Some of the natural world’s most evocative sights can be found in Europe – bluebells carpeting a beech wood in spring; vast, shimmering flocks of waders pulsing across tidal mudflats; red deer roaring during the autumn rut; Atlantic cliff s ringing with the cries of seabirds... It’s only through a conscious effort to nurture and conserve, however, that many of these wildlife wonders survive in the continent’s increasingly crowded spaces. Hail the conservation movements of Europe! Without them, the world would not only be a poorer place, but biodiversity would have been dealt a devastating blow.
Home to 80% of the UK’s rarest or most threatened bird species, the 200 nature reserves of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) cover an area of 130,000ha. Add to that 2,200 nature reserves managed by the Wildlife Trusts, over 1,100km of coastline protected by the National Trust, 15 national parks and around 150 marine protected areas, and you can begin to appreciate the scale of conservation activity in just one European nation.
Even the nature-loving Brits, however, would be the first to admit that much more needs to be done to safeguard wildlife both in the UK and across Europe. Driving new initiatives, the RSPB – now one of Europe’s largest wildlife conservation charities – was founded in 1889 in protest against the trade in exotic bird feathers used to accessorise women’s hats. But if there was one person who can be singled out as a pioneer of conservation in the UK, Europe and beyond, it has to be the late Sir Peter Scott. Son of the famous Antarctic explorer, Scott not only founded the UK’s Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in 1946, but he was also a founder of the World Wildlife Fund and architect of the IUCN Red Data Books on endangered species. Naturalist, artist, broadcaster and author, Scott – who died in 1989 – was described by Sir David Attenborough as conservation’s ‘patron saint’.
Scott’s legacy pervades the wild places of Europe. You can sense it in the far north, where geese, ducks and waders – popular subjects for many of Scott’s paintings – migrate each summer to nest. And you can see it, too, at his beloved Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire, where many of those same species spend the winter months. Scott’s conviction that wildlife conservation relied on safeguarding habitats and inspiring people is as relevant now as it was several decades ago. In Europe, it underpins projects as diverse as protecting Scotland’s ancient Caledonian forest to pulling the Iberian lynx back from the brink of extinction. It also lies at the heart of responsible wildlife travel. You only have to visit the Carpathians of Romania, for example, to find local people taking great pride in showing visitors the bears and wolves that still roam the area’s mountain forests. There’s certainly no shortage of enthusiasm for nature conservation in Europe – and, with a wealth of fabulous wildlife sites to visit, ecotravellers can become some of its best ambassadors.
Europe: Wild Places
25 wildlife destinations in Europe
The extreme north of mainland Europe is a little-visited land of rugged beauty where you can search for seabirds, snowy owls and Arctic foxes at Norway’s Varanger Fjord (1). White-tailed eagles and sperm whales can be seen around the lofty Lofoton Islands (2), while the taiga forest of northeast Finland (3) is one of the best places in the world to observe brown bears in the wild. The forests and lakes of Sweden (4) are also rich in mammals, including beaver, elk and wolf. In the Faroe Islands (5) seabirds rule the roost, with some two million pairs staking out the cliffs of this North Atlantic archipelago. Iceland (6) has seabird cities on its western fjords, thousands of breeding waterfowl at lake Myvatn and excellent whale watching in Skjalfandi Bay. Whales, seabirds, eagles and otters feature on island safaris in the Scottish Hebrides (7), while the Pembrokeshire islands of Skomer, Skokholm, Grassholm and Ramsey (8) are bustling with puffins, shearwaters and gannets each spring. The natural treasures of Ireland (9) include the unique flora of the Burren and the migratory birds of the Ballycroy blanket bogs. In the Netherlands (10) coastal areas are crucial for waders, as are the lagoons and reedbeds of the Camargue in southern France (11). An extensive network of national parks covers the Alps (12), including the long-established Swiss National Park and Italy’s Gran Paradiso. Mountain species, from butterflies to lammergeiers, also find protection in the Italian Apeninnes (13), the rugged interior of Corsica (14) and the Pyrenees (15). One of Europe’s finest wildlife destinations, the Coto Doñana of Andalucía (16) is a stronghold for the highly endangered Iberian lynx and a magnet to waterbirds. Northern Spain isn’t short of wildlife appeal either – its Picos de Europa mountains still support bears and wolves, while the Bay of Biscay (17) rewards whale watchers with sightings of everything from common dolphins to blue whales. Cetaceans are also widespread in the Mediterranean, particularly in the Straits of Gibraltar (18) and off the south coast of Crete (19). Largest of the Greek Islands, Crete also puts on a spectacular display of wildflowers. Highlights of Eastern Europe include the steppes of Hungary (20), the bear forests of the Carpathian Mountains (21) and the ancient wildwood of Poland’s Bialowieza Forest (22). The pearl of the region for birdwatchers, however, is the Danube Delta (23): des-res for thousands of pelicans, herons, cormorants and other waterbirds. Estonia (24) is also a birding hotspot, while offbeat Belarus (25) is gaining popularity as a wildlife destination, thanks to reserves like Berezinsky and Pripiatsky – home to European bison, wolf, bear and lynx.
Read the latest posts on European wildlife travel
HOW TO BE A RESPONSIBLE WILDLIFE TRAVELLER
When it comes to wildlife holidays, responsible tourism is not just an option – it should be considered an intrinsic part of the whole process. When planning your wildlife holiday in Europe, read these 10 steps to minimise your impact on the environment, reduce your carbon emissions and support wildlife conservation and the livelihoods of local communities.
Europe: Natural Zones
Habitats of Europe
Densely populated, widely cultivated and cast in a dense web of roads and railways, Europe is still a wonderful destination for wildlife. Look to the continent’s mountains and remote borders; to its wetlands and islands; to fragments of the great wildwood and, most of all, to its superb network of national parks and nature reserves.
Europe was once a land of trees. Broadleaf forests of oak, beech and birch cloaked much of western and central Europe, but now only remnants survive – the most famous being Poland’s Bialowieza Forest. Conifer forest still claims much of the continent’s high ground, along with large swathes of Scandinavia, where it merges with Russia’s mighty taiga forest.
Europe’s major mountain ranges – the Alps, Pyrenees and Carpathians – are strongholds for large mammals such as brown bear, wolf and ibex. Transboundary conservation efforts are helping many of these species expand their ranges and reclaim old haunts. Beavers have been reintroduced to the Scottish Highlands, while the dry, scrubby slopes of Spain’s Sierra Morena provide a lifeline to Iberian lynx. Cleaner rivers now support healthy populations of otters; numerous wetlands and offshore islands have been declared sanctuaries for breeding and migratory birds, and perhaps most importantly, Europe’s man-made landscapes – its farmland, parks and canals – are being managed in a more wildlife-friendly way.
Europe: Wildlife Travel
HOW TO PLAN A WILDLIFE TRIP
Europe’s extensive and efficient transport network – even to far-flung islands and distant Arctic outposts – smooths the way for wildlife travellers. Wherever you choose to go, chances are there will be places to stay, expert naturalist guides and probably a national park or nature reserve with trails, hides and a visitor centre. Europe also has numerous wildlife tour operators, ranging from specialists such as Transylvanian Wolf (a Romanian company offering wolf-tracking holidays) to generalists covering large parts of the continent. Naturetrek offers one of Europe’s most comprehensive selection of wildlife tours, including butterfly watching holidays in support of the charity Butterfly Conservation.