The best nature reserves to spot summer wildlife

Whether you want to spot basking sharks or rare butterflies, you can find them at one of the Wildlife Trusts’ reserves


Cherry Hinton Chalk Pits, Cambridgeshire
What to spot:
Glow worms
Cherry Hinton Chalk Pits is one of the best places in the UK to spot glow worms. The chalk quarried here was used to build Cambridge University colleges. Nature has since reclaimed the landscape, and Wildlife Trust work parties have helped more chalk-loving plants, such as the rare moon carrot, to survive here. Glow worms aren’t actually worms at all, they are beetles. The flightless females are the ones who do most of the glowing. They climb into tall grasses on still, dark evenings where they produce the greenish lights to attract the attention of passing males. The bioluminescence is created through a chemical reaction that takes place in the beetle’s abdomen. And it’s not only the female that glows. The larvae can glow as well, and even glow-worm eggs can emit light. They are magical insects. The Wildlife Trust runs glow-worm spotting events — check the website for dates.

Burton and Chingford Ponds, Sussex
What to spot:
Emperor dragonflies
Burton and Chingford Ponds are an excellent place to spot dragonflies at this time of year, including the emperor dragonfly, a large, magnificent blue-green bullet of an insect. Watch too for the blue flash of a kingfisher as it dives for fish like roach and rudd — and both little and great crested grebes. In the 16th century this area was alive with the racket of blast furnaces producing cast iron. The “hammer” pond was created by damming local streams and was used to feed the water wheel of a forge, driving huge mechanical hammers that pounded the iron into bars. In the 18th century the pond’s water power was used to grind corn at the mill, which still sits close to the ponds today.

Red Rocks Marsh, Cheshire
What to spot:
Small heath butterfly
Dramatic coastal sand dunes, reedbed and saltmarsh can be found at Red Rocks Marsh in Wirral, where a constantly changing landscape provides an important refuge for the rare natterjack toad. The backdrop of mature sand dunes, which hug the fringes of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, create a striking vista against the Dee estuary and overlooking Hilbre Island. These rare and ever-changing habitats are home to plants such as bird’s-foot-trefoil, sticky stork’s bill, fairy flax and butterflies such as grayling and small heath. Despite its name, the small heath butterfly isn’t restricted to heaths — spot its cheery yellow-orange colours flying close to the ground on sunny days in among the dunes. Listen carefully at Red Rocks and you’ll hear the sound of hundreds of seals singing on the sand banks of the Dee estuary. The Wildlife Trust runs a two-mile summer walk across the sands to Hilbre Island, a perfect way to explore this wild and wide-open space.

Gors Maen Llwyd, Clywd
What to spot:
Hen harriers
Peat bogs and heather moorland combine to form this wild upland reserve, which offers stunning views across the Denbigh Moors to the Berwyn range. The reserve is at its most spectacular in midsummer, when the heather turns purple and its wildflowers bloom. Wildlife includes adders, water voles, otters and golden-ringed dragonflies, as well as upland and wetland birds, including black grouse, sand martins, reed buntings and sandpipers. Buzzards and merlins are a regular sight — and, encouragingly, the hen harrier, which has suffered massive population declines, hunts here too. The females are brown with a white rump and a long, barred tail, while males are even more visible, being very pale grey in colour. They can be seen flying with their wings held in a shallow V shape, gliding low over the reserve hunting small birds and mammals. The hen harrier is the most persecuted raptor in the UK and a European-protected species, so it’s best to keep a distance if you’re lucky to have a rare and precious sighting.

Looe Island, Cornwall
What to spot:
Seabirds, grey seals
Enjoy the feeling of escaping to an island paradise by boat, with all the sights and sounds of the stunning Cornwall coastline and some amazing views. Looe Island is a wonderful place to visit now. The island and its surrounding waters are teeming with wildlife. Watch for seals playing and seabirds such as cormorants, shags and bright-red-beaked oystercatchers. The island also has Cornwall’s largest breeding colony of the majestic great black-backed gull. Grey seals are Britain’s largest mammal; look out for these 2m-long giants in the waters around the island. Surveying by Cornwall Wildlife Trust, with the help of Cornwall Seal Group and volunteers, is helping us to learn more about these animals, and each one is identified by patterns in its fur. Pack a picnic, take a 20-minute boat ride and enjoy two hours exploring this magical place, from the seal and seabird spectacle on the shores to the summit where a Benedictine chapel once stood. The resident wardens will welcome you on arrival and the island is open for visits until September, tides permitting. (Check the website for boat information, times and fees.)

Milford Cutting, Co Armagh
What to spot:
Irish whitebeam
As the name suggests, Milford Cutting was once part of the old railway line from Armagh city to Castleblayney, known as the Great Northern Railway. The line closed in the 1950s and the site was reclaimed by nature. It’s now a man-made wildlife corridor amid a largely intensively farmed surrounding landscape. Although a relatively small reserve, there is a lot of wildlife packed in here. In summer the grassy railway banks are dotted with orchids, including common spotted, fragrant, northern marsh, common twayblade and the rare marsh helleborine, which is found at only eight sites in Northern Ireland. The cutting itself, nestled between drumlins, allows for a balmy microclimate that provides perfect conditions for a wide array of butterfly species, including meadow brown, small copper, peacock and ringlet. Migrant species of butterfly, such as red admiral, clouded yellow and painted lady, have also been spotted. Beyond the banks the woodland contains several specimens of the rare Irish whitebeam tree — one of the few plants endemic to Ireland. Twelve of these trees flourish at Milford, making it one of the largest populations of this species in Northern Ireland.

