the best places to see wildlife in north devon
With its rugged coastal cliffs, rocky coves, sandy beaches, dunes and muddy estuaries, North Devon provides the perfect mini environments for an array of wildlife to thrive.
Our unique landscape has claimed North Devon as the first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, with a 19-mile stretch of the coastline including Woolacombe being designated as the first UK World Surfing Reserve.
These cumulative accreditations ensure that this important country remains as natural as it can and will encourage programmes for humans and wildlife to live together harmoniously.
This means that for wildlife lovers, like you, North Devon is one of the best places in the UK to spot rare and protected wildlife!
Your North Devon Wildlife Guide
I am Emily, I work for Byron Woolacombe Holidays and have lived in a rural village in North Devon for the last 4 years. I have always had a passion for nature and wildlife filling my spare time by exploring quiet locations that allow for the best chance of spotting more reserved wildlife.
Having spent the last four years’ worth of days off researching and discovering some of North Devon’s most spectacular wildlife spots, I love to share some of my favourite places with our guests and am confident that this guide will provide you with the best chance of spotting something that will stay with you for a lifetime.
Explore North Devon’s unique wildlife
Here is a list of North Devon’s most iconic natural wildlife, with tips on where and when you are most likely to have a wildlife sighting plus some facts that may help you understand their instinctual habits and how to best identify varying species.
One of many of the most common questions I hear from visitors to North Devon is, ‘Where can I see seals?’.
The answer is simple: seals are shy creatures with a predictable lifestyle. They love to eat and once they do they love to take a nap somewhere sheltered and ideally warm – like most mammals!
I recommend heading to sheltered coves, beaches and harbours and on a sunny day looking out for rocks that protrude from the sea where they will often bask in the sun’s warmth.
Of the 33 species of seal two live around the British coastline, the common seal and the grey seal. The UK grey seal makes two-thirds of the world’s population, you can tell a grey seal from a common seal by size. Grey seals are larger and the males tend to have a more uniform colour. Although seals are timid in nature, they can bite if they perceive a threat so always approach calmly and carefully, especially when in the water or close to seal pups! An important thing to remember when it comes to the welfare of these mammals is they cannot move well on land, if scared they can easily become injured as they make a desperate dash across the rocks for the sea.
For the best chance of seeing these iconic marine mammals, why not head out on the Seal and lighthouse cruise from Ilfracombe, a beautiful two-hour cruise taking you to some of the most common seal spots on the North Devon coast.
Another great way of finding seals is to immerse yourself in the Atlantic waters, why not hire a sea kayak and stealthily observe marine life without disturbance? Check out our partner Outdoor shop and Kayak centre in Combe Martin, the perfect place to enjoy guided tours or head out on your own!
My favourite places for seal spotting;
Best time of year for a Seal sighting:
Exmoor Wild Ponies
Exmoor ponies are known to be a common sight on the moors of Exmoor National Park. They are said to be Britain’s oldest pony and are mentioned within the Domesday book, some believing they are Britain’s original horse species!
Although they are mainly wild within Exmoor they are relatively friendly and as a breed are understood to be gentle and hardworking. Living on Exmoor the weather can often be harsh, particularly in the winter months, the ponies have developed a fuller brow known as a ‘toads eye’ which helps them to see within windy and rainy conditions. Their coat which is always a shade of brown has also evolved to encourage rain to run off them instead of making them wet.
Every autumn the ponies on Exmoor are hearded together and registered within the Exmoor Pony Society to track their numbers.
You can visit the Exmoor pony centre, Dulverton to learn more about these beautiful ponies and get up close to some.
There is no best place to see these majestic creatures as they roam so freely but, one of my favourite places to walk close by to the ponies is Dunkery Beacon, the highest point of Exmoor at 1705 feet where you can also see free roaming sheep and have spectacular 360 views across Devon and Somerset and across the Bristol Channel.
My favourite places for Exmoor Pony Spotting:
Best time of year for a Pony sighting:
The ponies are out on Exmoor all year round, winter can offer a partially spectacular backdrop to view these wild animals against. If you would like to spot a foal, they are born in Spring and early Summer.
We are back in Exmoor to see England’s largest herd of wild red deer! The deer roam freely over the moors and they truly are a spectacular sight.
