The Lake District has an amazing variety of animals and birds. Creatures that you never, or rarely, see anywhere else in the country are readily spotted here, as well as farm animals in abundance. Wild animals, such as deer, fell ponies, stoats and red squirrels aren’t everywhere, but if you go to the right places, quietly enough and often enough, you will spot them. There are few sweeter sights than a family of white-flashed stoats running in their wiggling, spiralling way across the road, or red squirrels hopping from tree to tree with a tiny red squirrel kitten behind them.
The red squirrel is extinct in most parts of the UK, but they are still at home across much of Cumbria. You may spot red squirrels in any number of lightly wooded areas, but you are more likely to see them at the registered red squirrel parks – Whinfell Forest, near Penrith; Greystoke Forest, between Penrith and Keswick; Whinlatter Forest, west of Keswick; Thirlmere and Mallerstang, near Kirkby Stephen. All of these parks offer lovely woodland walks and great opportunities for a picnic.
Ospreys were once native to much of the UK, but they became extinct in England in 1840 and Scotland in 1916. In 1954 they reappeared in Scotland, and by the 1990s, the occasional pair visited the Lakes in the summer. In 2001, a breeding pair set up home in Dodd Wood, above Bassenthwaite Lake; you may well spot them swooping in the skies as you pass, or you can view the ospreys when they are in their nest from April to August at one of two viewing points in Dodd Wood. There is also an exhibition on the ospreys at the Whinlatter Forest Visitor Centre, and you can sneak a peek online at the webcam on the Osprey Watch website.
You can see other birds of prey at the Lakeland Bird of Prey Centre, at Lowther, near Penrith. They have a large collection of hawks, eagles, falcons and owls and host regular flying demonstrations. There’s also a tea room on site.
In the central Lakes is the Predator Experience, near Windermere. Here, you can learn to handle falcons, golden eagles and owls, and take a guided woodland walk to see all types of hawk in their natural habitat. They have other predators, too - take your chance with snakes and tarantulas!
The World Owl Centre is home to the World Owl Trust. Based in the grounds of Muncaster Castle, on the west coast, this is the place to see forty different types of owl from sparrow-sized pigmy owls to enormous eagle owls. There is a ‘Meet the Birds’ talk, with feathered friends, every day at 2.30pm between 21st March and 31st October.
You can enjoy the company of a much stranger bird at Eden Ostrich World, at Langwathby, near Penrith. Here you can learn all about ostriches, visit them, and see eggs hatch (at the right time of year, of course). There is also a working farm on site, with rare breed pigs, cows and deer. There’s an enjoyable riverside walk and – wait for it - sheep milking. There’s also a tea room and a shop. Very popular with small children.
The Lakeland Sheep and Wool Centre, near Cockermouth, is a mecca for all things sheep. Here you can see nineteen different breeds of sheep. They host sheep shearing and sheepdog competitions every year, and you can buy all sorts of sheep-related books and gifts.
Ewe Close Farm, near Wigton is a lowland hill farm and dairy specialising in rare breed pigs, cows and goats. Here you can see new animals being bottle-fed, and goat milking. You can take a pony ride, stroke a donkey, go out on a tractor, look for eggs and explore the woods. This year’s attraction is bound to be Priscilla the Pig, with her nine new piglets.
Holme Open Farm, near Sedbergh, is thoroughly geared up for small children. They have sheep, pigs, goats, ducks, kittens and a pony, a picnic area and children’s play area with swings and slides.
These days, it’s not unusual to see a couple of alpaca in a field full of sheep. I have it on good authority that they are quite fond of sheep, and tend to try to stop them escaping their field… presumably sheep look like smaller, cuter and fluffier versions of alpaca in their eyes. You can check this out for yourself at the Alpaca Centre, at Stainton, near Ullswater.
The Lake District Wildlife Farm, near Bassenthwaite, is a popular wildlife park with llamas, lemurs, wild cats, vultures, eagles, snakes, zebras, bison, red deer, wallabies, highland cattle, rabbits and guinea pigs. Trotter’s is a 25-acre site, with falconry displays, animal feeding, pony rides and tractor trips. There’s also a children’s adventure playground, picnic area, restaurant and shop.
The Lake District Coast Aquarium, at Maryport, is a great place to view all manner of sea creatures. There are native marine and freshwater fish, conger eels, small sharks, octopuses, crabs, cuttlefish, rays and starfish, as well as educational displays and an audio-visual centre.
Another great fishy place is the Lakes Aquarium, near Newby Bridge, at the foot of Windermere. Here, you can see the creatures that inhabit the lakes of the world, from Asia, the Americas and Africa and back home again to Windermere. There is a restaurant and gift shop.
Beyond all the parks and attractions, there’s no escaping Cumbria’s animal magic. Right now, the fields are chock-full with new lambs. There are moles digging up almost every field; cows trying out the new grass; hedgehogs and badgers exploring the hedgerows; and all manner of birds of prey. Definitely the place to be for any animal lover.
Please note that some animal attractions, especially working farms, do not accept dogs and opening hours vary considerably throughout the year, so please check before you go.