Nature in Cambridgeshire

If you're looking for a place to see British wildlife at its best then rural Cambridgeshire is just what you need.  With so many natural environments, including meadows, woodlands, wetlands, and the fens--you'll want to return time after time.

Come with me on a walk through the county and I'll share with you some favourite routes that have been part of our lives here in this area for over 30 years. 

I'll also take you along on exciting new routes that I am sure will make our favourites list in the future. This way, we can share all of these wonderful memories together!

So whether you carry a pair of binoculars, or a camera like me, get out to see the nature in Cambridgeshire on foot!


The Fens

We are lucky to live in one of the four counties in the East of England known as fen country: Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.

At first glance you will notice flat, arable land with black soil, and views as far as the eye can see.

But turn the clock back and the fenland would have looked very different. Water and vegetation covered the ground, making a wonderful habitat for wildlife.

Drainage for farming, via ditches and water pumps, has left very little in its original form, but what remains is precious.

Three National Nature reserves you will want to check out include...

  • Holme fen
  • Woodwalton Fen
  • Wicken Fen 

Wicken Fen is one of the oldest nature reserves in the country. 

The vision for The Great Fen Project is that it will eventually join up Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen, to create a new nature reserve for the benefit of both people and wildlife.

This is a joint project including Natural England, Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, the Environment Agency, Huntingdon District Council and the Middle Level Commissioners.


The Washes

Areas next to the Rivers Ouse and Nene are deliberately flooded when necessary. This washland provides habitat for large quantities of wildfowl and wading birds in the winter months, while protecting towns and farmland from excessive water.  

Both the Ouse Washes and Nene Washes are straight walks, so you can go as far as you like and then turn around. The Ouse Washes (or Welches Dam) is jointly run by the RSPB and the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. We are members of both these organisations. 

If you are looking for wildlife and nature, these are both ideal locations, as you have every chance of seeing a species for the first time. In the bird world we call these Lifers, and I have had this experience on three occasions...

  • Common Cranes are everything but! You are only likely to spot them in this area or down in Somerset at present. 
  • Short Eared Owls hunting over the water are a sight to behold
  • Cattle Egret, worthy of mention on the "birds of note in the region" websites as they are only a few in the UK

It is such a thrill when I can add such experiences to my "Bird List".


Nature in Cambridgeshire woodlands

Woodland walks in the area offer delights you won't want to miss.

If you want to see wild bluebells, one of the best places to go is Brampton Wood. This is the second largest ancient woodland in the county. Mentioned in the Doomsday Book, it is at least 900 years old.

Monks Wood, the largest in the county, has been one of our National Nature Reserves since 1953. It is famous for being one of the country's top sites for beetles, and another place to find wild bluebells and possibly Nightingales in the spring. 

You will find the largest Silver Birch woodland in Britain at Holme Fen. We arrived early one misty morning and were taken in by its silence and ethereal beauty. 


Lake, pond or mere?

I struggled for a single term that covers the various bodies of water in the area. 

The fenland contained shallow lakes known as meres. Drained in 1851, the largest lake in lowland England, Whittlesey Mere (also known as Whittlesea), was at one point six miles wide. It became known as England's Lost Lake and Paul Middleton wrote a fascinating book about it in 2018 which is available from Amazon (affiliate link)

Small meres remain in the Holme Fen and Wicken Fen areas. You may be lucky enough to see Marsh Harrier hunting over these, and they are home to birds such as bittern and mammals including otter and water vole. 

The largest piece of water to visit in Cambridgeshire is Grafham Water. This reservoir has a section designated as a nature reserve, a haven for wildfowl.

Many of the "lakes" and ponds in the county are old gravel pits which have filled with water. Now managed as local nature reserves, some have gained SSSI status (Site of Special Scientific Interest).

Some of our favourites include...

  • Paxton Pits
  • Godmanchester Nature Reserve
  • Hinchingbrooke Country Park
  • Ouse Fen Nature Reserve


Rivers and a rare chalk stream

If you are interested in unique places, you will want to include RSPB Fowlmere on your list as it holds a chalk stream, one of the UK's rarest habitats. Fed by natural springs, the stream supports brown trout and there are regular sightings of water vole and otters.

You might not expect a busy Cambridgeshire town to be somewhere to take a nature walk, let alone to house rare wildlife. But Holt Island, in the centre of St Ives, is one such place. The island, reached by crossing a small bridge, has a raised boardwalk, so is accessible to all, but only at certain times of the year. It delighted me to find and photograph the Willow Emerald Damselfly in the trees here. Learn about photographing dragons and damsels here.  


Meadow walks

Do you enjoy walking by a river through a meadow full of wildflowers, butterflies, and dragonflies? Me too, and there are plenty of places to do this in Cambridgeshire.

Paxton Pits, which I mentioned above, has a nature trail that runs behind the visitor centre and through the meadows. Signs advise you to keep to the pathway, but you can still enjoy the wildlife that the habitat offers.

You can choose to take the shorter walk, which leads through the meadow beside Rudd Lake and then takes a circular route around Hayling Lake before retracing your steps beside the meadow.

Or you can enjoy a longer hike by skirting one side of Hayling Lake and then turning along the path between Cloudy Lake and the River Great Ouse, continuing through the Great Meadow and The Paddock until you turn left beside Peter's Field to reach the far end of Heronry South Lake, before heading back to the Visitor Centre. This is a lovely walk if you enjoy watching dragonflies.

But if you are looking for a wilder walk, I recommend visiting Houghton Meadows. 

Head North to the village of Houghton, in between Huntingdon and St Ives, and you will find Houghton Mill. Besides the mill itself, this National Trust destination offers several walks around Houghton Meadows, which are in fact a mix of ancient hay meadows and pasture land beside the River Ouse. Depending on your route, you may need to cross some foot bridges. The walk offers some lovely views across to the village of Hemingford Grey and St James' Church.

The meadows in this area are alive with butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies. On the other side of the river is a field that often contains a herd of Alpaca, which are fun to watch. Keep in mind that once they cut the hay in July, they do not allow dogs on the Nature Reserve. 


Your turn to enjoy Cambridgeshire

Enjoyed your virtual tour covering Cambridgeshire's nature and discovering where you can go to see it? Don't forget to get out there when you can, to experience the varied habitats and wildlife on offer in this county.

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