There are about three thousand deer on Exmoor, living across the moorland, woodland and farmland. Red deer are the largest wild land animals in England with adult stags standing about 115 cm at the shoulder!
Red deer are the predominant species of deer on Exmoor with estimates of the population varying from three to four thousand.
Most of the year the stags (males) and hinds (females) stay within their own separate herds but towards autumn the stags begin to leave their herds in search of hinds.
Head out on the moors in autumn and see one of nature’s spectacles, the deer rut! Stags and bucks (young males) create an awesome show of strength as they perform a dance of ‘she’s mine!’.
To make themselves stand out amongst the crowd stags will charge at each other sometimes locking antlers creating he most spectacular noise, in hope to secure their mate. During the late summer months they store their weight and energy and then will not eat for the entire month of October to push all their energy into winning as many hinds as they can! Now that’s commitment.
During the warmer summer months the coats of the deer are in peak condition thus show as red and account for the name given to the species. Throughout winter the coat becomes rough and thick which creates a darker brown colour.
You can spot wild deer along many of the south west coastal path routes and within Exmoor. For a sure-fire way to spot some red deer, why not head to Arlington court , where you can join an expert ranger for a morning stroll in search of the beautiful red deer that live within the historical estate.
You may even spot one passing your Byron apartment, as seen in this amazing video!
My favourite places for Red Deer spotting;
Best time of year for a Deer sighting:
To enjoy the depth of colour in the coats of the deer head out in Summer.
To get a chance of witnessing the most amazing display of strength head out in Autumn for rut season!
The young which are born in early summer and the calves are definitely worth viewing!
For those of us who enjoy spotting wildlife big and small, North Devon’s microclimate has encouraged some of the UK’s rarest breeds of the butterfly to thrive!
This is obviously a seasonal affair (June and July) but the recent rhythm of cold winters and longer dryer springs have allowed the bracken-covered valleys to maintain a warm climate and produce higher amounts of wildflowers.
If you head along to the National Trust-managed Heddon’s Valley this micro-climate has allowed an endangered species known as the High Brown Fritillary to do particularly well. Wild violets are the only foodplant of the high brown fritillary caterpillar which is growing in abundance in the area allowing for their population to rise by 600% since 2022. If you look within the bracken and thistle you can also spot the small pearl-bordered Fritillary, Silver-washed Fritillary, Dark Green Fritillary, as well as the other common species.
The scenery along this route is stunning, as you follow the river towards the sea look out for otters (we often spot spraint along the edge), varied birdlife, deer and an array of small mammals.
Summer also sees the beautiful heathlands come to life with colour and fill with the movement of butterflies and moths along with a community of important reptiles such as adder, slowworm and common lizards.
30 different butterflies have been recorded on Devon’s heathland, including purple hairstreaks, silver-studded blues and graylings. Emperor and fox moths will be the most common of the moth species you’ll find.
My favourite places for rare Butterfly spotting;
Best time of year for a Butterfly sighting:
Butterflies vary in their flight periods and the type of habitat they use. Butterflies can be enjoyed in Exmoor throughout most of the year. A warm and sunny day in January or February might offer an occasional glimpse of a peacock or a red admiral; a few weeks later a brimstone or a small tortoiseshell might reveal itself, and by April the butterfly season is upon us! June tends to offer the highest number of butterflies including the rarer fritillaries.
To discover more rare and beautiful wildlife within North Devon why not follow and support the Devon Wildlife Trust the only charity that exists to protect all wildlife in Devon and to safeguard Devon’s unique natural environment.
Looking for the perfect location to enjoy North Devon’s wildlife? Byron Woolacombe offers award winning self-catering apartments within an AONB just moments from one of the UK’s most beautiful beaches. With the Southwest coast path quite literally on your doorstep, moorlands forming the dramatic landscape and Exmoor just a 20 minute drive away, this is the perfect location to explore North Devon’s spectacular wildlife. Retreat and relax within our onsite heated facilities or enjoy one of the many local eateries after a long day exploring.
Plan your trip to North Devon
Now your camera is packed, and you are ready to snap up the abundance of beautiful North Devon wildlife just waiting for you to explore its time to find somewhere to stay!
Byron offers somewhere close to all these wonderful locations and with a range of pet-friendly properties, no one walks alone!
Check out some of our guest’s wonderful photographs from in and around Woolacombe! Woolacombe Memories