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Wildlife spotting at Sandscale Haws

View of the grassy dunes on the beach at Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve, Cumbria
Species-rich grassland and sand dunes at Sandscale Haws | © National Trust Images/Paul Harris

Sandscale Haws has been named a National Nature Reserve, as its sand dunes support a wealth of wildlife – including a quarter of the rare natterjack toads found in the UK. Get closer to nature while taking in the views of the Duddon estuary and the Lake District fells beyond.

Natterjack toads

Europe’s noisiest amphibians, natterjacks breed in around 20 of the 40 natural and man-made pools at Sandscale. On quiet spring nights, you can hear a loud croak up to two miles away – this is the sound of the male natterjacks singing together to attract females.

Natterjack toads have developed to breed in warmer water and temporary pools. These often dry out in the summer, though, so it’s a race against time for their spawn to hatch and for the tadpoles to become adults.

How to see them

Natterjacks are smaller than common toads and have a yellow stripe along their back. Their spawn is also very different; seen at the bottom of shallow pools, it looks like a string of small black pearls. Natterjacks spend the winter months hidden away, hibernating in burrows within the dunes.

Look out for natterjacks in April and May; they can be seen at dusk in the viewing pools near the car park at Sandscale.

Common frogs

The common frogs at Sandscale breed much earlier in the year than the natterjacks, and will happily spawn in any pools they can find – from puddles to huge pools on the wet meadow. Their spawn can be laid as early as January if the weather is mild enough.


Living alongside the toads and frogs at Sandscale are three different kinds of newt: the smooth newt, the palmate newt and the great crested newt.

Smooth and great crested newts can be seen across the nature reserve and, like all amphibians, head for pools to breed come springtime. Both of these newts prefer deeper pools but will happily use shallow pools, and they'll lay their individual eggs near pond plants – very different to toads and frogs.

Palmates are the smallest of the newts, though they look similar to the smooth variety. They prefer breeding in shallower pools, so you'll often see them in the natterjack viewing pools near the car park.

How to see newts' eggs

Unlike toads and frogs, newts lay individual white eggs. To protect these from the sun’s UV rays, the newt wraps them in leaves from around the edge of the pool. If you look carefully around some of the pool edges, you'll see leaves that have been folded over where the newts have been busy.

Natterjack toads mating
Natterjack toads underwater at Sandscale Haws, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/Neil Forbes

Grey and common seals

Grey seals breed on South Walney, while common seals have been known to give birth to pups on sandbanks in the Duddon estuary.

Migrant birds

Take a moment to watch the strandline along the beach as it's transformed by crowds of migrant birds flying in for the winter. See and hear hundreds of dunlins and sanderlings as they arrive to enjoy the tasty morsels, which they peck, dig and probe for in the sand.

Notice how they fly up in the air, twisting, turning and calling as the tide comes in and washes down their place on the sand. Further along the beach, head towards Scarth Bight Bay, where you’ll see wintering ducks feeding.

Away from the beach, there are grasslands and woodlands that flood in the wetter months, creating a rich home for different kinds of wildlife. In the winter, these damp areas are a haven for ducks such as teals and pintails, while large numbers of snipes can be found feeding on the wet grassland.

Dunlin flying in formation over water at Portstewart Strand, County Londonderry
Dunlins flying in formation | © National Trust Images/Wilbert McIlmoyle

Marine life

As the tide goes out, the secrets of the sea are revealed in the pools left behind on the beach and the strandline at Sandscale Haws.

Most of the shells you can find are molluscs – soft-bodied animals that need shells for protection. Look out for tiny pink tellin shells, long pod razor shells and even a pelican’s foot shell if you’re lucky.

Other treasures that get washed up are mermaids’ purses. These are the empty egg cases from which fish such as rays, skate, dogfish and catsharks hatched. They vary in appearance depending on their species, but most look like a little black or clear brown pod, and some have tendrils hanging off them.

Cockles, clams and worms

Cockles and clams live in sandy areas in the estuary, and mussels cling to the rocky scars out in the water. Lugworms and ragworms live in muddier parts, burying themselves deep into the sand and leaving their tell-tale piles of casts heaped on the beach.

There are also honeycomb worms that build themselves tube-shaped homes out of the sand, although these aren't always easy to find.

Rare fungi

Sandscale Haws has been named one of the most important sites in the British Isles for fungi. Over 300 different kinds of fungus have been recorded across the nature reserve. Of these, at least 10 are extremely rare and can only be found in sand dunes. These include the tiny earthstar fungus.

If it’s colourful fungi you’d like to see, then look in the dune grassland in late summer for the red and orange wax caps or the jet black earthtongues. These resemble black tongues sticking out of the ground – hence their name.

Late summer and autumn are the best time of year to see fungi of all shapes and sizes at Sandscale. Start off by finding the obvious ones, like the huge parasol fungus that grows in dune grassland. Other species, like the distinctive common morel, are found in late spring and summer.

Grasses at Sandscale Haws, Cumbria, with the Duddon Estuary beyond and a rainbow and wind turbines visible on the hills in the background.

Discover more at Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve

Find out how to get to Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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