Animal magic as mercury plunges

Lapwing.  Photo: Carl WattsLapwing.  Photo: Carl Watts
Lapwing. Photo: Carl Watts
Forget Springwatch and Autumnwatch, Amy Jane Beer looks at why winter is the best season to spot some of Yorkshire’s best wildlife in action.

I’ve been hearing all year that wildlife is the new rock ’n’ roll. There’s a welcome new focus on the idea that life really is out there, and that even the glossiest on-screen spectacles are pale reflections of a reality in reach of every home in Britain.

Engaging with nature has been an attractive prospect in a glorious summer and one of the mildest and most productive autumns anyone remembers. But now, as the gritters roll and the sea rages, pitting yourself against the full force of a Yorkshire winter might be the furthest thing from your mind. But as sofa and fireside beckon, it’s worth remembering that winter is also an ideal time to take in details that are lost at other times of year.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The absolute best place to connect with wildlife is always wherever you happen to be. A well-placed feeding station will bring hungry wildlife in range of the armchair watcher. Supply high-energy foods like fatballs and peanuts, and sugary windfall fruits, and don’t forget water – you may need to break ice several times a day to keep it accessible.

However, Yorkshire has a wonderful selection of winter wildlife hotspots and even a short excursion at this time of year can reap rewards. Flocks of waxwings can descend on any back garden or city park with no warning. Kestrels and barn owls use road and rail verges as hunting grounds and some hardy species are positively thriving at this time of year.

Foxes often do well in cold snaps – the bodies of smaller animals that have succumbed to the cold give them a precious boost, and a healthy fox, resplendent in full winter pelage against a frosty or snowy backdrop is a memorable sight. Their seasonal magnificence is well timed – come late January and February the breeding season will be in full swing and the otherworldly screams of courting pairs adds a frisson to a winter evening stroll.

As the days begin to lengthen, changes imperceptible to those of us living in artificial light and heat are sensed immediately by wildlife, and spring really isn’t that far away.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Perhaps the greatest winter spectacles are provided by birds – migrants swell the ranks of garden visitors and can turn up with no warning almost anywhere. Encountering flocks of redwings, fieldfares and waxwings as they descend en masse to strip berries from leafless branches used to be largely a matter of luck, but in the age of Twitter, seeing these less predictable seasonal specialities needn’t be quite such a lottery. Massed waterfowl turn our wetlands into a thrilling sight often also graced by day-flying short eared owls, while across the county at night, the calls of their nocturnal cousins, barn and tawny owls, add a frisson to the chilly air.

Woodlands are a revelation in winter – with the leaves stripped you can see much further than in summer, so larger animals and birds find it harder to hide – deer, foxes, hares and squirrels are much easier to see, and if you fancy a challenge now is a great time to try some tree identification using shape, bark characteristics and the first buds to guide you.

Snowfall is a gift – especially if it falls overnight. Getting out at first light on a snowy day will give you the best opportunity you’ll have all year to do some tracking as even very tiny animals leave prints in fresh snow, although mice and voles are just as likely to make their movements beneath the crisp and even blanket as on top of it. And of course, nothing makes a moving animal stand out better than a backdrop of pristine white.

Often at this time of year it’s the lowlands and coasts that offer the most reliable opportunities for wildlife watching, but our exposed uplands are certainly well worth visiting to blow away a few cobwebs and festive calories. But wherever you go, wrap up! Watching wildlife often means standing still for long periods – you will feel the cold. A hot drink and spare food, a torch and a mobile phone on full charge are also a good idea and if you’re heading off the beaten track, let someone know your plans.

Yorkshire winter wildlife hotspots to warm the heart

Snaizeholme Red Squirrel Trail

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sensitive management of forestry interests and an intensive volunteer-led campaign 
to rid this part of Wensleydale of grey squirrels means reds are back in North Yorkshire. And the Snaizeholme trail is the perfect place to see them in winter. With trees stripped bare, their sprightly movements are easier to spot. Choose a bright calm day to maximise your chances, and as February approaches, watch out for daredevil mating chases.

Harewood kites

An afternoon walk in the stately surroundings of Harewood House will 
almost guarantee you a sighting of red 
kites, hanging overhead or carving the 
air with effortless precision. Such a spectacle 
seemed almost unimaginable 30 years ago. The reintroduction here in 1999 was 
part of one Britain’s best conservation 
success stories. A satellite population in 
the Yorkshire Wolds can also be seen 
most days.

