Top 10...European wildlife destinations

| 1st April 2011
From birds to whales, Europe has plenty for wildlife watchers to love. William McLennan rounds up some of the best

While most of us are happy to head to Kenya for an elephant sighting or two, few realise that Europe also has myriad indigenous species that are just as impressive. Among them are lynx, bears, whales, wild horses and bison, many of which are endangered. And that’s not all the continent has to offer either. Many of the best wildlife watching spots are also wonderfully picturesque and home to some excellent places to stay, eat and drink. Sustainability is also a factor with many destinations boasting eco-friendly accommodation and the majority are reachable by train, cutting out the need for air travel. Here are some of the best.

Lundy Island
Why it’s great: A three-mile long strip of granite that rises 400 feet out of the Bristol Channel, Lundy is famous for its birdlife and more than 35 different species breed on the island each year.  While Lundy’s puffin population suffered a drastic decline over the last few decades, it has been staging a comeback in recent years thanks to the removal of the island’s rats.  As well as puffins there are plenty of raptors, such as the Peregrine Falcon. If you manage to find a niche away from the wind, you can witness first-hand the falcon’s impressive mid-air hunting skills. The waters off Lundy are England’s only Marine Nature Reserve and are home to a variety of species including sponges, corals and a colony of grey seals. In the summer months Lundy’s waters are often visited by basking sharks, which are easily spotted from the mainland. From May to October the Island Warden offers a range of activities including snorkelling safaris and guided walks. Despite being only a two hour ferry ride from the Devon coast, Lundy is a world away and you have to search hard for any signs of modern life, so expect quiet evenings indoors unless  of course, you head to the  tavern to socialise with the ‘Lundyites’.
Need to know: All accommodation on Lundy is owned and run by the Landmark Trust. The facilities can be basic so don’t expect a spa or swimming pool, but the buildings themselves are consistently remarkable. Choose from a 13th century castle, converted lighthouse or hillside fisherman’s cottage. All accommodation is self-catering but the Marisco Tavern has some catering options.
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Why it’s great: Straddling the border between France and Spain, the Pyrenees are home to a host of bird species and even a brown bear or two.  On a day’s hike through the High Pyrenees, expect to see a variety of birdlife including majestic golden eagles and huge bearded vultures. Several companies organise wildlife holidays in the Pyrenees including Fanus Wildlife ECO Tours, which runs seven-day bird watching trips and comes recommended by Sir Ranulph Fiennes. There are activities to suit everyone in the Pyrenees; so if the thought of bird-watching and walking doesn’t appeal, there’s bound to be an alternative that does. The high-altitudes of the Pyrenees are an adrenaline-junkie’s paradise with rock climbing and parachuting among the sports on offer.
Need to know: Most tours include accommodation but if you’re travelling under your own steam, check out the picturesque l’Orri de Planès eco-lodge.  Not only is it family run, it also has an impressive environmental policy, uses electricity from ‘clean’ energy sources and serves sustainable, local food. 
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Scottish Highlands and Inner Hebrides
Why it’s great: Accessible by car and, where necessary, by boat, the Hebrides and Highlands could keep you busy for weeks. The Isle of Rum is famous for its large herds of red deer but is also home to wild goats, ponies, seals, otters and sea eagles. A colony of Manx shearwaters live in the island’s soft volcanic cliffs and the 120,000 seabirds make quite a spectacle when they take to the sky. Ranoch Moor in the Scottish Highlands is one of the last remaining wilderness areas in the UK and is home to mountain hares, red deer and golden eagles. You can drive to the moor but the road ends at Ranoch station, so put your feet up and take the West Highland Railway through the moor instead.
Need to know: Kinloch Castle Hostel is the only accommodation available on the Isle of Rum and offers a choice of self-catering or full board. Back on the mainland, options include Huntingtower Lodge on the shores of Loch Linnhe, which is a Green Tourism Board Silver award winner and is taking steps to lessen its environmental impact.
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Why it’s great: With mountain ranges in the east and the Adriatic to the west, Croatia has a diverse range of habitats so it’s not surprising that the country is one of Europe’s biodiversity hotspots. More than 1000 islands lie off the coast of Croatia and the 14 islands that make up the Brijuni archipelago are all part of a protected national park. One of Europe’s last colonies of griffon vultures lives on the island of Cres and can be seen from the town of Beli. On the eastern side of Cres and Losinj, pods of Mediterranean bottlenose dolphins can be regularly spotted from land and dolphin watching boat trips run daily during the summer. The Dinaric Alps to the east are a great hiking destination and are inhabited by populations of lynx, wolf and brown bear.
Need to know: Eco-friendly accommodation is limited on the island of Cres but some options are available. The same is true for mainland Croatia although Naturetrek do run organised wildlife tours, which include accommodation.
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Why it’s great: Finland is one of the most popular wildlife destinations in Europe and for good reason. Brown bears, wolves, lynx and beavers all live in the forests, which cover 86 per cent of the country. If you want to get up close and personal with one of Europe’s most awe-inspiring mammals then Royle Safaris will take you deep into the Elimyssalo Nature Reserve where you can spend the night in one of the specially made bear spotting hides.  Finland also has fantastic opportunities for bird watchers, and is home to six different species of owl. Kussamo in the east and Oulu in the west are both famous bird watching areas and are breeding grounds for hundreds of species of birds.
