Discover unsung destinations

Naturalist and author Dominic Couzens shares three destinations where wildlife thrives and people are scarce. 

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Discover unsung destinations

Puffins can be seen from Dancing Ledge © Elizabeth Baldwin

 

Dancing Ledge (Dorset, England)

This short stretch of the Jurassic Coast offers you almost everything: marvellous views over the English Channel whatever the weather, lots of wildlife, an adventurous scramble, an unexpected swimming site, some tasty forage and a dose of history.

Park at the end of Durnford Drove and from there it is a quick trot across the fields to Spyway Barn, a listed building dating from the early 19th century, once a haunt of smugglers. Just beyond, the commanding view of the sea is overwhelming, and both ravens and peregrines, together with the abundant jackdaws, ride the breezes at the top of the steep slope. In spring and summer, look down at your feet, because the limestone soil hosts many unusual plants such as the rare early spider orchid in profusion in April and early May. Look too in July for the Lulworth skipper, one of Britain’s rarest butterflies.

 

Early spider orchids flower in spring © Elizabeth Baldwin

 

In fact, the next step requires you to keep looking down, because you’ll be dropping to what looks like the cliff edge and the Southwest Coastal Path – it is very steep and easy to lose your footing. Stonechats and linnets are abundant on the slope, as are whitethroats in the summer. Take time to admire the chalk grassland plants you pass on the way, such as salad burnet, yellow rattle and cowslip.

By the time you reach the bottom of the slope, you are likely to be able to make out small, bobbing shapes on the sea. There is a seabird cliff here, and for much of the year it is possible to watch shags and guillemots swimming, sometimes with razorbills among them. Dancing Ledge is most famous, though, for its puffins, which can be seen here from late March to July. There are nothing like the numbers in northern Britain – only a handful – but these birds are the nearest to London. They are small and easy to miss, but they are often just offshore.

The interest is far from over, because at the bottom of this slope there are steps down on to Dancing Ledge itself, a man-made shelf constructed by the quarrymen of the Purbeck stone to help them load their vessels. The sea dances in a particular way here, or perhaps the shelf is the approximate size of a dance floor – take your pick for the origin of the name. Beside the slightly uneven and crumbling steps grows a tasty piece of forage, rock samphire, with its fleshy leaves and a delicious, slightly salty taste.

The Ledge is a favourite place for rock-climbers and for coasteerers, and there is another surprise in the form of a small swimming pool blasted out of the rock on the orders of the head of the nearby prep school about a hundred years ago. It was used by pupils for an early morning dip, which they may or may not have been grateful for. These days it can still be used, but swimming in the sea itself hereabouts can be dangerous and is not recommended. Look out to sea instead, where the birds sometimes come in very close and even dolphins are occasionally seen. On land, rock pipits breed and, in winter, you might see a black redstart.

The rocks in the area hint at a more dangerous type of wildlife: the Jurassic Coast, as you might guess, was once roamed by dinosaurs, although the most important finds have been of marine giants such as pliosaurs. Dozens of important fossils of many types have been unearthed near here, including some of the earliest mammals ever found.

Once you have enjoyed the Ledge, return up the steps to the Southwest Coastal Path. Here you can turn right or left to prolong your walk, or venture back up the slope to retrace your steps. Please note that it is much steeper on the way back up than on the way down – or at least it appears to be. It’s a hard slog, anyway. 

 

Seasonal highlights

Spring: puffin, early spider orchid

Summer: chalk plants, Lulworth skipper butterfly

Autumn: whinchat, warblers

Winter: stonechat, black redstart, gulls

All year: raven, peregrine, shag 

 

Falls of Braan (Perthshire, Scotland)

The Victorians knew a thing or two about designing curious and beautiful places. The Hermitage at Dunkeld, north of Perth, owned by the National Trust for Scotland, is just such a creation. A visitor here will be immersed in a largely artificial landscape which doesn’t pretend to be wild or untouched; and yet somehow the place just 'works' as a wildlife location.

One of the major attractions of the site is the River Braan, particularly the spectacular Falls of Braan. In the autumn salmon leap along these falls, especially in October and November. Set to a backdrop of fiery autumn colour, this is a glorious location in which to see the mighty fish reach the end of their epic journey. But, in fact, all isn’t quite what it seems. The Braan is not a genuine wild salmon river. There are managed hatcheries upstream, so these fish began life in the care of humans. They carried out their journeys to the sea and back, alright, but the reality is that the falls produce too much of a barrier and the salmon cannot leap them; they eventually give up and lay eggs a little downstream. But does it matter? As a spectacle, it is still thrilling and the instincts of the fish are as real as any other. It is absolutely worth seeing, the best viewpoints being from St Ossian’s Hall and the bridge.

 

Salmon can be seen attemping to leap the Falls of Braan © Elizabeth Baldwin

 

The other curiosity of the Hermitage is its magnificent tall trees, some of which are among the loftiest in Britain. But again, this is not a true natural spectacle. The trees concerned are Douglas firs, which are native to western North America, where they compete with redwoods as the tallest conifers in the world. The only real Scottish connection is that they are named after Scotsman and botanist David Douglas. But they are still an impressive spectacle. The tallest here is just over 201ft, putting it fourth on the list of individual British trees, all of which are also Douglas firs (the tallest is at Stronardron, Argyll, and measures just over 209ft). The Hermitage Fir is still about the height of 15 double-decker buses piled on top of one another, so it makes an awesome sight.

Of course, the wild animals around here are not aware that their surroundings are artificial. The red squirrels use what trees they can, and can be seen along the Braan Walk (park in the National Trust for Scotland car park). The goldcrests that nest high up in the firs are content to use foreign branches – Britain’s smallest bird in its largest tree. The wildlife makes do. In truth, Britain is such a modified place ecologically that it isn’t much different here to everywhere else.

You can therefore come here and visit neighbouring Tay Forest Park (Craigvinean) with a clear conscience. There are many peaceful walks and gems to enjoy, some easy to see and some very difficult indeed. In the latter category, pine martens occur, but they are incredibly hard to see. It is worth taking a walk at dawn or dusk and remaining as quiet as possible. These sleek and beautiful predators are specialised for hunting in trees, but they spend much time on the ground too and can sometimes be seen running across forest tracks. The same applies to another local – the elusive black grouse.

In the category of being hard to miss, the spring display of flowers at the Hermitage woodlands begins early, in February, with snowdrops, and progresses on to dog’s mercury, wood sorrel, wood anemone and, finally, bluebells. The walk is also excellent for mosses, liverworts, lichens and ferns, although identifying these will be much more difficult than finding them. On the river itself, dippers are also easy to see. These are extremely hardy birds that sing in mid-winter (the phrases are quite similar to a simple version of a song thrush) and breed by February. Coincidentally, crossbills, which occur in the pine trees in this area, may also be nesting at this strange time, if their favoured conifer seeds are ripening.

Dunkeld is a damp, mild part of Scotland and, besides the mosses already mentioned, the climate also greatly favours fungi. There are an impressive 270 species recorded on the National Trust property.

Indeed, colourful fungi, stunning autumn leaves and leaping salmon are good reasons to come here at this time. But in this peculiarly British curiosity, there is always something to enjoy.

 

Seasonal highlights

Spring: dog's mercury, wood worrel, wood anemone

Summer: osprey, grey wagtail, ferns

Autumn: salmon, black grouse, fungi

Winter: goldcrest, crossbill, snowdrop

All year: douglas fir, red squirrel, pine marten

 

Roundton Hill (Montgomeryshire, Wales)

From a distance, Roundton Hill doesn’t look much different to many other hills on the England/Wales border. Indeed, its neighbour, Corndon Hill, is both bigger and taller. Roundton Hill, though, is a National Nature Reserve and Corndon Hill isn’t. There is a reason for this.

It doesn’t sound attractive, but acid grassland is one of the most threatened habitats in Britain. Or, at least, unimproved acid grassland that has never been under the plough or reseeded is unusual. Here on Roundton Hill, a precious fragment has been preserved, and it hosts many rare and uncommon plants and fungi. This is what brings botanists and flower enthusiasts to this generally unheralded part of the country.

You need to be quick, though. Blink and you miss some of the action. Several of the hill’s treasured plants are known technically as 'spring ephemerals', which means that they germinate, grow, flower and seed early and very quickly, in a matter of four or eight weeks. The thin soil on which they live soon dries out and becomes unsuitable for them. So you need to be here at least in April, when it is still cold and wet, to catch up with them.

To be honest, you might wonder what all the fuss is about, because not one of these spring ephemerals is in any way spectacular. And only one, the early forget-me-not, is even colourful, with the small sky-blue blooms typical of its relatives. The rest – shepherd’s cress, common whitlow-grass, lesser chickweed and upright chickweed – are small, with white flowers. The chickweeds are particularly scarce, so you must appreciate them for their rarity.

There is a second bloom in the autumn, of fungi that depend on acid grassland. Several rare species occur on Roundton Hill, such as the pink waxcap, the date waxcap, the olive earth-tongue and the violet coral. And in the winter the site is also excellent for mosses, liverworts and lichens.

Even if these treasures weren’t there, Roundton Hill would still be an excellent wild walk. To get here, if you follow the brown signs from the village of Churchstoke, they will lead you down a narrow road, over a ford and to a car park. One walk takes you back up the road towards a natural pond, next to which grows a large stand of colourful yellow monkeyflower. Frogs and newts are common here, and if you visit in summer it is good for dragonflies. Follow up the stream and into the wood and listen out for birds. Redstart, woodpeckers and tawny owl breed here, and on the slopes above so do linnet and wheatear. Ravens are a constant presence overhead.

 

Frogs and newts are common at Roundton Hill © Elizabeth Baldwin

 

Near the car park are some large and very ancient rabbit warrens, still very much occupied. These provide food for some mammalian predators, including fox, polecat, stoat and weasel, with buzzards also snacking on the occasional youngster as well. The other mammal highlight is bats. The hill used to be mined, and horizontal tunnels (adits) were cut into the side. Now long abandoned among the trees, these are an excellent habitat for roosting lesser horseshoe bats. These rare mites, no bigger than a plum, are uncommon in Britain, and nobody knows where the individuals that hibernate here actually breed in the summer. Natterer’s, Daubenton’s, brown long-eared and both common and soprano pipistrelles are also found on the reserve.

Despite all the wildlife at the base of the hill, no visit should be complete without an ascent, which takes an hour or two, following the well-marked route. There are more plants on the way up, such as mountain pansy, a profusion of common dog-violets (in spring), the splendid burning-yellow rock stonecrop, wild thyme, lady’s bedstraw and, among the rocks, navelwort and a fern, the black spleenwort.

But lift your eyes upwards, too, because on a good day there is a 360-degree view of the Shropshire Hills to the east and the Welsh mountains to the west. There was once an Iron Age hillfort up here – so perhaps the ancients also recognised just how different Roundton Hill was.

 

Seasonal highlights

Spring: puffin, early spider orchid

Summer: chalk plants, Lulworth skipper butterfly

Autumn: whinchat, warblers

Winter: stonechat, black redstart, gulls

All year: raven, peregrine, shag 

 

This is an extract from Wild and Free by Dominic Couzens.

 

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