Brave the Moors

We’re usually told that most moorland breeding birds head for lower ground or coasts in winter, but to some extent this is down to the fact that that’s where we tend to look for them. So venture on to 
the North York Moors, look for buzzards 
and red grouse, and find wooded dales positively thrumming with activity – bramblings, chaffinches, waxwings and thrushes in Troutsdale for example. And 
the National Park visitor centres maintain well stocked feeding stations you can watch from indoors.

Potteric Carr

As you’d expect for the flagship reserve of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Potteric Carr near Doncaster is highly accessible with superbly appointed visitor facilities. 
Expert spotters are on hand most days, and 
there’s a sightings blog on the reserve website to inspire you before a visit. It 
also happens to be a great winter option, with a diverse mosaic of wetland, grassland and woodland habitat to explore. 
How about kick starting your 2014 with their New Year’s Day Bird Walk?

Lower Derwent

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The Yorkshire Derwent is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its entire length, but it is the expansive floodplains between Sutton upon Derwent and Wheldrake that offer the most exciting opportunities. The YWT reserve of Wheldrake Ings attracts vast flocks of waterfowl (overwintering geese, wigeon, teal, shoveller, pintail and mallard), gulls (including rare visitors) and waders (golden plover, dunlin, lapwing and ruff for starters). You might be lucky enough to see peregrines swoop in too.

Snowdrop walks

You might not immediately associate winter with floral spectacles, but from mid February Yorkshire will have some of the best snowdrop displays you’ll see anywhere. While not all strictly wild, the displays at Burton Agnes Hall near Driffield and Austwick Hall near Settle and Fountains Abbey, Ripon, will still lift the winter-weary spirit like little else.

Living seas

The recent storm has left us in no doubt as to the power of the sea. But on calmer days, rockpooling can be all-year-round joy, and the aftermath of less devastating winter gales is a good time for beachcombing. Try Ravenscar for seals, Filey for rockpooling, or for a guided start, the YWT’s new marine education centre at South Landing, Flamborough. It’s open every Sunday during the winter, then every day of February half term.

Estuarine flats

The Humber estuary boasts one of the RSPB’s finest reserves, Blacktoft Sands, near Goole. Winter afternoons are a good time to visit – you can watch thousands of waterfowl feeding in front of the hides. Keep your eyes on the reed bed margins to glimpse barn and short-eared owls and merlin hunting and bitterns standing sentry and scan the skies to spot marsh and hen harriers converging to roost. The reserve was hard hit by the recent storm surge, but this dynamic habitat and its inhabitants are nothing if not resilient and it is due to reopen today.

Broadhead Clough

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Situated on the aptly wintry sounding Frost Hole Lane, Mytholmroyd near Halifax offers a mix of broadleaved woodland on craggy Pennine outcrops, bogs and acid grasslands – a perfect microcosm of wild West Yorkshire. In winter, you’ll be unlucky not to see or hear red grouse on the moor top, charismatic gangs of long-tailed tits bombing about the branches, and maybe a woodcock and a hardy brown hare or two.


Even with the drama of the rut over, deer are still worth watching. Stags will carry their antlers until at least February, after which there’s always a chance of finding a cast off – a real wild treasure. The red deer at Studley Royal/Fountains Abbey are exceptionally easy to watch. For a bigger but arguably more rewarding challenge, visit almost any area of well connected woodland at first light for a chance of seeing roe deer.

City surprises

Don’t forget our cities. Roosting starlings, gulls, roving winter thrushes and waxwings, migrant geese and urban foxes can all be seen in and around most major conurbations. And be prepared for the unexpected, like the flock of 30 odd goosander in Hull’s East Park. In central Leeds, the nature reserves of Kirkstall Valley, Townclose Hill and Owl Wood can be visited in one invigorating day – they are connected by the four mile Lines Way cycle and walking trail.


There’s nowhere quite like it. Exposed and often inhospitably lashed by wind and tide though it may be, the shallow, shifting spit of Spurn Head represents salvation to millions of North Sea migrants every year. At the time of writing it was closed following recent storms, but it’s worth keeping a check on the website. As Andrew Gibson, warden of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, says “It’s a magic place of constant change.”