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Blubber and bucks: a wildlife weekend in north Norfolk

September is the prime time to witness seals, songbirds and stags.

Award-winning nature writer and author of 52 Wildlife Weekends, James Lowen goes in search of resting seals and rutting deer on the north Norfolk coast.

Day one: seals and sandpipers

As the boat throttles round the shingle spit, you encounter a beach packed with sunbathers. Bikini-clad holidaymakers they are not. Instead, the lounging sun-worshippers are harbour and grey seals. Several hundred blubbery marine mammals reside here on sandy flats, and there may be no better way to watch both species rub haunches than from aboard a small vessel in Blakeney Harbour.

Boats depart neighbouring Norfolk villages of Blakeney and Morston for Blakeney Point. Excitement mounts as you approach the shoreline, but seals appear blasé about engine noise and human gabble. Enjoy stunning views of these wonderful creatures, scrutinising them to differentiate the two species. While it is a little early for breeding grey seals there may still be some harbour youngsters around.

Boat trips are short, so there is plenty of daylight left to explore the coast. Head first to nearby Cley, one of Britain’s most famous Wildlife Trust reserves. After a restorative cuppa in the visitor centre, which looks out over the reserve’s jigsaw of reedbeds and marshes, trek the trails.

The ping of an old-style cash register alerts you to a party of bearded tits, energetically climbing reed stems before bumbling into cover. Another reedbed resident, marsh harrier, will be prominent: you should see several of these stately raptors cruise past. On the various muddy scrapes, your focus is the freshwater waders for which Cley holds magnetic allure.

Examine scurrying flocks of dunlin for little stint and curlew sandpiper. Enjoy loose groups of ruff stuttering through the shallows. Witness hordes of black-tailed godwit and stately greenshanks striding in deeper water. And double-check any shorebird you do not immediately recognise: September is the prime period for oddities from distant climes, such as pectoral sandpiper.

sandpiper wildlife norfolk
September is a great time for pectoral sandpiper © James Lowen

Finish the day at Sculthorpe Moor, a splendid wooded fen bordering the River Wensum near Fakenham. Protected for its great fen-sedge, the reserve is developing a reputation for mammal-watching. Bank voles commonly pilfer grain spilt below the bird table at Fen Hide, allowing splendid views of an often secretive mammal.

Harvest mouse and short-tailed field vole are sometimes seen, and the allure of feeding rodents may entice weasel and stoat into the open. Dykes and drains are the domain of water vole, and the lucky few even occasionally encounter water shrew. Definitely worth a patient wait.

Day two: fungi and fallow deer

Spend the next morning at Holkham Meals. Park on Lady Anne’s Drive, then walk west along the footpath bisecting wood and grazing marsh. Your prime target is migrant landbirds, pausing to refuel on their post-breeding journey. Particularly if the wind has been blowing from the east, you have decent prospects of scarcities amidst large numbers of common songbirds.

Holkham’s resident robins and blackbirds will be joined by individuals hailing from the continent. A common redstart shivers its russet tail, while – if your luck’s in – a red-breasted flycatcher sallies from an aged ivy-garbed tree. Search flocks of tits and goldcrests for yellow-browed warbler, a delightful Siberian waif that zips through trees. With migration under way, who knows what else might lurk in the woods today?

September is peak season for rosy bonnet © James Lowen

As you wander beneath or beside the pines, look for fabulously named fungi. This is peak season for bonnets and brackets, tufts and toughshanks – and Holkham is a hotspot. Orange milkcap is numerous, saffron milkcap frequent. There are also waxcaps, the orchids of the fungal kingdom: look for blackening and glutinous waxcaps.

Enjoy primrose brittlegill and, in damper areas, red swamp brittlegill. Lilac bonnet, yellow stagshorn, yellow fieldcap, plums and custard, common puffball and russet toughshank are all present and correct. Search hard for death cap, common stinkhorn and collared earthstar. The longer you look, the more variety you discern. Finally, make time to regale in the marvellous, massive expanse of beach at Holkham Gap, supine beneath Norfolk’s big blue sky.

Once your walk is complete, drive inland to Holkham Hall. Strolling the grounds of this quintessential English country estate, usually beneath the veteran oak trees between gate and hall, are feral herds of fallow deer (and a small group of red deer). September is the most important month in the fallow deer calendar: the rut. The prize for dominant males: a harem through which to secure a succession.

fallow deer wildlife norfolk
© James Lowen

These feral deer live constrained within the walls of the estate, so you are sure to see them. Even if the animals themselves are not truly wild, the rutting scene certainly is. Adult males groan at each other, posture in parallel, then interlock palmate antlers, neck muscles rigid, legs tense, and thrust against each other, dust billowing around them.

Young bucks, hormones throbbing, take each other on – but with no prize for the victor. On the sidelines, a doe with a fawn barks a warning when the bucks, blinded by vitality, career too close. You should also stay alert to wheeling sparrers; no inattentive lounging in the sun like the seals that started your weekend.

Practicalities

Seal trips to Blakeney Point (1hr) depart from Morston; we’d recommend Temples.

Cley Marshes, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s flagship reserve, is 1km east of Cley-next-the-Sea on the A149. Sculthorpe Moor Community Reserve lies just south of the A148 2km west of Fakenham. About 1.2km west of the A148/A149 roundabout, opposite Sculthorpe village, turn south along Turf Moor Road to the reserve.

For Holkham Meals, leave the A149 at the Victoria Hotel in Holkham, 3km west of Wells-next-the-Sea, following Lady Anne’s Drive 1km to the car park. Footpaths lead west (to the hides) and east through the Meals. Alternatively, walk north onto the marvellous beach at Holkham Gap.

For Holkham Hall, drive back south and cross the A149. Fallow deer normally favour the trees between the entrance gate and hall.

More information

Discover more inspiration for a wildlife weekend in the UK with James’s book: