WILDLIFE WONDERS OF EAST DEVON
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
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
“ON OUR OUTING, WE SAW REDSHANKS, LAPWINGS AND CURLEWS FEEDING IN THE FLOODED FIELDS”
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
LOOK OUT FOR: RIVER OTTER
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?”.
RAMBLE IN THE JUNGLE
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 FACTOR
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.
“IT’S SAID A CUBIC METRE OF EXE MUD CONTAINS THE SAME NUMBER OF CALORIES AS 14 MARS BARS”
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)