Foulshaw Moss, Cumbria
What to spot:
Stretching as far as the eye can see, Foulshaw Moss could be mistaken for a wild African savannah in summer. The grasses that grow on this lowland raised mire give off a warm honey glow quite unlike anywhere else you’ll find in Cumbria. Look out for the beautiful ospreys that have nested here for three years running and see this year’s chicks taking a leap into the unknown as they leave the nest. They will practise flying throughout the summer before leaving for their long migration to Africa or southern Europe in September. Head either to the osprey viewpoint, where you can get a good look at the nest, or climb the viewing tower to take in the scene — either way, don’t forget your binoculars. Peat bogs such as this have their own special wildlife. Look out for insect-eating plants, such as sundew, and white-faced darter dragonflies, which are found in only one other location in Cumbria. The reserve is also a haven for wetland birds, such as secretive water rails and endearing, long-beaked snipe.

Hilton Gravel Pits, Derbyshire
What to spot
: Daubenton’s bats
Hilton Gravel Pits is a breath of fresh air on the edge of a busy city — but with the birdsong, winding paths, quiet pond dipping spots and dusk skies full of bats, you wouldn’t know you were right next to Derby. The combination of lakes and ponds, fen and woodland makes this an important place for a wide variety of wildlife. Nationally threatened species find a haven here, including great crested newts, willow tits and black poplar trees. Look out for dragonflies and damselflies; 18 of Derbyshire’s 20 species exist on this reserve. Brown hawker, migrant hawker and emperor dragonflies can be seen flying over the water hunting insects. Another hunter that likes to swoop over the water is the Daubenton’s bat — visit as the sun is going down to spot these amazingly agile creatures catching their prey low over the lakes.

The sand lizard is one of six native reptiles in Upton Heath

Upton Heath, Dorset
What to spot:
Sand lizards
Glorious purples, yellows and greens adorn the wide-open landscape of Upton Heath in summer, where birds, reptiles, insects and plants thrive. The heath is home to rare wildlife, including the declining Dartford warbler and the silver-studded blue butterfly. This place is also a reptile heaven. All six of our native British reptiles live here — slow worms, common lizards, adders, grass snakes, smooth snakes and sand lizards. The sand lizard is particularly striking — about 20cm long, the males show off bright-green sides. It is one of the UK’s rarest reptiles and lives only in sandy heathland areas. A nimble, fast-moving, zigzagger, this ethereal creature can live to 20 years old. Your best chance of spotting reptiles is on hot sunny days, particularly mornings, when they bask in the sun. There are also spectacular views from here to Poole Harbour, Corfe Castle and the Isle of Purbeck.

Ayr Gorge Woodlands, Ayrshire
What to spot:
Daubenton’s bats and brown long-eared bats
The ravine at Ayr Gorge is so steep that a lot of habitat on its vertiginous sides has remained untouched by humans. Impressive beech trees mingle with oak and ash in this ancient woodland that teems with plants, birds and a number of rare spiders and beetles. At this time of year the reserve is a great place to spot Daubenton’s bats and brown long-eared bats. Look for Daubenton’s flying low over the river, scooping up insects with incredible speed and agility. Brown long-eared bats are relatively slow flyers in the bat world, with a distinctly fluttery style. Early evening moving into dusk is always a great time to spot bats. The woodland part of this reserve can be enjoyed from the River Ayr Way walking route — a 65km path that follows the length of the River Ayr from its source at Glenbuck Loch to the sea at Ayr.

The skylark is known for its melodious tuneGETTY IMAGES

Swift’s Hill, Gloucestershire
What to spot:
Skylarks and swifts
Swift’s Hill sits in the beautiful Slad Valley, the inspiration for Laurie Lee’s much-loved book Cider with Rosie. Lee loved the tranquillity of this place, describing once how the hill “just sits there glowing when the light is gone from everywhere else in the valley — it holds the light to the last drop”. The swifts that give this place its name visit year after year, performing their acrobatic displays until early August, so get spotting quickly if you can. This is also a wonderful place to lie in the long grass and listen to the skylarks as they float higher and higher into the sky, singing melodious notes. Bee and musk orchids, autumn lady’s tresses orchids and autumn gentian will be flowering now — and common blue, marbled white and small copper butterflies are on the wing. Walk the Laurie Lee Wildlife Way, which includes Swift’s Hill and three other nature reserves in the Slad Valley, and stop off at another Lee favourite, the Woolpack pub.

Springdale Farm, Gwent
What to spot:
Six-spot burnet moths
Enjoy outstanding views of the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons on a visit to this reserve. Nestled in the Usk Valley, Springdale Farm’s mixture of hay meadows and grazed pastures is home to an abundance of wildflowers in the summer, including common spotted orchids, common knapweed, blue-eyed grass and dyer’s greenweed. Caring for the meadows in a traditional way by cutting only after the wildflowers have set seed is what helps to make this place special for wildlife. Butterflies and moths make it their home because of the array of flowers. One stunning species to look out for is a moth that prefers day to night. The six-spot burnet moth can be seen on thistles, knapweeds and scabious. It has six bright-red spots on each forewing, which contrast with its dark metallic green-black wings that glitter in the sunshine, and when it flies the bright-red underwings are revealed.

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