Pete Dom­mett takes his young fam­ily on an au­tumn ad­ven­ture to re­mem­ber: a sa­fari in East Devon, com­plete with ot­ters, av­o­cets and a hid­den coastal jun­gle

Countryfile Magazine - - Discover - Pete Dom­mett Award-win­ning na­ture writer Pete Dom­mett lived in East Devon for six years where he worked as a con­ser­va­tion of­fi­cer. He now lives in Som­er­set with his fam­ily, but reg­u­larly re­turns to the area to en­joy its wildlife.

We’re go­ing on sa­fari? In Devon?” My an­nounce­ment that the Oc­to­ber half-term would be spent watch­ing wildlife in our neigh­bour­ing county was met with more than a hint of sus­pi­cion by the rest of the fam­ily.

I knew what the kids thought it meant: a lot of long walks. But I was keen for us to dis­cover the nat­u­ral de­lights this area has to of­fer in more ad­ven­tur­ous ways. Dur­ing school hol­i­days, East Devon is de­cid­edly more peace­ful than the surfy north and the pic­ture-post­card south­ern half of the county. Al­most all of it lies within the East Devon Area of Out­stand­ing Nat­u­ral Beauty (des­ig­nated in 1963), which cov­ers 100 square miles of coun­try­side and in­cludes 30 miles of the stun­ning Juras­sic Coast, Eng­land’s only nat­u­ral UNESCO World Her­itage Site.

De­spite hav­ing changed lit­tle in cen­turies, it is a liv­ing, breath­ing land­scape with gen­tly rolling hills, wooded val­leys, wide es­tu­ar­ies and windswept heath­land, dot­ted with farms, pretty vil­lages and clas­sic sea­side towns.

East Devon is ac­ces­si­ble and com­pact enough to ex­plore in just a few days, or, if you live closer like us, it can make for some equally en­joy­able day trips. It’s also blessed with a wealth of wild won­der, and au­tumn is the best time to go in search of some of its star species.


We based our sa­fari around East Devon’s three main rivers: the Exe, the Axe and the Ot­ter. The Axe Es­tu­ary, in the far- east of the dis­trict, was the first des­ti­na­tion for a bird­watch­ing trip with a dif­fer­ence.

Elec­tric tram com­pany Seaton Tramway op­er­ates on a for­mer rail­way line, which runs along­side the last three miles of the Axe river. Its open-topped trams trun­dle (and that, we soon re­alised, is the only way to de­scribe trav­el­ling by tram) back and forth be­tween the sleepy vil­lage of Coly­ton and the coastal town of Seaton.

The tracks pass through three newly cre­ated na­ture re­serves – Coly­ford Com­mon, Black Hole Marsh and Seaton Marshes – col­lec­tively called Seaton Wet­lands. Just a few years ago, this area


was largely farm­land; it is now trans­formed into a haven for birds.

These unique bird hides on wheels of­fer a won­der­ful way to scan the wa­tery vista for avian life. The trams grind and groan to a halt ev­ery now and then to let the knowl­edge­able guides help you iden­tify the dif­fer­ent species. On our out­ing, de­spite hor­i­zon­tal rain and gale-force winds which threat­ened to blow us off the top deck, we saw redshanks, lapwings and curlews feed­ing in the flooded fields and wigeon, teal and shel­ducks gath­ered tightly to­gether on the tiny is­lands of dry land.

Oc­to­ber is a good month for spot­ting wad­ing birds and wild­fowl. You can also


As well as be­ing one of only a very few places in Bri­tain where wild beavers can be seen, this is one of the top spots for the epony­mous ot­ter. King­fish­ers, dip­pers and grey wag­tails are plen­ti­ful and brown trout swim in the river. Lis­ten out for Cetti’s war­blers and wa­ter rails at the es­tu­ary end. visit by road (via Seaton Ceme­tery) to ac­cess over two miles of level trails and board­walks plus five hides.

These trips are an easy in­tro­duc­tion to wet­land bird­ing and bril­liant for be­gin­ners (our chil­dren had a lot of fun, even with the ex­treme weather). And for the more ex­pe­ri­enced, twitch­ing by tram is a novel way to get know the lo­cal birdlife bet­ter.


Our next ex­pe­di­tion was an overnight visit to the River Ot­ter and a chance to see its most un­ex­pected in­hab­i­tant, the beaver. It may sound un­be­liev­able, but five of these labrador­sized ro­dents, which had been ex­tinct in Bri­tain for cen­turies, were dis­cov­ered on the river in 2015. No one’s quite sure where they came from, but there are now thought to be nearly 30 of the an­i­mals on the Ot­ter. The beavers live along the en­tire length of the river, but the sec­tion north of Ot­ter­ton is the best place to find ev­i­dence of their ex­is­tence.

On an over­grown bank, we came across a wil­low stump that had been chis­elled away in car­toon fash­ion and, on a tiny trib­u­tary, a small dam that the beavers had built to cre­ate a deeper pool to feed in. Fur­ther up­stream, a pho­tog­ra­pher pointed out the beavers’ main lodge – an eas­ily-missed jum­ble of sticks and branches – but there were no signs of life that morn­ing. Devon Wildlife Trust, which mon­i­tors the Ot­ter’s beaver pop­u­la­tion, runs guided walks on sum­mer evenings when these noc­tur­nal an­i­mals are more likely to ap­pear.


