Wildlife at Hardcastle Crags

A close up of a bluebell flower

Hardcastle Crags is home to an amazing array of wildlife. If you're looking to get close to nature, here are some of the wonderful wildlife highlights that you might be lucky to see on a visit.

Wildlife in the woodland 

The mixed woodland at Hardcastle Crags is managed to encourage natural regeneration of native broadleaved species. Fallen trees and standing deadwood are left to provide habitats for invertebrates, birds and bats.

You'll often hear woodpeckers drumming on the trees and the sound of various different birds signing from the treetops. Look out for pied flycatchers, treecreepers and song thrush amongst the trees and see if you can identify their unique tunes. By the water, look for heron, dippers and grey wagtails darting along the streams. 

Life in the hay meadows 

Species-rich hay meadows can be found high on the valley sides, close to the Widdop Road. The meadows are cut in late summer after the plants have flowered, allowing the seed to be collected. Types of birds and insects commonly found on meadows include the skylark, twite, meadow pippet, and various types of beetles. The meadows are a favourite with bees and butterflies too, with various different species seen throughout the spring and summer. 

During the autumn, the hay meadows are home to an amazing array of weird and wonderful wax caps. These colourful fungi come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, and a rainbow of colours - from rich scarlets and sunshine yellow to green and purple. 

There's lots of life in the colourful hay meadows during spring and summer
A close up photograph of hay meadow at Hardcastle Crags, showing red clover, sheep's sorrel and common bird's-foot-trefoil
There's lots of life in the colourful hay meadows during spring and summer

Water wildlife

Mill ponds from a past industrial age now provide aquatic habitats for invertebrates, fish, amphibians and birds. Dippers, herons and wagtails can often be seen darting across the waters edge and the ponds themselves are home to frogs, toads and newts. 

The fast flowing streams of Hebden Water and Crimsworth Dean Beck flow through Hardcastle Crags too. Here you'll see a variety of different birds and insects such as damselflies and dragonflies, as well as a variety of fish darting around beneath the surface. 

Mammals at Hardcastle Crags

If you're lucky, you might see some of our resident roe deer on a visit. These are the largest mammals found in Hardcastle Crags and they are easily recognised by their characteristic white rumps. Early morning is the best time to see the deer, as they head back into the trees to hide. 

It's not just the deer who prefer the Crags after dark, when everything is still and quiet. The valley is also home to eight species of bat, including pipistrelle, whiskered, Natterer's and noctule. 

The woodland is home to a variety of bats, including the pipistrelle bat
 Juvenile male common pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) resting on tree limb
The woodland is home to a variety of bats, including the pipistrelle bat

A bird-watcher's paradise

If you're an experienced birder, or just starting out, Hardcastle Crags is a haven for bird watching. From the early dawn, the woodland is filled with the songs and sounds of our resident bird life. 

Common sightings can include blue tits, great tits, chiff chaffs, wrens and robins, but if you're lucky you might spot some of our less-common sightings too. Look out for green woodpecker, redstart, grey wagtail, bullfinch, willow warbler, wood warbler and song thrush which also call this place home.

In the upland areas surrounding the woodland, you might see curlew, lapwing and twite. In the skies above the treetops, buzzards and other birds of prey can often be seen circling amongst the clouds.  

If you're lucky you might spot a green woodpecker in the treetops
A green woodpecker sitting on a branch
If you're lucky you might spot a green woodpecker in the treetops

Incredible invertebrates 

Many invertebrates are associated with decaying wood, so Hardcastle Crags provides an ideal home for a number of significant species, including fungus beetles, rove beetles, moths and ants.

To help look after our invertebrates, we often leave fallen trees and branches where they drop to provide a cosy home for these smaller residents. 

Plant life at Hardcastle Crags 

This ancient semi-natural woodland is a mixture of native broadleaf trees (including oak, birch and alder) and planted areas of beech and pine.

A rich variety of plant life can also be seen, with species such as great woodrush, bilberry, wood sorrel and climbing corydalis. These flowers poke up from the woodland floor, hidden amongst the greenery, providing a splash of colour throughout the trees.

During May, the bluebells are the real stars of the woodland. These delicate flowers are scattered throughout the valley, creating a rich carpet of blue when they burst into bloom. 

Fungi, bryophytes and lichens

Did you know Hardcastle Crags is a special place for Goblins Gold, Dog Lichen and Portuguese Feather-Moss?

Lichens and bryophytes (liverworts, mosses and hornworts) thrive in this area because of the high humidity in the deep valleys. There are also numerous fungi, with over 400 species noted by local naturalists.

The woodland is home to lichens, liverworts and mosses
A close up image of woodland fauna
The woodland is home to lichens, liverworts and mosses

The Northern Hairy Wood Ant

Perhaps the most famous residents of Hardcastle Crags are the colonies of Northern Hairy Wood Ants that live throughout the woodland. These little creatures live in huge nests which can be as large as six feet tall. The nests extend a couple of feet below the ground with an extensive labyrinth of tunnels that are tended to by female ants from the colonies. 

Late winter and early spring is a great time to see the ants, as they emerge from hibernation and start to make essential repairs to their homes. It's hard to spot these creatures on their own, but if you stumble across one of their nests they are pretty hard to miss. You'll see a flurry of activity, with the entrance to the nest covered in ants busy at work. 

It's hard to spot the hairy bits of the ant, which give them their names, with the naked eye  - unless you have a good telescope or magnifying glass. But under a microscope you'll see they have tiny, hairy eyebrows which make them easy to indentify from other species. 

A Northern Hairy Wood Ant at Hardcastle Crags
A Northern Hairy Wood Ant at Hardcastle Crags
A Northern Hairy Wood Ant at Hardcastle Crags

Top wildlife spots

  • Roe deer in the early morning or evening
  • Northern Hairy Wood Ants and their huge nests
  • The Great Spotted Woodpecker up in the trees
  • Newts around the Millpond and sometimes in the boiler room
  • Bats emerging from their roosts at dusk around Gibson Mill
  • Dippers on the stepping stones
  • Common frogs and toads breeding in the ponds and boggy areas
  • Herons flying under the bridge at Gibson Mill