15 of Britain’s most surprising species (and where to spot them)
Get your cameras ready, it’s about to go down…
What springs to mind when you think of wildlife on the British Isles?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that British wildlife starts and ends with the humble hedgehog (or maybe a badger if you’re lucky).
Britain may not be able to compete with the likes of Kenya and the Galápagos Islands – after all, the Chiltern Hills are no match for the African Plains.
However, the UK is actually home to a number of surprising species, some of which you almost definitely wouldn’t expect to see roaming, hopping and cruising in and around the British Isles.
So, for the next few minutes forget about foxes, rabbits and squirrels (and definitely forget about pigeons) because we’re going to take you on a virtual tour of Britain’s most surprising wildlife.
1. Killer whales
Surprised? You’re not alone – most Brits don’t even know there are both resident and seasonal orcas on their doorstep! Most people would associate orcas with Canada or Norway, but Britain actually has a pod of eight resident orcas around the west coast of the UK and Ireland, plus a separate seasonal population which you can see in northern Scotland (the Hebrides, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands) between May and August.
These amazing creatures, which are the largest member of the dolphin family, have a highly distinctive black and white pattern and huge dorsal fins which can reach as tall as 1.8 metres. Unfortunately, no calf has been born in the 25 years the UK’s resident orca community has been scientifically monitored. Catch ‘em while you can…
2. Atlantic puffins
With bright orange beaks and feet, these diving seabirds are unmistakable, not to mention incredibly photogenic! But did you know that puffins shed the colourful parts of their beaks (and the black markings around their eyes) during the two thirds of the year they spend at sea?
British puffins spend winter at sea, then return to their breeding colonies (generally on grassy clifftops) between March and April before taking off again mid-August. There are a few mainland colonies, like Bempton in Yorkshire and the Bullers of Buchan north of Aberdeen, but most are on islands. Puffinries that are relatively easy to reach by boat include Skomer from Martin’s Haven in Wales, the Farne Islands off Seahouses in Northumberland, and the Isle of May from Anstruther in Fife.
Click here to find out the best places to see them!
3. White fallow deer
Buckinghamshire in the south east of England is famous for its rolling hills, vast woodland and the winding river Thames – but it should probably also be celebrated for its little known population of beautiful white fallow deer.
In general, fallow deer are fairly widespread throughout the UK, but snowy white ones are much more elusive. With gleaming white hides and stately antlers, an entire herd of these majestic animals grazing in the lush British countryside is quite a sight to behold. Find them near a quaint little town called Marlow, not too far from the river – and in the New Forest, Leicestershire, and London’s Bushy Park.
4. Basking sharks
Did you know that Britain plays host to 32 species of shark, 21 of which live there all year round? These include angel sharks, the scary-sounding gulper shark and the kitefin shark (Google it, it’s terrifying). Basking sharks – the second biggest fish in the world – rock up to UK shores in the warmer months, too. Your best chances of spotting basking sharks are between May and October in Devon, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, the inner Hebrides in northern Scotland (try the Isle of Skye and the Isle of Mull) and Malin Head, the most northerly point in Ireland.
In the future, it might be worth keeping an eye out for black tips, sand tiger sharks and even hammerheads! This is according to a 2018 study by a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Southampton, who reckons that rising ocean temperatures could bring 10 new species of shark to British waters by 2050. Click here to read more!
5. Rose-ringed parakeets
Originally hailing from the likes of Africa and Asia, around 50,000 green and pink rose-ringed parakeets are now resident in the suburbs around Kingston and Twickenham near London. They certainly add a splash of colour to Britain’s birdlife, where browns, greys and blacks abound. But how on earth did they end up in the UK?
There are many theories as to how these colourful beauties ended up settling in the less temperate climes Britain has to offer. Rumour has it they’re escapees from zoos and aviaries during the Great Storm of 1987, although some people would have it that rock guitarist legend Jimi Hendrix released a pair on London’s Carnaby Street during the swinging 60s. We’ll let you make your own mind up!
6. Barred grass snakes
You may already know that venomous adders are native to the UK – but did you know that a brand new species of British snake was discovered in 2017? For years, the barred grass snake was considered part of the same family as the common grass snake (found across lowland areas in the south of England) but recently it was revealed to be genetically distinct. Along with the smooth snake, these make up the four species of snake in Britain.
These mini marsupials may be native to Australia and attuned to warmer climes, but for some reason, they also thrive on the Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea. An entire colony descended from a pair that escaped a wildlife park in the 60s or 70s, and now the Isle of Man has the largest wallaby population in the northern hemisphere!
They were also deliberately introduced to an island in Scotland’s Loch Lomond in the 1920s, and there have been occasional sightings across other parts of the UK, including Norfolk, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. If you thought you had to go Down Under to see these bouncing balls of fur, think again!
8. Red-eared terrapins
Cowabunga! Terrapins, a small species of turtle, became native to the UK around 8,000 years ago. In the 90s, during the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoon craze, many were imported from the USA as exotic pets, but sadly lots of them were abandoned in Britain’s waterways.
Terrapins are ill-adapted for survival in Britain – for example, their eggs need to be incubated at 25 degrees Celsius for around 60 days in order to hatch, so it’s unlikely they’re breeding.
However, in the meantime, you can see them swimming or basking in the (patchy) sunshine in many British Waterways. Rivers and still bodies of water in the Midlands and southern England support the largest terrapin populations. Beware of their nasty bite – and remember, turtles are for life!
