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Wildlife in the Buttermere Valley

Otter swimming in the river at Croome, Worcestershire
Otter swimming through the lake | © National Trust Images / John Hubble

Once a single lake, Buttermere and Crummock Water in the Lake District have been separated since the last ice age. Both lakes are Sites of Special Scientific Interest and are protected for their wildlife. Discover more about the flora and fauna that thrive in the area, including otters that have returned up the River Cocker and ice-age fish, some of which live only in the Lake District.

Buttermere and Crummock Water

Following the last ice age, the erosion of the fells and the action of the becks carrying loose material off the mountains eventually built up the spit of land that now separates the two lakes, Buttermere and Crummock Water.

This flat fertile land is where Buttermere village now sits. The lakes have national (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and international (Special Area of Conservation) levels of protection because of their wildlife, some of which has been present here for many years.

An ice-age fish in the lakes

The water in these lakes is incredibly clear, which is a result of the very low nutrient status of the water combined with great depth and low water temperature. In these conditions, a community of well-adapted species, reliant on chilly, clear water can live.

One of these, the Arctic char, is a glacial relict fish which, in England, only lives in the Lake District. Brown trout also live in the lake, while sea trout and salmon pass through to spawn in tributary becks.

Otters return to the valley

Over the past decade, otters have spread back up the River Cocker and now their signs (spraints) are regularly found in favoured spots around the shore, though they are rarely seen themselves.

Unusual plants

Along the gravely shoreline are carpets of shoreweed, while spiky rosettes of quillwort – most easily seen when washed up on the shore – live in deeper water. Attached to the cliffs below the surface are freshwater sponges. In sheltered bays the lilac flowers of water lobelia emerge out of deep water on long stems.

Spot woodland wildlife

Both Lanthwaite Wood and Holme Wood are a haven for red squirrels and deer, which you may be lucky enough to spot. You’ll find Lanthwaite Wood next to Crummock Water, and you can get to Holme Wood from the Loweswater lake shore.

A swathe of bluebells at Rannerdale just off Buttermere Valley with lake and mountains in background
A swathe of bluebells at Rannerdale just off Buttermere Valley, Lake District | © National Trust Images / John Malley

Caring for the bluebells at Rannerdale

Rannerdale’s bluebells are loved by visitors and photographers alike. However, the bluebells are being loved to death and the valley needs special care at bluebell time. Bluebells are slow-growing; if their leaves are crushed or trampled they can’t photosynthesise the energy they need to grow and it can take the plants years to recover.

A delicate balance

They exist as they do in part because of the sensitive management by farming tenants over many generations. Keen conservationists, they farm with nature in mind. Over the past 10 years, more visitors have been coming to see the bluebells. Unfortunately, the increased footfall has resulted in many plants being crushed underfoot and we’ve seen a dramatic loss throughout the valley.

Steps we're taking to protect the bluebells

National Trust rangers have installed handmade oak posts to mark out the footpaths while remaining sympathetic to the site’s potential history as a settlement years ago. We want everyone to be able to enjoy the bluebells for generations to come, but we may need to restrict access to certain vulnerable parts of the valley at times. We will make sure it is always open for responsible visits.

‘We are asking people to fight the urge to get in amongst these flowers and simply stick to the path. On average, and by my estimation, each time a person steps on the bluebells they crush seven to 10 plants. Let’s all be responsible for protecting the wildlife and the landscape for future generations.’

– Paul Delaney, Ranger


The shallow bays of Loweswater are home to coots, tufted ducks, mallards and winter visiting ducks such as goldeneyes and pochards. Great crested grebes nest in the fringing reeds which also form a habitat for the rare and very tiny Liljeborg's whorl snail.

Loweswater hay meadow in bloom with views out to the fells
Loweswater hay meadows in bloom | © Melinda Gilhen-Baker

Wildflower-rich hay meadows

Flower-rich hay meadows are an important habitat, sustaining diverse wildlife from invertebrates to song birds. We work closely with tenants to manage the meadows using no artificial fertilisers and to remove sheep early in the season to allow wildflowers to flourish. We find our meadows are usually a few weeks behind compared to others, but this provides a great food source for pollinators late in the season.

Species in and around the lake

On the lakeshore you'll find several species of grass that provide the bulk of the crop in a meadow system. There are also many broad-leaved herbs such as red clover, knapweed, eye bright, autumn hawksbit, sorrel and great burnet.

Closer to the water, the species come in marshier varieties with water mint, spearwort and ragged robin. In the water itself, the tips of water lobelia poke through the surface, which only grows in low nutrient tarns, hiding its shuttlecock of leaves beneath the water.

Beyond the water

Further away from the lake you can find yellow rattle, eyebright and the common spotted orchid, these are traditional hay meadows in progress and a small change in grazing can make for a different species profile.

Blanket bog at Loweswater

On shallow slopes and under the influence of the Lake District’s notably damp climate, peat soils can develop, sometimes to a great depth. One good example of this habitat lies in the upland valley to the south of Loweswater; it is known as Whiteoak Moss.  

Specialist species

Such wet, peat soils are unsuited for the growth of many plant species and the vegetation found is quite specialist. Most important of all is the carpet of bog mosses (sphagnum species) which continue to absorb water like a huge sponge and keep the blanket bog continually moist.  

Growing through this moss layer are species such as cotton-grasses, crowberry, cowberry, cross-leaved heath, deer-sedge and real specialists like bog rosemary and sundews. Both the round-leaved and oblong-leaved sundew found here rely on catching small insects on their sticky hairs to supplement the poor nutrient supply from the peat.  

Bog life – a home for wildlife

As well as plants, the blanket bog is also home to many well-adapted invertebrates, the most prominent of which are the emperor and fox moths, both of which fly during the day. Meadow pipits are frequent visitors here and you can see and hear them doing their 'parachute' display flights in spring.  

Peat's environmental benefits

Blanket bog is not just a fantastic wildlife habitat but it's also incredibly important in other ways. The peat soils contain vast amounts of stored carbon and when there is an active layer of bog-moss growth, the carbon store continues to increase. Bog mosses can retain many times their own weight of water and consequently, blanket bogs can soak up rainfall, slow the run-off and help alleviate possible flooding.  

When walking across this habitat, you can avoid damaging it by sticking to the paths to help protect the plant life and avoid walking across exposed peat where possible.

Views over Buttermere Lake, Cumbria.


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