While the peak district national park is full of life and excellent natural history stories, its 555sq mile coverage can make these natural wonders hard to find. While this information is online, it is not necessarily all in one place. This short blog is here to help you experience first hand some of the species and subjects featured in ‘Winter Peak’.
Click here to watch the full-length documentary!
Red Deer are the largest wild mammal in the UK, making them quite the majestic sight when you are wandering the eastern moors. Autumn is the time of the Rut, when males battle it out to win the females for the breeding season. However outside of the Rut, Red Deer do something quite amazing. They will meet up year after year in more or less the same groups, effectively old friends. These groups will roam until the next rutting season.
The deer featured in Winter Peak were filmed on White Edge and Curbar Edge. While this population is likely to have left the Chatsworth Estate and established their own population here, they are by no means tame. You are best viewing them from the footpath as they will spook easily, and that any grassy land off to the east is boggy. This location is really easy to access with a good RSPB car park and well-kept paths.
Alternatively, you can visit Chatsworth Park, a well-kept and well-known estate in the heart of the White Peak. It has free entry to the park with good parking. I’d recommend using the car park at OS map OL 1 2568 for the garden centre as it is really close to where the deer spend most of their time. While these deer are more used to humans, it does not mean you should try and get any closer than those on the moors.
Murmurations are probably one of the greatest natural spectacles you can witness in the UK during the winter months. Starting in late November through until late March, masses of tens of thousands of starlings can be seen in a few special locations around the country. While it is not fully understood, it is thought that the starlings perform this nightly ritual in order to deter and confuse predators, after all there’s safety in numbers. Furthermore, roosting in reeds and trees in these numbers mean their combined warmth increases the chances they will survive the freezing nights.
The location used in Winter Peak is near a small quarry called Cavendish Mill, near the village of Stoney Middleton. It can get fairly busy, especially on weekends so get there at least an hour before sunset. You should park along Thunderpit Lane, along which you will see a wooden gate. If you pass through the gate and walk up the hill you will be greeted by an open green space with a fenced-off section in front of you. This area is the best for getting good wide views of the starlings, so I’d recommend hanging around here.
Dippers are a small dark brown bird with a white chest and are the only species of songbird in the world that can dive and swim underwater for food. They get their name from habitually bobbing up and down when perched near the water, it is not known why they do this. They spend around 2/3rds of their day hunting, so riverbanks and fast-flowing stretches of water are the best places to search. Manmade structures such as weirs and small waterfalls are a preferred area for them.
The dippers filmed in Winter Peak were shot at Monsal Dale, a popular walking spot in the village of Little Longstone. Specifically, the river that flows beneath the viaduct visible from the car park in front of the Monsal Head hotel. If you go left down the path from the car park it will eventually bring you out at a weir, where you are almost guaranteed to see dippers. It is best to wait around this area rather than walking the entire length of the river as they do have preferred hunting spots and will return throughout the day.
Little owls are an elusive and hard to spot resident of the peak district. They will roost mostly in hollow trees; however, they will also make use of manmade structures such as small barns and even stone walls. They are a non-native species to the UK, having been introduced in the 19th Century. They will most often feed on the ground, chasing after insects. They will perch on high points within their territory, on roofs, posts, trees, etc.
The farmland around the Derbyshire Dales and the town of Tideswell have wide areas of good habitat for little owls, barn owls, and tawny owls, making this a good place to start. However much of this land is private, unlike the moors an edges; so be careful not to cross stone walls or gates to get closer to buildings. Moreover, disturbance to roosting sites may cause animals to abandon them.
Unfortunately, as continued disturbance and invasive behaviour from people can cause owls to change their behaviour radically, the exact barn used in Winter Peak will remain undisclosed.
Mountain Hares in the Peak District National Park are the most southerly population in the world. Having lived in the UK for over 100,00 years, they are our only native species of hare, since brown hares were introduced by the Romans. They live exclusively in highlands at 1000ft above sea level or higher. Winter months are a much easier time to spot this enigmatic creature, since lower temperatures cause their fur to change from brown to white. Unfortunately for us, Mountain Hares don’t take up residence in a particular area, meaning you’re unlikely to see a hare in the same spot twice. Your best bet for spotting a hare is to walk the footpaths of the highlands and look out for the flash of white.
Unfortunately, the cruel and dark sport of ‘hare coursing’ is an issue with mountain hares in the peak district. An illegal and morbid sport in which dogs are used to capture and kill mountain hares. For the risk of this occurring in the location used for Winter Peak, the exact filming location will remain undisclosed. I would strongly recommend that if you do happen across a good location to see Mountain Hares, that you keep this to yourself and immediate family only to prevent coursing from spreading further.
Tors are impressive structures of rock that litter the peak landscape. It’s not known exactly how they formed, but popular thought is that they formed underground back when the climate was tropical. Over millions of years the surrounding land has been eroded exposing the rock columns. Then over subsequent millennia wind, rain and ice have sculpted them into the perfect shapes we see today.
There are lots of impressive tors and edges across the Peak, however, the area around the village of Curbar has a lot of interesting structures in a fairly condensed area. Curbar Edge has some smaller but impressive sculpture-like stones that are well worth a look. Then to the north the area around the surprise view car park has excellent Tors, from Higger Tor, Mother Cap, and Over Owler Tor. The walks around Millstone edge also provide stunning views.
The surprise view car park area is also a dark-sky reserve, making it the perfect place to see the stars. While over Owler tor can sometimes be lit up by the headlights of passing cars, Mother Cap and the area above it is more or less pitch dark. Thanks to the fact that much of the national park being undeveloped, most moorlands and woodlands are subjected to very little light pollution, making perfect star gazing and astrophotography spots.
How to Observe
There are a few key strategies to keep in mind when looking to observe wild animals, though all of this should be carried out in consideration of the animal’s overall wellbeing. Firstly, wind direction. If you are upwind of an animal, then it is going to hear/smell you far quicker than if you are downwind. Approaching from downwind (when possible) will help guarantee you getting closer to a species.
Moreover, the kit you bring into the field is essential. Binoculars or scopes are the perfect tools for you being able to witness amazing behaviours from a safe distance. Getting too close to an animal will almost always change its behaviour, it will be wary of your presence and will not act naturally. Deer are particularly guilty of this, while they will not always move on immediately, if you venture too close, they will simply stand and stare at you until you leave. If you sit still at a safe distance you will get to witness some fascinating behaviours such as sparing between males.
Respecting the Peak
While getting into the countryside is an incredible privilege, it is important that we do it in a respectful and appropriate manner. Leaving an area as you found it is a mantra we should all live by, not leaving litter or causing damage to areas by sticking to paths and designated areas. Ecosystems are under enough pressure as it is, damaging them is doing no good.
Do not approach animals, while it is always tempting to want to get that little bit closer to get a better view of a species, you have to consider the impact this will have on them. In the case of the Little Owls it may deter them from nesting that year and ultimately having an impact on their population. Or in cases of Deer you may spook them into roads or busy areas where they may be injured. Just sit back and enjoy the invaluable opportunity you have to connect with some of the UK’s most magnificent species.
If you do happen across a location for some of the Peak’s highly protected species, such as those mentioned in this blog, then please do not share their location wider than your immediate friends or family. While it is exciting to have these experiences first hand, we must prioritise the safety of the animals.