Award-winning nature writer and author of 52 Wildlife Weekends, James Lowen advises where and when to go to witness leaping salmon, roaring red deer and diverse fungi in England’s north.
Day one: salmon scouting in North Yorkshire
This weekend is unashamedly orchestrated around a single event that marks the near culmination of one of the most remarkable journeys in the natural world. A journey that epitomises perseverance, demands supreme fitness and requires exceptional navigational ability. A voyage that is all about life, yet ends in the protagonists’ deaths. The salmon run.
The spectacle of leaping salmon can be enjoyed along unpolluted rivers across Britain. So start your wildlife weekend by heading to Stainforth Force on the River Ribble in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Atlantic salmon season usually lasts for three to four weeks during mid-October to mid-November, and is contingent on autumn’s first heavy rains. These raise river levels to a height that facilitates fishy leaps into the unknown. Arrive at Stainforth Force early morning or late afternoon to coincide with peak activity.
Walk 100m southeast from the road bridge along the wooded river then seat yourself beside an obvious cascade of 2m height. Crouch low, to better appreciate the scale of the challenge for the Atlantic salmon. Shuffle right to the river edge, to really feel the rush of water. Surrounded by the burnt tones of autumn and half-hypnotised by the torrents, wait.
You may need to linger for barely half a minute until the action starts. Or it may be half an hour. Or perhaps the morning will be quiet, with kick-off late afternoon. But if conditions are right, the fish will come. The intervals between each individual leap could be a few seconds or a few minutes. Stay alert: blinking could mean missing.
With a flash of silver and a muscular wriggle of tail, salmon leap four times their length to ascend the falls. Usually only larger fish make it first time, others crashing and burning. After recovering and refuelling, they venture once more into the fray. Many endure several failures before succeeding.
Look closely to differentiate the darker females with a rainbow glimmer on their sides from the red-bellied, streaky-flanked males. That both sexes are simultaneously heading in the same direction makes their purpose as crystal clear as the Ribble waters: to spawn.
In downtime between fishy flurries, look for dipper. While not famed for migratory feats, this bird is no less special than salmon. The only British songbird to feed underwater, dippers are as adapted for aquatic life as a duck. An extra eyelid enables vision when submerged, scales close nostrils in the currents, and feathers are coated in oil.
Day two: red deer, moss and fungi in Cumbria and Lancashire
For another bash at salmon – if Stainforth didn’t produce or if you simply crave more – try Force Falls in the Lake District, a touch over an hour’s drive west. Watch the River Kent rapids from the cottage overlooking the falls.
For what remains of your trip, visit RSPB Leighton Moss. October is the month for red deer and while Halloween week is late on in the rut (greater details included in Bradt’s 52 Wildlife Weekends), an opportunity to view Britain’s largest land mammal is hard to pass up. Males should still be roaring, and you should see the odd harem-flanked stag from Griesdale hide.
Late October is prime time for fungi. Scan the ground and tree trunks for numerous species. While ostensibly amorphous in appearance, fungi repay close examination, with their different sizes, shapes, colours, textures and patterns. Among common species, look for blackfoot polypore, tawny funnel cap and lemon disco. Along the causeway, an abundance of lichens adorns the trees, notably oakmoss lichen.
Before the weekend expires, check out three Moss specialities. The Cetti’s warblers here are the most northerly in Britain – and regularly erupt into uncompromising serenade near Public Hide. Bearded tits are often easy to see in autumn: grit trays interpolating the causeway are favoured. Best of all, watch quietly for otter from Lower or Public hides – even if there is something rather unnerving about ending a fishwatching weekend by watching a fish-eater.
Getting Around: For Stainforth Force in North Yorkshire, leave Settle north on the B6479. After 3.5km, park at Stainforth village ‘pay and display’. Walk west along a minor road (Dog Hill Brow), crossing the railway line, until you reach the river bridge. Then walk 100m southeast along the river to view the falls.
Force Falls is at Force Mills in Grizedale Forest Park, 8km northwest of Newby Bridge in southern Cumbria. From the A590 at Newby Bridge, drive north on minor roads to Thwaite Head, then north then west to Force Mills. Park northeast of the hamlet at the Forestry Commission picnic site, then walk back to watch from the cottage overlooking the falls.
The entrance to RSPB Leighton Moss is off Storrs Lane in Silverdale, 10km north of Carnforth.
Perfect Timing: The first substantial rains during mid-October to mid-November prompt the upstream rush of salmon, which should then last three to four weeks. Insufficient rain and the river flow will be inadequate; excessive rain and the salmon will not have a fighting chance of successfully leaping. Fungi season is September to November. Red deer rut late September to late October. Dipper is resident.
Discover more inspiration for a wildlife weekend in the UK with James’s book, 52 Wildlife Weekends (Bradt, £14.99).