Ten of the best drives for winter wildlife

Ten of the best drives for winter wildlifePA

There's an abundance of wildlife to see in Britain during the winter, and thanks to our extensive road network, much of it is easily accessible. Even near to the big towns and cities population, there's surprising quantity and diversity, and the colder weather often has the effect of bringing wildlife closer in.

From deer and birdlife flocking in from the colder climes of Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland, to o dolphins, seals, porpoises and whales. They're not as difficult to see as you might think; the key is to know their favoured feeding areas. Inland, Britain's various species of deer can also be readily observed from your car during the winter, as the colder weather brings them down from the higher ground.

Of course, the most obvious change in the winter is the landscape itself. There's little better than bowling along a country lane on a crystal clear December morning when the deciduous trees have been laid bare against the sharp cold sky, and frosts and even snowfalls have created magical effects on the fields, heaths and hills.

The best drives for winter wildlife
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Ten of the best drives for winter wildlife
Every winter, just north of Ely in Cambridgeshire, the fields between the Great Ouse and Old Bedford rivers are allowed to flood with water. This attracts literally hundreds of thousands of ducks, geese, and, most famously, swans. On crisp sunny days, as you drive along the dead-straight Fenland roads, you can see great skeins of birds flying in from Scandinavia or Greenland. There are plenty of places to stop off, and the designated bird reserve at Welney even offers floodlit viewing of the assembled hoards, once the light has failed.
In the cold of winter, Scotland's population of red deer moves down to lower levels, making them easier to spot for passing motorists. A particularly good place to see them is from the A712 (“The Queen's Way”), which crosses the Galloway Forest Park in the western Scottish borders. If you want a closer look, you can stop at the Red Deer Range car park on the north side of the A712, roughly half way between Newton Stewart and New Galloway. From here, there’s a half-mile trail to the Red Deer View Point and a hide from which to observe deer in their natural habitat.
One of Britain's busiest motorways is also – surprisingly – one of the best places from which to see families of Red Kites. These spectacular birds of prey (easily identifiable from their large size and distinctive forked tails) can be seen daily circling above the M40, especially between junctions 5 and 6. If you want to stop to get a better look, turn off at Junction 5 into the village of Stokenchurch; you can’t miss the birds flying low (sometimes at roof height) looking for food. Alternatively, if you turn off at Junction 6 and head south towards Watlington you will see kites in even greater numbers, often up to 50 at a time.
In winter, arrive just before high tide at the Deeside Estuary, and you'll be confronted with an awe-inspiring sight: tens of thousands of wading birds massing for the evening roost, swarming and wheeling in the air before settling on the marshes. Species include knot, dunlin, redshank, godwits and oystercatcher. You can gain particularly good views from the A548 – and especially just off it at the Point of Ayr – between Prestatyn and Mostyn in Flintshire.
An easy half-hour's drive out of East London along the A13 takes you to one of the most improbable hotspots for wildlife. Nestled alongside (and underneath) the raised highway near Dagenham are the marshes of Rainham. In winter, short-eared owls migrate here for sanctuary from the Arctic tundra, peregrine falcons quarter the reed beds, and flocks of teal dabble in the mud of the Thames. Car parking is plentiful, and the visitor centre has panoramic windows so you can survey the marshes from the warmth.
Each winter, the pastoral quiet of North Norfolk is rudely interrupted by the arrival of tens of thousands of noisy geese. The A149 takes you along the coast, from one pretty village to the next, before reaching Holkham, which for some reason has become a geese Mecca. Here, whole fields are crowded with honking geese of various species. To appreciate the full spectacle – and noise – park up near the Victoria Hotel a take a stroll along the lane that leads down towards the sand dunes. It’s worth continuing on to the beach as well, since the vast expanse of sand is one of the finest in the country.

The drive down to Spurn Point from Hull (A1033, B1445 and then Firtholme Road) is an unusual one: this spit of land extends into the Humber estuary for nearly four miles, yet is only 50 metres wide in places. The sand and shingle banks are held together by marram grass and sea buckthorn, but even so, high tides can shift sand over the road in great drifts  – so check access to Spurn Head (at the very end) before you go. It’s a particularly wild and atmospheric journey in winter, when you can appreciate something of the force of the North Sea. Wildlife to be seen includes porpoises, seals and migrating birds (there’s an observatory).

On a cold clear day in winter, driving along the Dungeness Road on the south coast of Kent can seem like arriving on another planet. The great flat expanse of this headland is pockmarked with the romantic debris of a long-gone fishing heritage (a decaying boat or a fisherman’s shack), and in the distance are the surreal sights of an abandoned railway, two lighthouses and two nuclear power stations. Dungeness itself is one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world and remarkably, a third of Britain's plant species can be found here. It’s also a favourite spot for twitchers on the look out for rare migrating birds. Nearby Romney Marsh (north of the A259) is also well worth a visit: it’s an area of low-lying farmland that attracts vast flocks of golden plover and lapwing in winter. It’s also famous for its unique breed of sheep.
Crossing Dartmoor in the middle of winter is particularly spectacular after a dusting of snow. The tors are capped in white, animal tracks can be seen winding over the hillcrests, and hardy breeds of sheep and cattle can be seen huddling together for warmth. Moreover, salmon can be seen leaping at Fingle Bridge in December, and in January the first snowdrops penetrate the icy turf. The main roads that cross the National Park are the A382 and B3212, but it’s the network of ancient drovers’ lanes beyond that are most worth exploring.
Head north out of Inverness along the roads that hug the water's edge and keep an eye out for the Moray Firth's resident population of bottlenose dolphins. Look out also for harbour porpoises, common and grey seals, and if you're lucky the occasional minke whale too. Good places to stop off and train your binoculars on the water are North Kessock (just off the A9), and better still, Chanonry Point near the pretty villages of Fortrose and Rosemarkie (A832). The latter is a favourite place for dolphins to find small fish and squid to eat.

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