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Wildlife in Borrowdale and Derwent Water

The view from Surprise View in Borrowdale looking towards Derwent Water in winter. The still lake is surrounded by snow capped mountains.
A wintry view of Derwent Water from Surprise View in Borrowdale, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The ancient ‘Atlantic oakwoods’ in Borrowdale and Derwent Water are both protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Find out which rare plants and animals you can expect to see during your visit, including the best places to spot native red squirrels.

Winter at Borrowdale

Winter cloud inversions at Borrowdale

Standing in the sun under a blue sky looking down on the tops of the clouds, knowing that everyone below you is wandering around in a cold dank mist. These are the joys of getting above a cloud inversion.

Cloud inversions happen when you get that magic combination of cold temperatures and high pressure. It’s not uncommon in winter, and there are a few places in Borrowdale where it’s relatively easy to get above the clouds.

Surprise View

Looking down onto the lake below from a crag where the ice-age glaciers carved the end off, leaving Watendlath valley hanging in mid-air, you can be treated to the sight of a sea of clouds at your feet.

Honister Pass

If Honister Pass isn’t closed because of icy conditions, driving up the pass might bring you to a level above the cloud. If you park at the car park at the top of Honister Pass, an out-and-back walk along the old packhorse route Moses Trod towards Great Gable could reveal cloud-filled valleys of Buttermere, Ennerdale and even Wasdale, depending on how far you go.

How to predict when a cloud inversion will occur

There’s a good description of how cloud inversions work on Terry Abraham’s blog.

Winter ice climbing in Borrowdale

If you’re heading out ice climbing, please read the BMC’s White Climbing Guide. The crags in Borrowdale are home to some extremely rare specialist alpine plants, and using crampons and ice axes when the ice is too thin can damage them. To help we’ve installed an ice monitoring station on Great End which will tell you when the ice conditions are just right.

Sessile oak woodland with mosses, lichens and bryophytes in winter, Borrowdale, Cumbria
Sessile oak woodland with mosses, lichens and bryophytes in Borrowdale, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/John Malley

The Atlantic oakwoods of Borrowdale

Get in amongst this ancient landscape by following the moderate waymarked walk from the Great Wood car park.

The woodlands that cloak the surrounding fells are dominated by oak: these 'Atlantic oakwoods' are the last surviving fragments of an enormous ancient forest that once stretched from western Scotland all the way down the west coast of Britain and Wales.

They receive an incredible 11 feet (3.5m) of rainfall per year and therefore they qualify as temperate rainforest. Look up as you walk and in the crooks of the branches you may see ferns growing – another indicator of rainforest status.

The woods in this valley are one of the most important habitats in Europe for mosses and liverworts (bryophytes), and lichens – especially 'old forest species'. As a result of their rarity and diversity, all of the Borrowdale rainforest is protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

A close up of a red squirrel on a branch on the floor of woodland on Brownsea Island, Dorset
A red squirrel in Borrowdale, Lake District | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

The best places to spot red squirrels in Borrowdale

Red squirrels have inhabited Cumbria for the past 6,000 years. Today, their grey cousins are pushing them close to extinction, but there is a population in the valley that we are fighting hard to protect.

The best time to come for a walk in Borrowdale's woods and see squirrels is in spring or early summer before the leaf canopy hides them from view, or during and after the October half term once the leaves have started to drop.

Cockshot Wood and Castle Head wood
Follow waymarked trails from opposite the boat jetties through these lovely oak woods right on the edge of Keswick (satnav CA12 5DG)Park at Lakeside car park
Great Wood
Follow waymarked woodland trail from the National Trust car park at Great Wood, with glimpses of Skiddaw and Bassenthwaite through the trees. (satnav CA12 5UP)Park at Great Wood car park
Moss Mire
Follow the path marked to Watendlath from the National Trust car park at Surprise View as it meanders through the little wood above the crags (satnav CA12 5UU)Park at Surprise View car park
Bowder Stone wood
Follow the accessible track from the National Trust car park for ¼ mile through the trees to the Bowder Stone (satnav CA12 5XA)Park at Bowder Stone wood car park
Castle Crag wood
Follow the Cumbria Way beside the river and into the woods that flank Castle Crag's steep sides from the National Trust car park at Rosthwaite (satnav CA12 5XB)Park at Rosthwaite car park
Johnny Wood
If you're feeling up for an adventure take the loop along the river from the National Trust car park at Seatoller, which includes a chain to help you over a rocky scramble above the water, then climb steeply up through the woodland looking out for ferns in the crooks of the trees and return on the gradual descent through the wood (satnav CA12 5XN)Park at Seatoller car park
A barn owl sits on top of a fence post in winter.
A barn owl in Borrowdale during winter, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/Aaron Claxton

Borrowdale wildlife in the woodlands

If you go for a quiet walk in the valley, especially around dusk or dawn, you could be rewarded with a glimpse of some of Britain's rarest wildlife:

  • Red and roe deer are present throughout the forest
  • Bird species include peregrine falcon, sparrowhawk, buzzard, barn owl, tawny owl, little owl, pied flycatcher and redstart, greater spotted woodpecker and dipper
  • Otters often visit our woodland streams and gullies
  • We retain as much dead wood as we can, both fallen and standing. 80 per cent of British beetle species make their home in dead wood
  • If you're lucky you can spot glow worms in the valley close to Watendlath

Water wildlife in Derwent Water

Derwent Water is an exceptionally important area for wildlife. It has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because it is a clean, naturally nutrient-poor lake with excellent vegetation. The lake supports the healthiest remaining population of Britain’s rarest freshwater fish, the vendace (the only other natural population in Britain is just downstream in Bassenthwaite Lake).

Wetland wildlife surrounding Derwent Water

The surrounding wetlands are important for breeding birds – most days you should be able to catch a glimpse of common sandpiper or Snipe, in amongst a beautiful variety of plants such as bog asphodel and cotton grass. The sheltered bays are valuable for wintering wildfowl and if you're very lucky, you might see an otter.

Clouds and mountains reflected in the water on a sunny day at Borrowdale and Derwent Water

Discover more at Borrowdale and Derwent Water

Find out how to get to Borrowdale and Derwent Water, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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