4 great bird and wildlife walks in Somerset

PUBLISHED: 00:00 20 May 2020

A Great White Egret in the reedy margins at Westhay, fishing for lunch

A Great White Egret in the reedy margins at Westhay, fishing for lunch

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The dawn chorus. The sky is barely lightening, the day just beginning to point towards morning when it starts, growing from a few tentative voices.

A well-placed bench invites passers by to just sit and look across WimbleballA well-placed bench invites passers by to just sit and look across Wimbleball

It would take a sad dark soul indeed not to be moved by this aural manifestation of spring, for it is during spring, when birds are establishing territory and mates, that the dawn chorus is at its most choral.

Once they’ve woken us, the birds get on with the daily business of feeding, flirting and raising young. Now is the time to get out there and see what’s going on and Somerset is very well served for sites to watch birds.

Here are a few which can also be incorporated into a good walk, as any stroll is always enhanced by engagement with nature.

We hear much about declining species; an appreciation of what’s out there brings an awareness, which encourages conservation.

Wimbleball Reservoir, Exmoor

Back in the 1970s the landscape of an Exmoor valley changed forever. To supply areas of Somerset and Devon with water a vast reservoir was created. Fields, trees and hedgerows disappeared, along with some buildings.

One of these was Steart Cottage, an elegant house with arched windows and spiral staircase – but no indoor loo! Its occupants had moved away, some of its feature windows and flagstones had been relocated and only spirits and spiders remained to witness its drowning.

A mighty dam was constructed across the River Haddeo. The water rose. Deeper and wider the valley flooded until the surface of the water covered more than 370 acres. Wimbleball Reservoir was born.

Despite the controversy at the time, the area is undoubtedly beautiful – a different sort of beauty to what went before. The environs of the lake boast miles of footpaths and cycle paths, something to suit all fitness levels. My favourite is the path that circumnavigates the larger part of the lake but shorter options are on offer.

All this water is a magnet for wildlife, as is the adjacent Hurscombe Nature Reserve at the northern end. Birds we have encountered include: little grebes, ring-necked ducks, common sandpipers, lesser spotted woodpeckers, bramblings, siskins and goldfinches.

Distance: The path around the perimeter of the lake is about 8 miles excluding exploration of nature reserve. There are shorter options.

Website: swlakestrust.org.uk/wimbleball-lake

Map: OS Explorer OL9 Exmoor 1:25 000

Parking: Main pay & display car park postcode: TA22 9NU; Grid Ref SS965307

Westhay Moor, the Avalon Marshes

Westhay Moor National Nature Reserve is an historic landscape. Part of the Somerset Levels, the region has changed hugely over time as sea levels have varied. Over the course of aeons, Westhay Moor has been covered by shallow sea and seen life as, variously, salt marsh, swamp, fen, woodland and the raised bog of accumulated peat. Neolithic farmers eked out a living on the Levels and latterly, with better drainage, more of the area was successfully farmed and peat extracted.

Now, what was once an industrial site of peat digging has been transformed by the Somerset Wildlife Trust into a superbly rich habitat: a mosaic of lakes, reed beds, islands and stands of native trees.

You can walk the adjacent drove roads and tracks or while away your time in the reserve if you prefer not to walk too far. It is well-provided for, with viewing platforms and bird hides, including a large, family-friendly one funded by Viridor.

In spring there is a very good chance of seeing numerous hobbies and in 2017 a pair of night herons successfully bred here – a UK first. On winter evenings the area is spectacular with starling murmurations. From one of the hides we had a fabulous view of a great white egret fishing for lunch. Also look out for Exmoor ponies, who conservation-graze the area, roe deer and, if you are very lucky, an otter.

Distance: variable, depending on your preference.

Website: somersetwildlife.org/westhay_moor.html

Map: OS Explorer 141 Cheddar Gorge and Mendip Hills West 1:25 000

Parking: A parking area serves the Westhay Moor National Nature Reserve at the junction of Westhay Moor Drove and Dagg’s Lane Drove, shown on the OS map at grid ref: ST456437. No postcode.

Note: Dogs are not permitted in some areas of this reserve.

Beacon Hill and Smith’s Combe in the Quantocks

In 1956 the diverse and beautiful Quantock Hills were the first area of England to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

This is a stunning landscape with thirst-quenching views, secret combes and excellent wildlife, but you need to pick a clear day and either have GPS or be reasonably confident about moorland walking for this suggested route, which takes in part of the 36-mile Coleridge Way, named after the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who penned Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He lived in the area during the late 18th century and this was one of his most poetically productive times.

From the car park follow The Great Road generally east, a long trudge rewarded with buzzards and ravens overhead. Skylarks mock our earthbound feet. At the junction with Greenway Path leave The Great Road and head north to join The Coleridge Way at Higher Ground.

A short stretch westwards brings you to idyllic Smith’s Combe where grey wagtails are often flitting about the stream. Follow the bridleway southish through Smith’s Combe, then west, climbing past coniferous woodland where we saw lesser redpolls.

Moorland paths bring you to the lofty cairn on Beacon Hill at grid ref: ST124410.

From here, ongoing moorland paths take you back to the car park.

Distance: The whole route is a fairly strenuous 4 miles.

Map:OS Explorer 140 Quantock Hills and Bridgwater 1:25 000

Parking: South east of the village of West Quantoxhead there is an off-the-beaten track and spacious car park which serves the National Trust’s Beacon Hill. No postcode, but clearly shown on the map at grid ref: ST117411

Chard Reservoir

One of Somerset’s Local Nature Reserves, Chard Reservoir was originally built in 1842 to provide water for Chard Canal. It lost its purpose when the railway superseded the canal and was subsequently used for fishing and shooting. Then, in 1990, South Somerset District Council took over the care of the reservoir and turned it into the tranquil reserve that it is today. Fishing still takes place but anglers are required to return fish alive into the lake and some of them have reached enormous size.

The bird hide, delightfully situated out in the water, gives glorious views along the lake and there is a huge variety of birds. There was once a pair of breeding mute swans but the female died after which the male, in a fabulous display of avian equality, reared the cygnets before they all departed. A non-breeding flock of swans subsequently established here.

The viewing platform, near the hide, is awash with confiding mallard, coot and moorhen – it’s hard not to stand on them.

Look out for Persil-white little egrets. Rare treats include a hobby and, occasionally, an osprey.

Reserve footpaths meander through wildflower meadows, beneath trees and beside the water. The walks can be lengthened by returning to the start point from the north end of the reservoir via the public footpaths that traverse farmland to the east of the lake.

Distance: If you leave the reservoir area and walk back through the farmland, the whole route is about 2½ miles. Short and easy strolls can be enjoyed within the reserve.

Website: A useful leaflet about the area can be downloaded at: southsomersetcountryside.com/chard-reservoir/about-chard-reservoir

Map: The route straddles OS Explorer 128 Taunton & Blackdown Hills 1:25 000 and OS Explorer 116 Lyme Regis & Bridport 1:25 000

Parking: There is a designated parking area at the south-west end of the reservoir, accessed at the end of Oaklands Avenue, so you are driving through a residential area to reach this; grid ref: ST337093; nearby postcode TA20 1HR.

Note: Dogs are not permitted in some areas of this reserve.

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