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Homestay safaris- The best wildlife experiences in the UK

Posted on April 24, 2018 by Paula

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The variety of wildlife that can be found around the UK is truly incredible. Although many people look further afield to get closer to nature, there are many more advantages to a homestay safari than just to your bank account and even cheap getaways can provide rewarding and inspiring wildlife experiences.

The team at Wight Squirrels, an organisation dedicated to preserving the red squirrel population on the Isle of Wight, perfectly summed up the beauty of a homestay safari: “It is great to experience and explore Britain’s wildlife, to enjoy and appreciate the variety and colour of the seasons and to take an interest in the wildlife on our doorstep. British wildlife is often overlooked and yet it is part of our heritage and culture from Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Wind in the Willows’ to books like ‘Squirrel Nutkin’ by Beatrix Potter.

“It is important that we raise awareness of animals like red squirrels and hedgehogs that are disappearing and facing increasing manmade threats like traffic and having natural habitats encroached upon by building work and new roads. Our mild climate is inviting many different species of birds and animals which can rely on food supplies in warm wet summers and mild winters. It is worth noting the vast numbers of miles that birds fly just to migrate to the British Isles. “

Exmoor/Dartmoor, South West- Ponies

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Despite being so close in location, Exmoor ponies and Dartmoor ponies are thought to be completely separate breeds. Both breeds however are similar in nature, they are small and hearty creatures that fit in perfectly with their wild backdrop. These creatures are not elusive, both Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies can usually be found not too far from the beaten track. These horses are semi-feral and therefore although they look approachable, it’s best you don’t approach them unless you are in a supervised area.

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We spoke to the team at Visit Exmoor about the Exmoor pony: It’s hard to beat seeing wildlife in their natural habitat and one of the highlights of visiting Exmoor National Park is spotting the Exmoor pony. If you are lucky you can see them grazing high up on the moors as you drive through the park. Semi-wild, they are one of the UK’s oldest breed of native pony and are well adapted to enduring the dramatic seasonal weather. Come in spring or early summer and you might catch sight of a foal keeping close to its mother as it learns the ropes of life on the moors.”

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We were lucky enough to also speak to Clare Stanton from the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust who spoke to us about neighbouring Dartmoor pony: “You can buy a Dartmoor pony from pretty well anywhere in the country - or even the world - but the true magic comes from seeing them in their native habitat: running free on Dartmoor itself. Showing just how tough and hardy, but beautiful they are, thriving on the Moor with its stunning rocky outcrops - or Tors - and its gorse, heather, bracken and wild open spaces. They know where the best food and shelter is at any time of the year and any kind of weather and they raise their foals to be strong and clever and able to look after themselves, whatever the terrain.”

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Clare spoke to us about why Devon should be on your homestay wildlife safari bucket list: “Why go further than Devon to enjoy an animal experience that will stay in your memory forever? The combination of incredible scenery and tough little ponies, brings people back time and time again. A magical, mysterious world, very different from most places across the UK, with a pony that may be small but is incredibly gentle and yet copes with it all happily.

“Make the most of walking around the moor where you see the ponies - but watch from a distance. See how they can pick at the gorse so gently with their soft muzzles; climb up and down rocks and valleys. Stallions rounding up their mares and foals; such beautiful babies are best seen between May and September. Devon - and Dartmoor - is easy to get to know, so give yourself the experience of a lifetime and come and see our Dartmoor ponies.”

Isle of Wight- Red Squirrels

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You won’t have to wander around any London park for too long before meeting a grey squirrel, but the red squirrel is much more elusive in the UK. This is partly because the red and grey squirrels struggle to live in harmony, and since the American grey squirrel has been introduced the red squirrel population has gone down drastically.

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One place where red squirrels are much more common is the Isle of Wight. The woodland on the isle provides a home to roughly 3,500 red squirrels. The Solent provides the perfect stronghold between red and grey Squirrels, and the Isle of Wight population has benefitted from this greatly.

We spoke to the team at Wight Squirrels who told us about the red squirrel population on the Isle of Wight: “The Isle of Wight has acres of unspoilt countryside and miles of spectacular beaches, in fact much of the Island is a designated ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. The red squirrel has disappeared from most of England and Wales, however we are fortunate to still have them on the island. We have habitat for around 3,500 squirrels and it is magical to see these rare creatures in woodland and close to beautiful beaches.”

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The team asks if you see a red squirrel then you report it to the team at Wight Squirrels: “Although it is not unusual to spot a squirrel, we are keen to monitor these wonderful creatures and protect them from traffic and predators, particularly their grey counterparts!”

We also spoke to the team at the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust about the Isle’s red squirrels: “These charismatic, tree dwelling rodents are now so scarce in the UK that they are afforded the highest level of protection under UK law. To see a red squirrel in the wild is a rare privilege, and one that you’ll only get in specific parts of the country. The Isle of Wight is one of the best places to see the elusive red squirrel, and there’s nothing quite like spotting one bounding between the branches of its woodland home.”