Need to know: Organised tours provide accommodation, usually in cabins or wooden lodges, as bear and lynx tracking will take you deep into the forest. There a few dedicated eco-hotels, but why not embrace the cold and book a nights stay in Finland’s Ice Hotel, which, as the name suggests, is carved out of ice and snow.
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Bay of Biscay
Why it’s great: South Africa’s Atlantic coastline or New Zealand’s South Island might be the best-known places for whale watching, but the Bay of Biscay, on the coast of northern Spain, is a great whale watching spot close to home. You’re likely to see fin, pilot and beaked whales and sightings of blue, humpback and sperm whales are not unheard of.  The Atlantic Research Coalition has teamed up with Brittany Ferries, and the Portsmouth to Santander route includes hours of whale watching. Data collected onboard is later used by conservation groups to build up a picture of the whales migratory habits.  Marine life organises dedicated whale and dolphin watching cruises in a round trip from Portsmouth, while Naturetrek runs trips from Spain.
Need to know: No trips are being run from France this year but taking a ferry to Spain instead of flying will decrease your carbon footprint and provide the opportunity to see some magnificent ocean mammals not often seen in European waters.
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Why it’s great: Home to both the critically endangered Tatra chamois (mountain goat) and brown bear, a visit to Slovakia’s Tatras Mountains provides a rare opportunity to see these magnificent creatures in the wild. You can also get involved with conservation by carrying out monitoring work with Hands Up Holidays, who combine wildlife tours and environmental protection.  Situated in the north east of the country, the Tatras Mountains form a natural border between Slovakia and Poland and are easily accessed by train. Populations of lynx and wolves also inhabit Slovakian forests and Responsible Travel can organise wolf and lynx tracking trips in the Carpathian Mountains.
Need to know: Aquacity, in Poprad, provides an eco-friendly respite from the wilderness for those looking for a little luxury. The eco-hotel is powered using electricity generated on-site and hosts the world’s only solar-powered, luxury swimming pool.
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Why it’s great: The UK’s nearest Scandinavian neighbour, Norway is home to the usual Eastern European suspects but has a few surprises up its sleeve too. Jerv, or European wolverine, populations inhabit Norway’s extensive pine forests along with brown bear, wolves, elk and lynx. In the semi-frozen fjords of northern Norway you can watch, and even swim with, hundreds of Orca [killer whales], which follow vast shoals of herring along the Norwegian coastline each year. Many local charter companies run whale-watching trips from Tysfjord from the end of October until January, which also include snorkelling opportunities. 
Need to know: Norway has its own eco-label, Nordic Swan, for eco-friendly products and services. The Radisson Blu Hotel in Oslo is a recent recipient.
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The Camargue
Why it’s great: On the south coast of France, the Camargue, a vast plain covering much of the Rhône Delta, is full of surprises. Home to more than 400 bird species, the Camargue is one of the only places in Europe where you can see the greater flamingo.  During the summer months, the Camargue is home to as many as 20,000 of the pink, stilt-legged birds as well as hovering marsh harriers and multi-coloured bee-eaters. The area is famed for its wild populations of grey horses and horned bulls, both of which are breeds native to the Camargue.
Need to know: There are no dedicated eco-hotels in Camargue but there are plenty of gîtes and finding locally sourced food is rarely a challenge in France. If you plan on driving south through France, a few eco-friendly options are available. Les Terres d'Héphaïstos and Auberge Les Liards are both in Auvergne just off the southbound route E11.
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Why it’s great: More than 40 percent of land-locked Belarus is covered with dense forest, which famously sheltered partisan fighters during World War II.  These forests also support an abundance of wildlife and if you’re looking for large mammals, then this is the place for you. Herds of European bison, wild boar, elk and packs of wolves are all found in the vast Belarusian forest. The Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park in the West of Belarus has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1979 and is one of the last remaining refuges of the Europe’s largest mammal, the European bison. Tourism is a developing industry here and few dedicated wildlife tours exist, but Nature Trek organises holidays to the ancient woodlands.
Need to know: The environmental movement is yet to reach Belarusian hoteliers so options for eco-friendly accommodation are practically nonexistent. Thankfully, rural Belarus hasn't been taken over by hotel chains and local guesthouses are the best bet. Baltics and Beyond have some useful information.
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Why it’s great: The east coast of England probably isn’t the first place that springs to mind for wildlife watching, but large colonies of seals and a plethora of sea-bird species call the rugged coastline home. Blakeney National Nature Reserve on the Norfolk coast is an important breeding ground for grey and common seals, which are both increasing in numbers. From April to October, Bishop’s Boats run seal watching trips to Blakeney Point several times per day.
Need to know: The eco-friendly Starttons Hotel in Swaffham, is in a converted grade II listed building and was the first hotel in the UK to win the prestigious Queen’s Award for Outstanding Environmental Performance. Environmental initiatives include a 10 per cent discount for guests arriving by public transport, so take the train.
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