A lovely af­ter­noon ac­tiv­ity (af­ter lunch at the Ot­ter­ton Mill café) is to fol­low the stun­ning stretch of river from the bridge at Ot­ter­ton to the sea at Budleigh Salterton. It’s a short stroll at less than three miles – with the last

mile suit­able for bug­gies, wheel­chairs and mo­bil­ity scoot­ers – with a more-than-good chance of spot­ting king­fish­ers, dip­pers and brown trout; we saw all three within min­utes. Con­tin­u­ing east along the coastal path over the pre­his­toric, rust-red cliffs to Ladram Bay and then loop­ing back in­land of­fers an op­tional, and scenic, ex­ten­sion to the route.

At dawn the next day, the boys and I re­turned to the river to try our beaver­sight­ing luck again. Once more we drew a blank, but on the walk back, my el­dest son spot­ted some­thing splash­ing about in the fast-flow­ing wa­ter: an ot­ter! It stared di­rectly at us, as if to say, “Well, what did you ex­pect?”.


Pot­ter­ing on the Ot­ter put my wife and I in the mood for a proper hike; the kids were right, it was in­evitable. The Un­der­cliffs Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve is a seven-mile sec­tion of the South-West Coast Path, cross­ing the Devon/Dorset border be­tween Ax­mouth and Lyme Regis, and the best ex­am­ple of a coastal land­slip in the coun­try. Trekking be­neath the col­lapsed cliffs along the nar­row, twist­ing track is like tramp­ing through jun­gle. The deep green un­der­story is thick with ferns and horse­tails, in­clud­ing hart’s-tongue, and the hu­mid air is punc­tured by the par­roty squawks of jays.

Pre­pare for a long walk – it took us nearly four hours and a whole bag of sher­bet le­mons to com­plete – but ig­nore the sign

that says it’s “ar­du­ous”, and the fact land­slides still hap­pen here now and again, and that there are no short­cuts in­land, so once you’ve en­tered the re­serve the only way out is out the other end: all these sim­ply add to the sense of ad­ven­ture. Af­ter­wards, we re­warded our­selves with an ice cream on the beach and agreed that it had been our favourite ac­tiv­ity so far.


The Exe Es­tu­ary, which marks the western edge of East Devon, is an in­ter­na­tion­ally im­por­tant area for over­win­ter­ing birds. Tens of thou­sands of waders, ducks and geese ar­rive in au­tumn from their breed­ing grounds fur­ther north. They come for the mild cli­mate and abun­dant food; it’s said that a cu­bic me­tre of Exe mud con­tains the same num­ber of calo­ries as 14 Mars Bars.

There’s one su­per­star species that draws plenty of peo­ple to the Exe, too: the av­o­cet. This dainty wader, with its strik­ing, pied plumage and up­turned bill, was once de­scribed by Chris Pack­ham as “the Au­drey Hep­burn of birds”, and it is un­de­ni­ably at­trac­tive. Be­ing the iconic logo of the RSPB, the av­o­cet is also fa­mil­iar to most bird lovers.

The best way to see av­o­cets up close is by boat, so early in Novem­ber we headed down the M5 to the river­side town of Top­sham to join the RSPB’s first ‘av­o­cet cruise’ of the sea­son. At low tide, Sea Dream II snakes south along the es­tu­ary, be­tween steep slicks of sil­very mud, of­fer­ing

in­ti­mate views of el­e­gant av­o­cets as they sweep those unique beaks through the shal­low wa­ter to fil­ter out shrimps, worms and other in­ver­te­brates.

Of course, there are other won­der­ful birds to spot. On our voy­age, we saw cor­morants, ringed and grey plovers, god­wits, brent geese, oys­ter­catch­ers (or ‘car­rot­catch­ers’ as my youngest son has al­ways called them, on ac­count of their bright orange bills) and more curlews.

It’s a bliss­ful and re­lax­ing way to watch birds; the re­as­sur­ing chug of the boat’s en­gine, the sooth­ing sound of the wa­ter slip­ping by and the guide’s hushed com­men­tary all com­bine to so­porific ef­fect. In fact, both our boys nod­ded off.

If boats aren’t your thing, an al­ter­na­tive venue for view­ing birds is the hide at Bowl­ing Green Marsh, a na­ture re­serve on the south­ern edge of Top­sham. Fam­ily-friendly area The Look­out has bird books and binoc­u­lars to bor­row, and you don’t have to worry about keep­ing the kids quiet.

An­other op­tion is to try bird­ing by bike. The fairly flat Exe Es­tu­ary Trail stretches for 17.5 miles along both sides of the es­tu­ary. It in­cludes an easy, six-mile stretch of traf­ficfree cy­cling from Top­sham to Ex­mouth along the east side of the es­tu­ary.

Even a suc­cess­ful sa­fari should leave you with the feel­ing that there’s more to ex­plore; we’ll def­i­nitely be back to search for those beavers. So, for a taste of Devon’s won­der­ful wildlife, and a lot of fam­ily fun, try head­ing east.


The River Axe is home to a rich va­ri­ety of birdlife, in­clud­ing king­fish­ers, while glo­ri­ous views can be glimpsed around ev­ery twist and turn

A trip on Seaton Tramway of­fers un­beat­able views of Black Hole Marsh in Seaton Wet­lands Lo­cal Na­ture Re­serve

East Devon’s es­tu­ar­ies are im­por­tant habi­tats for the Eurasian curlew

TOP A stand of Scots pine on Ot­ter Head keeps watch over the mouth of the River Ot­ter ABOVE Pete and fam­ily scan the wa­ter for play­ful ot­ters and those elu­sive beavers

TOP Pop­u­lar bird­watch­ing cruises on the Exe Es­tu­ary in­clude a help­ful wildlife com­men­tary from knowl­edgable or­nithol­o­gists ABOVE The boys search for that fa­mously pho­to­genic two-tone wad­ing bird the av­o­cet (TOP LEFT)

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