by Brian Jackman, The Telegraph, April 2, 2019
The view from Thorncombe Beacon never fails to impress. To the east lies Chesil Beach, a scimitar curve of tawny shingle leading the eye to the crocodile snout of Portland Bill as it slides into the sea 20 miles away.
In the other direction looms Golden Cap, the highest cliff on the Channel coast, with Lyme Regis beyond and the headlands of Devon fading away to where Start Point lies hull down on the western horizon. But I haven’t come just to admire the scenery. What has brought me to Dorset’s Jurassic Coast is the chance to watch peregrine falcons in action.
What a miracle of evolution is the peregrine, a masterpiece of aerodynamic design more complex than any jetfighter. When it dives on its prey, stooping out of the sun from perhaps a mile up, it becomes the fastest feathered thing on earth, capable of speeds beyond 200mph; and the beauty of watching these apex predators of the flyways is that you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to see them – they live right here in Britain.
It wasn’t always thus. In the Fifties it seemed as if they might be lost forever when agricultural pesticides entered their food chain and caused a massive population crash. But after the poisons were banned in the Seventies, these fabulous falcons bounced back.
Today there are about 1,500 breeding pairs in the country. London alone has 30 pairs and rare the UK city without a couple of resident peregrines swooping around their cathedral tower. But above all they belong on our wild sea cliffs and that is still the best place to watch them fly and hear them scream.
Even on a calm day the sea boils white against the rocks 500 ft below my vantage point. Ravens go tumbling past in the up-draughts and the cries of herring gulls hang in the wind. The stage is set and now it’s time for the show to begin. I don’t have long to wait.
Floating up from the abyss, more insistent than the wailing gulls, louder than the shrilling jackdaws comes a harsh, heckling cry that lifts the hairs on the back of my neck. It’s the tercel, the male peregrine, so called because he is roughly one third smaller than his mate. On switchblade wings he comes soaring past, observing me with lustrous eyes eight times more powerful than my own.
Casting around in search of a thermal, he begins to ring up into the sky, effortlessly carving wide parabolas as if revelling in the sheer joy of flight. Riding the torrents of air flung up by the cliffs, he climbs a thousand feet in a matter of seconds to join his mate among the clouds before closing his wings and putting in a vertical dive almost too fast to follow, as if to show her what he can do. In terms of sheer mastery of the air, not even the Red Arrows can match it.
The wildlife wonders of Britain are not limited to the airways and there are plenty of superb creatures to spot on our diverse shores if you know where to look.
Endearing creatures to track down around Britain
Become an otter spotter
Immortalised in Tarka the Otter, Henry Williamson’s classic novel, these elusive mammals remain at the top of most people’s want-to-see list in Britain. Almost wiped out by pesticides in the Sixties, otters are now present in all of our major river systems.
Even so, they are never easy to track down and are best spotted along the shores and estuaries of the Scottish Highlands and islands. Head for Shetland with a specialist company such as Shetland Nature for the best chance of spotting these endearing creatures (shetlandnature.net).
Gently down the stream
Chalk streams, those idyllic stretches of crystal clear trout pools and rippling tresses of water-crowfoot, are an almost uniquely English phenomenon. Beloved by fly fishermen, there are only just over 200 such streams in the world – and 160 are in England.
May is the finest time to explore them, when mayflies hatch and greedy trout are easier to catch. This is a glorious time to walk the Itchen Way, a 30-mile (48km) hike through the water meadows to Southampton Water. Sadly, the blizzards of mayflies that once danced over our streams at hatching time are becoming harder to witness as pollution takes its toll. But there are still the trout and the kingfishers.
There she blows!
Who would have thought that the Isle of Mull would be one of the world’s finest whale-watching hotspots? Every summer, peaking in July, minke whales gather to feed in the surrounding Hebridean waters. Look for them on trips from Tobermory – together with a host of other marine creatures (tobermory.co.uk).
Mull also offers unrivalled sightings of sea eagles, Britain’s biggest bird of prey. Reintroduced in the Seventies after an absence of more than 70 years, there are currently more than 100 pairs in Scotland, with about 20 pairs on Mull.
Voice of the wildwood
Now protected as a national park, Hampshire’s New Forest is hallowed ground. Its lowland heath, a habitat rarer than rainforest, is the largest in Western Europe.
Fallow deer roam here and in October the veteran bucks mark out their stamping grounds at the onset of the rut. From the depths of the woods they throw down their challenge, a rhythmic rasping grunt like a motorbike being kick-started. Best heard at dusk, it’s a weird, primeval sound, summoning up the spirit of the ancient wildwood that covered so much of Dark Age Britain.
When starlings flock together in winter it’s called a murmuration. When thousands gather it becomes the greatest wildlife show in Britain. It happens every year at dozens of sites, including Brighton’s west pier.
There are spectacular displays at the RSPB’s Leighton Moss reserve and other major sites include Gretna Green in Dumfries and Galloway and over the reed beds of the Newport Wetlands, but the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve in Somerset beats the lot. Be there by sunset in midwinter to watch a million birds or more in shape-shifting clouds over the Avalon Marshes.
The hounds of Heaven
There are few sights to match the migrations of Arctic wildfowl that flock to our shores every winter, and nowhere better to hear their clamour than at Snettisham on the Norfolk coast. The RSPB have a reserve here (rspb.org.uk), and what a treat you’ll have at dawn on a midwinter morning, when upwards of 30,000 pink-footed geese drop in to feed.
Seal of approval
The grey or Atlantic seal is our biggest breeding land mammal and roughly half the global population live around our coasts, together with smaller numbers of common seals. The Orkney Islands are home to 25,000 grey seals. Boat trips to the Farne Islands off Northumberland offer great close-ups, especially in autumn when more than 1,000 pups are born. Or take a trip out to Norfolk’s Blakeney National Nature Reserve, which supports a large grey seal colony.