Thursday, January 3, 2008

Britain's wildest places

Barbara Young, Chief Executive, Environment Agency

Fetlar lies to the east of Yell, is lush and green by Shetland standards, with a sparse population of 100 people, and it’s home to a considerable proportion of the UK’s red-necked phalaropes. Indeed, all but five of the red-necked phalaropes in the UK nest on the RSPB reserve at Fetlar.

Phalaropes, small birds the size of a starling, come back to Fetlar to breed and are often so tame that they run around your feet. Apart from their friendly disposition, the female red-necked phalarope, whose plumage is far brighter than the male, is a great role model. She arrives in Fetlar, larks around with the males, lays the eggs and then leaves the male to brood and rear the young on his own. While he slaves away looking after the kids, she spends the summer schmoozing about.

When not admiring the phalaropes, visitors can marvel at the awesomely wild landscape (once described to me as ‘mamba’ - miles and miles of bugger all), and on the way to and from the island, you will see puffins elbow-to-elbow on the seacliffs on the tangle of the other Shetland Islands, particularly at Sumburgh, where the plane from the mainland touches down.

And there’s much more to Shetland than Fetlar. On islands such as Egilsay, for instance, the moors and fields are crammed with wildflowers and nesting waders. Whooper swans stopover, and locals will tell you about - but never show you - the swan that took to killing sheep as a hobby. The history of these islands is long and eerie, too, so go prepared to be enthralled by the standing stones and circles of prehistory.

Robert Napier, Chief Executive, WWF

Glen Clova, about 50km north of Dundee and extending westwards from the flatlands of the Scottish east coast, is the place where I was nurtured and where my heart lies. A nature reserve and designated national scenic area, it nestles amid the hills and mountains of rural Angus, providing a bolt hole of tranquillity from the maelstrom of the Surrey commuter belt that is, for the moment, home.

Being brought up in Perthshire ensured a childhood of weekends and holidays exploring the countryside and revelling in the freedom a farm overlooking the Crieff Hills allows. Regular trips back to Glen Clova reveal an area of natural beauty free of cosmetic makeover and artificial enhancement. Arriving late on a Friday evening, watching the moonrise and the mist creep along the River South Esk at dusk is an enthralling sight.

Glen Clova is home to a myriad selection of flora and fauna, and each season offers its own programme of sights and sounds. A favourite time for me is the period just prior to the surrender of summer to autumn, when stags introduce their courting dance with a rutting fanfare and grouse play hide and seek among the undergrowth. The chattering ring ouzel vies for airplay with the whistle of the curlew, and flashes of red and green crossbills can be glanced among the conifers.

Last summer, walking to the top of Mount Driesh - at over 3,000ft, a classified munro - I passed the day mostly alone, with only the odd ptarmigan and dotterel, which was startled by my presence, and the more curious rabbits and deer, for company. Reaching the top, I was reminded again of my youth as, mesmerised by the blueness of the sky, I watched a golden eagle soar and wondered at the vast expanse of space.

I joined WWF because of my love of wild, unspoilt places such as Glen Clova and because I believe they should remain so. The challenge is to protect their natural beauty, while providing sustainable economic activity.

Martin Doughty, Chair, English Nature

My favourite wild spot in the UK is a wildlife haven that could have been turned into an environmental disaster. It’s a habitat for many wildflowers, including bluebells and marsh marigolds in the spring and orchids, ragged robin and white eyebright in the summer. And it’s virtually on my doorstep in an area where I was born and brought up and have lived for the past 25 years.

Back in 1992, the Government announced plans for a bypass to link north-west Derbyshire to Greater Manchester. Horrified by the plans, the county council and the Peak District National Park Authority asked the wildlife trust to survey parts of the route where there was a potential conservation value - one of those areas was Goytside Meadows.

Though only a small site, the unimproved grassland, which abuts housing on the edge of New Mills, was found to be of significant wildlife value and home to a number of plants and insects rarely recorded elsewhere in Derbyshire. Indeed, the trust eventually determined that it was one of the last remaining examples of a habitat-type which had all but disappeared from local areas.

The work helped fuel the opposition to the road scheme, and in 1996 the Highways Agency abandoned it. Within two years, the new Government had agreed to sell the land to New Mills Town Council, which planned to develop it (now mostly realised) as a nature reserve.

