren’t the only attraction at Malham, with green woodpeckers, cliff-nesting house martins and little owls as well as redstarts and swifts also in residence.
More Wildlife Watching Ideas
Well worth the effort is the 9 mile linear walk for more experienced walkers through moorland, woods and a conifer plantation, south-west of Hawes in Wensleydale, to a colony of red squirrels at the Widdale Red Squirrel Reserve one of only 16 areas in the UK dedicated to preserving the red squirrel in its natural habitat.
You’ll be able to see this shy native species in its natural woodland home all year round but autumn is when they are at their most active as they gather nuts and prepare their drays for winter. There is a specially created viewing area which gives you the best opportunity to spot the squirrels and take photos.
Also in the Dales, close to Grassington, is Grass Wood Nature Reserve. Here the richly diverse woodland is home to everything from flora such as lily of the valley to woodland birds, butterflies and even herds of roe deer.
The abundance of wildlife of the North York Moors makes it a natural magnet for nature spotters. There are many fantastic locations to get up close to rare and wonderful species, including curlew, lapwing, red grouse and Britain’s smallest bird of prey, the merlin. The golden plover arrives in summer and Commondale Moor is a great place to spot them during the breeding season.
You can also go badger watching in Cropton Forest, near Pickering. An accessible hide lets visitors observe a known and protected badger hide, giving viewers a unique glimpse of these nocturnal mammals. Join the organised watch from May until August.
Red kites in full flight at Harewood House, near Leeds are a sight that leaves many in awe. Released on the estate in 1999 as part of a conservation initiative, their numbers are gradually increasing each year. So spotting a few should be pretty easy. You’ll also be able to glimpse deer trotting amongst the woods.
Harewood’s red kites also took a liking to the Yorkshire Wolds, moving eastwards and today can be spotted above the broad fields. Sightings are now almost common-place, especially in the South Cave and Londesborough areas. Hares are also flourishing in the Wolds and are as common as rabbits in some places, while buzzards can also be seen, having naturally colonised the area in recent years.
Head to Tophill Low Nature Reserve for one of the best places in the country for spotting kingfishers. It’s an active Yorkshire Water treatment works built in 1959 that formally opened as a Nature Reserve in 1993 and features 12 hides across a 300 acre site that flanks the River Hull. Two reservoirs dominate the reserve and have earned SSSI status for their massive wildfowl and gulll numbers. There’s also a network of marshes, ponds, woodlands and grasslands resulting in an annual species count of over 160, with over 60 species readily visible even in mid-winter. Kingfishers can be seen at close quarters, and marsh harriers and ospreys (on migration) are regular visitors. Rarities are regularly seen, including purple heron, water vole, or even an otter for a lucky few, and it’s a good place to see grass snakes which sunbathe early on spring days near the southern (D) reservoir.
Bring your binoculars, and get to know South Pennine’s distinctive bird life. The high moorlands are particularly important for waders, and have been given official status both as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and (under the European Union’s Birds Directive) as a Special Protection Area. A significant number of curlews and lapwing breed here, as do Golden plover, snipe and dunlin. Raptors are present too, including the peregrine falcon, merlin and short-eared owl. The hen harrier, recovering slowly from persecution, breeds close by in Bowland.
The South Pennines are also an important habitat for the twite, appropriately enough also known as the Pennine finch. Indeed the RSPB has designated the land between Huddersfield, Rochdale and Keighley as England’s ‘twite triangle’. Special measures are being taken in land management to help the bird grow in numbers. The National Trust’s Marsden Moor Estate, is one such place where you can spot the twite and boasts a who’s who of other wildlife too, including curlew, dunlin and merlin, as well as rarely seen mammals and native flora and fauna.
Take a Walk on the Wild Side with English Heritage
Life at English Heritage’s abbeys and castles did not end when the last of the human occupants moved out – in fact, quite the opposite is true, as over the centuries, the crumbling masonry and open grassland has become home to a diverse collection of wildlife pleased to take advantage of what man has left behind.
There is an abundance of wildlife at English Heritage’s Yorkshire properties, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of wild deer, rabbits and squirrels at peaceful Rievaulx Abbey, the famous stoats at Mount Grace Priory and even bats at Brodsworth Hall and Gardens!
Want to know more about wildlife? Download the podcasts below to hear English Heritage wildlife expert Becky Wright discussing the wealth of wildlife at English Heritage sites in Yorkshire, the perfect complement to a day out on site.
Find out about other English Heritage sites and great historical areas in Yorkshire here.