Conwy, North Wales- Birds

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North Wales is not only a beautiful location for a weekend getaway, it is also home to a fantastic RSPB nature reserve. The Conwy nature reserve is home to a variety of wildlife, and a great place to be at one with the striking Welsh scenery.

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Not only a great spot for walking, the nature reserve is home to many interesting species which varies all year round. During the winter the skies and dominated by starling murmurations, and during the spring Conwy is also home to a vast wild orchid population.

Scotland- Scottish Wildcats

The Scottish wildcat is one of Britain’s most striking predators. Also known as the Tiger of the Highlands, Scottish wildcats are currently one of our most endangered animals and are on the brink of extinction.

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Wildcats are extremely rare and illusive creatures so finding them is very difficult. This is by far the hardest animal on our list to see in the wild. Scottish wildcats are not too much bigger than a large tabby cat, the main difference is their black markings and thick tail. When you are walking in Scotland it is always a good idea to keep an eye-out for wildcats, if you are lucky enough to spot one, reporting it to organisations like the Scottish Wildcat Action can be valuable in helping protect this gorgeous species.

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Rupert Shanks from Wilderness Scotland spoke to us about why Scotland is the perfect destination for wildlife lovers: “Scotland is a world class wildlife destination. Whilst we may not have the ‘Big 5’ kind of animals found elsewhere, however, there are two reasons that make Scotland very special. Firstly, the range of biodiversity is some of the highest in Europe. Secondly, the relatively compact geography means you can experience wide ranging coastal flora and fauna, through estuarine grasslands, mature forest through to arctic alpine habitat all in a single day.”

Brighton, South Coast- Starlings

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Brighton is popular for its culture and rich nightlife, but it is also a great place to see one of Britain’s biggest starling murmurations. Over the West Pier during the winter months starlings come from far and wide to perform these dances in the sky, and with the sun setting in the background, Brighton is one of the most beautiful locations to witness this.

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To add to the magic of the murmurations no-one truly knows exactly why starlings congregate like this, although it is thought they do this in order to deter predators. The West Pier murmurations are the second largest in the country with up to 40,000 birds coming from as far as Scandinavia to become part of the show.

Nottinghamshire, Midlands - Kingfishers

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Despite being fairly widespread in England, kingfishers can be elusive and hard to spot. This colourful bird is arguably one of Britain’s most beautiful natives. Nottinghamshire is home to Attenborough Nature Reserve, one of the best places to see kingfishers in the UK.

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This small robust bird adds a flourish of gold and blue to the countryside. They love to perch on overhanging willows or alders on the river bank in order to be ready for their next meal. The kingfisher is a relative of the Australian kookaburra, although the kookaburra is a lot larger than the modest kingfisher. The perfect way to see more than just a flash of blue and gold is to take to one of Nottingham’s many water-side walks or burrow down in a hide and it won’t take too long before you are face to face with a kingfisher.

North West Scotland- Golden Eagle

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The power and grace of golden eagles is something only those who have seen them really understand. The large birds are most prevalent in the Northern reaches of Scotland and add to the sheer wilderness that surrounds you when you are there.

As well as golden eagles you can also see sea eagles around the Scottish coast, these are actually even larger than the golden eagle and have incredibly broad wings. Both species will take your breath away, and your best bet of seeing them is to drive to a quiet cove or coastline and haul up with a cuppa, and keep your eyes on the sky.

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We spoke to Rupert Shanks from Wilderness Scotland about the magic of seeing a golden eagle in Scotland: “Seeing a golden eagle soaring with barely a wing beat high above remote highland mountain crags has got to be one of the most spectacular and iconic wildlife sightings to be had anywhere in the UK. Although widespread across Eurasia and North America they have historically been persecuted in the UK. With one occasional breeding pair in the Lake District in England and a few pairs in SW Scotland, the north and west highlands as well as the Hebrides are the place to come if you want to see these truly magnificent birds.”

London- Parakeets

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When you wander around London there are a few types of birds you assume you’ll see, but that list doesn’t usually include parrots or parakeets. Although no-one really knows how they arrived in London, the parrot population gained a significant presence in the 1990s and now it is estimated to be home to over 6,000 individual birds. 

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The birds are easily identified by their bright green feather and loud squawks. This Afro-Asian species can make you think you are abroad somewhere, especially when the hot sun is out in the summer months. Although London locals get used to the birds, you’ll never forget the first time you see the bright green flash of a parakeet in the last place you’d expect it.

Image Credit: Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust, Visit Exmoor, Jeff Buck, Ian Preston, Airwolfhound, Wilderness Scotland. 

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