It’s fair to say that we have an ever so slightly cooler climate here in the UK compared to the likes of South America, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem for a special group of escapee Coatis, who now inhabit the grasslands and woods of Cumbria as well as their South American homelands. Naturally, this would have come as a little bit of a shock to locals, leading to the big question, how exactly did this happen?
Well, no one can confirm when exactly this happened, but it’s believed that these cute members of the racoon family escaped from captivity and have been breeding ever since, with sightings occurring since back in 2005 – though it’s possible that they may have been released deliberately. Either way, a bit of mystery is always good for us nature seekers.
What a time to be alive! All over the world species are being brought back to where they once called home, with wolves being introduced near Paris, Bison back in Poland and the lynx on the return in Spain. And you’ll be happy to know that the UK is certainly no exception to the returns policy.
Beavers were once found all across England, Wales and Scotland, acting as the countryside’s greatest architects with their pretty ‘dam’ impressive building skills. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) But unfortunately, they became extinct in the 16th century, mostly due to hunting for their fur, meat and ‘castoreum’, a secretion used in perfumes, food and medicine. Now, thanks to the hard work of several British conservation organisations, beavers have been reintroduced to several special spots across the UK. So, no matter what part of the country you reside in, you’re never too far away from seeing some truly cute engineering excellence.
What’s it going to be, England, Wales or Scotland? Take your pick by following the link below:
11. Grey Seals
Whether you prefer to call them dog mermaids, sea puppies or dogs of the sea, there is certainly no denying that seals bear a striking resemblance to man’s best friend on land, so you’ll be very happy to know that these loveable and charismatic animals can be found all across the UK coastline.
And what better time to find out about them than 2019!? While they can be spotted across the country, one of the biggest colonies of grey seals can be found off the Norfolk coast, where this year, wardens have counted a record number of pups. If that’s not a clear enough invitation to go and visit them then it’s probably worth knowing that every autumn, between September and December, grey seal mums give birth to the most adorable fluffy white pups. To put it simply, you should know by now where you’ll be when next autumn comes around.
If you find yourself longing to see more of them after your visit, there’s a whole range of conservation organisations you can get in contact with right here:
- Friends of Horsey Seals
- British Divers Marine Life Rescue
- The Cornish Seal Sanctuary
- The Wildlife Trusts
- The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA)
- Sea Watch Foundation
- Marine Conservation Society
12. European Wild Boar
A two-sided coin! Closely related to the more well-known domestic pig, this species was exterminated from the British Isles in medieval times but has been reintroduced multiple times since then, with many escapes from private owners and farms. Unfortunately, their return has sparked some controversy. Many see them as serving an extremely important purpose within the forests as they shuffle nutrients around, whilst others consider them a nuisance to agricultural activities as they dig up the soil looking for food.
Either way, wild boars seem to be a delightful sight for visitors, with the biggest populations thriving in Kent, East Sussex and the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and others in Devon, Bedfordshire, Dorset and Scotland. So, grab a bike or your best walking shoes and take a journey through some of the UK’s stunning forest landscapes and see if you can spot some of these stout, bristly haired creatures along the way. Make sure to keep an eye out for churned up grass verges, wallow pits in the mud and tusk-scarred trees and you’ll find them in no time.
13. Yellow-Tailed Scorpions
We get those too? Thought to have arrived on UK shores via cargo ships during the 18th century, these scorpions have now established themselves as a recognised colony, residing primarily within the cracks and crevices of Sheerness Docks in Kent. Sightings have also been reported in Harwich, Tilbury and Portsmouth docks, but no population has settled for anywhere near as long as the Sheerness colony.
If you are planning on going scorpion searching, they normally thrive in a hot, dry climate so your best bet may be having a look for them on a nice bright sunny day. And yes, we do get those every now then.
If you’re not too sold on them though, we have a fun fact which might just make you appreciate them that little bit more. Thanks to an incredibly low metabolic rate, yellow-tailed scorpions can live on only four or five meals a year (preferably woodlice and spiders). Now have a think, how much money you could save on your weekly shop if you had that ability?
14. Golden Eagle
One of the largest birds of prey, with a wingspan of 2.2 metres, the Golden Eagle is the national bird of Germany, Mexico, Afghanistan and happens to be the top predator of the Scottish countryside. That’s one heck of a CV!
So where would such a large bird be found? Well, this enigmatic species can be spotted soaring high in the sky in upland areas and remote glens of Northern and Western Scotland. And if you keep an eye out over the rocky cliff faces or in the treetops, you might even be able to spot their giant nests, where they rear their young.
15. European Otters
The sight of an otter, wherever that may be in the world, is always a special one, which is why its so rewarding to have them here in the UK. The European otter was once pushed to the brink by hunting, habitat destruction and pesticide use, but thanks to improvements in water quality and chemical bans, there is now a much better chance that you can spot them in rivers and waterways across the UK.
That said, seeing them can still be a challenge even for the experienced wildlife photographers, as they are most active around dawn and dusk, not to mention very efficient swimmers.
So there you have it: 15 weird and wonderful species you simply wouldn’t expect to see in the UK! Let us know which ones you’d love to spot in the comments below, and don’t forget there are plenty of UK wildlife and conservation opportunities available through Eco Companion.
This post was co-written by our talented journalists Jenny and Arran. More about Jenny can be found below and Arran can be found at another blog he has written for us: 11 top tips for first-time volunteers at conservation projects
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