I’ve long had an amateur interest in wildflowers and birds, but as much as anything, I just like to snatch an hour or two once a week to enjoy the tranquillity of the place. Part of the area is managed as a hay meadow, while the rest, including acid grass banks and extensive areas of marshy grassland, is grazed, mostly by a few horses these days. It’s here you’ll find the orchids, plus meadowsweet, marsh valerian and lesser spearwort. The funny thing is that that road scheme played a part in saving Goytside - without the original plans, the survey work would never have been done and we wouldn’t now know what an incredible habitat it is.

Simon Lyster, Director General, the Wildlife Trusts

"Muddy wellies welcome," says the notice on the door of the Essex Wildlife Trust visitor centre at Hanningfield Reservoir, my little bit of heaven in south-east Essex. It epitomises the people-friendly attitude at this wildlife paradise just 55km from the centre of London.

When I tell people that I’m an Essex man and Essex is one of Britain’s best-kept wildlife secrets, I generally get some pretty withering looks. If I add that my favourite wildlife hotspot is less than 10 minutes from Billericay, the spiritual home of ‘Essex man’, the normal reaction is that I’ve completely lost it.

Well, I admit I am biased (I grew up on a farm on the edge of the reservoir), but I urge you to go and take a look for yourself. The place is stunning. Birdwatchers can clock up to 60 species on a summer’s day, and there’s usually a rarity, such as a passing osprey or goshawk, to stir the blood. Once, I even saw a greater-spotted cuckoo, and in autumn and winter, there are vast flocks of waterfowl.

But there’s more to Hanningfield than birds. I can almost guarantee to find a water vole within 15 minutes, while grass snakes and common lizards are plentiful, and there are bustling wood ant colonies and a wide variety of habitats, such as meadows, secondary woodland and reedbeds. The adjoining ancient woodland, Well Wood, has a mosaic of large trees, coppiced glades and ponds.

What’s more, Hanningfield caters for every type of visitor. If you want to enjoy a cup of coffee in the visitor centre and watch wildlife through the windows looking out on to the water, no problem. If twitching is your thing, there are plenty of hides to keep you happy. And if you just want a nice walk in the country, not far from London, the footpaths are excellent - plus you are certain to see something of interest, and it’s free.

Of course, Britain has more spectacular places for wildlife, and my colleagues in the Wildlife Trusts will kill me for favouring one out of the 2,300 nature reserves we manage. But if I’ve had a hard week, don’t want to travel far and need to see some wildlife to recharge my batteries, I head straight to Hanningfield.

Charles Secrett, Executive Director, Friends of the Earth

Westward Ho! Clovelly. Tintagel. Marazion. The Lizard. Mevagissey. Lostwithiel. Looe. Ending, naturally enough, at Hope’s Nose or Beer Head. The roll-call of evocative place names floats through my mind, filling me again, as easily as the thick cream teas, fresh fish and potato-packed pasties.

Memories of Devon and Cornwall - deep-sea fishing expeditions or catching crabs from old harbour walls. Rip tides and rock pools. Exposed shales and occasional fossils. Tumbling cliffs and hanging woods. Coombes, tors and rusting mine shafts and tight little fields, marking the land as unique. These are places of adventure and discovery. Places of romance and legendary England, too, with compensations galore to escape the tacky, crappy shoppes, fume-filled highways and monopolised chain stores, which corrupt the peninsula’s ancient magic as cancer eats at bone.

I love this part of the world, because it kicks and tickles me alive every time I go or even remember. These are places ripe for chasing the wonders of the everyday - a burst open ammonite suddenly uncovered after millions of years and a thousand failed attempts; flapping plaice at the end of a beach-flung line; exploring the enfolding green darkness of mossy oaklands, where pixies just might have as good a chance of surviving as anywhere; giggling as snub-nosed mullet dart frantically through kelp fronds and clutching fingers, while the hermit c


rab settles down unhurriedly to hide in himself; of racing the incoming tide across flat sands and deep channels to safety, before disaster struck (boy, that was scary stuff and stupid); or standing mesmerised, cliff-top high above soaring crowds of mewling gulls (these days swooping more for tourist hand-outs than the shoals below), liquid-white splashes against black, wave-wet granite rocks.

Sure, there is too much ‘heritage’ for sale. Too many visitors striving to cram home pre-packed Cornish glories before they spoil. Too much straining for profit, in busy summer weeks, throughout the region’s creaking economy. Sure there is. But there is also more; much more of substance behind the fa├žade of commerce run riot. Real people, real places, real life - and the tingling spark deep down that confirms you’ve arrived at somewhere very special, somewhere full of meaning.

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