Chesters – Day Three

Today was the toughest day for my feet, but also the most rewarding. We set off east away from Chesters on a ten-mile hike to the gravel pits of Branton Nature Reserve, though the journey was just as fulfilling as the destination.


After the trials of crossing the Chesters Burn without getting wet, we ascended towards Ewe Hill, where lapwings zoomed with seemingly erratic coordination, and skylarks serenaded us from overhead, in a hovering flight they can maintain for the approximate equivalent of running five marathons back to back.

On the way down Turf Knowe, we spotted two hares dashing across a field, accompanied by the frustrated squawking of a distant rookery. We also stumbled across a common frog in a puddle, keeping its numerous frogspawn company.


Soon, we reached the village of Ingram, situated on the edge of Northumberland National Park. Here the birdlife transformed to an orchestra of finches, tits and some special guests, including two male yellowhammers, a bustling group of siskins and some striking chaffinches in their immaculate breeding plumage. As we left Ingram behind, we followed the River Breamish to the gravel pits to do a spot of bird watching in the hide overlooking the lake.

Since the 1920s, the Breamish Valley was used for sand and gravel extraction, including gravel from the riverbed, which was used to surface roads. After the area was restored to agricultural land, concrete company CEMEX asked for permission to extract and was denied, as it was thought the extraction would be taking place too near to the National Park. However, in 1993, CEMEX was granted permission to extract, on the one condition that the company also converted the area to a nature reserve that would “complement and enhance the rural landscape”, ultimately creating a landscape that would improve the area’s biodiversity and provide a stable aquatic environment for many species.

As we sat and watched the lake from the bird hide, we spotted a broad variety of waders, geese and passerines, or songbirds. Greylag geese, goldeneye, wigeon, tufted duck and many more were bobbing about on the still water. Interestingly, instead of the usual drab colouring used for camouflage when on the nest, female shelducks have the same striking green head and bright red bill as the male. The reason for this is the bird’s choice of nest, which is often in rabbit warrens instead of out in the open. This makes female camouflage unnecessary.

Another highlight of our time in the hide was hearing the first chiffchaffs of the year, which arrive from their wintering ground in sub-Saharan Africa in mid March, staying until around October.

Once the drizzling rain had subsided, we did a spot more tracking around the lake. There was an otter spraint by the stream, a sign of territory marking, the square pad of a badger print and several roe deer tracks. While sheep prints – which were abundant virtually everywhere – are rounded, deer prints meet at a point.

By then the best of the daylight had passed, so we made our way back to Chesters, pockets laden with treasures collected during the day. Along the way we tried our luck spotting some adders. As it was still drizzling and the sun had gone in, chances of a sight of basking adders was slim. However, we managed to find two that were catching the last rays before returning to cover. After such a long walk to find them, I’m glad a few stayed out just a little longer.


Species seen/heard:

Adder Vipera berus Bank vole Myodes glareolus Black-headed gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus Blue tit Cyanistes caeruleus Canada goose Branta canadensis Carrion crow Corvus corone Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs Common chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita Common frog Rana temporaria Common toad Bufo bufo Curlew Numenius arquata Eurasian siskin Spinus spinus European mole Talpa europaea European hare Lepus europaeus Fieldfare Turdus pilaris Goldcrest Regulus regulus Goldeneye Bucephala clangula Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis Grey heron Ardea cinerea Greylag goose Anser anser Lapwing Vanellus vanellus Lesser black-backed gull Larus fuscus Long-tailed tit Aegithalos caudatus Mallard Anas platyrhynchos Meadow pipit Anthus pratensis Moorhen Gallinula chloropus Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Pied wagtail Motacilla alba Red-legged partridge Alectoris rufa Reed bunting Emberiza schoeniclus Robin Erithacus rubecula Rook Corvus frugilegus Shelduck Tadorna tadorna Skylark Alauda arvensis Snipe Gallinago gallinago Song thrush Turdus philomelos Treecreeper Certhia familiaris Wigeon Anas penelope Woodpigeon Columba palumbus Wren Troglodytes troglodytes Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella

Chesters – Day One


The drive to the Village Tearoom and Emporium was stunning. As the sun was beating down on my right arm I was a little nervous I hadn’t brought the sun cream, but luckily the light was just right to make Northumberland’s hills shine gold, without turning my skin pink.

After meeting Heather, we drove to a top-secret spot where adders were frequently sighted. Due to the adder’s rarity in the UK, it is important not to broadcast locations of their possible breeding sites, to avoid a rush of human activity and potentially disturbing the snakes. As the afternoon was still very hot, we found eight adders basking, both males and larger females. In fact, in one spot there were four males writhing together, perhaps in an attempt to attract a watching female. It was my second adder sighting, but getting the chance to see them so clearly was a real treat. While maintaining our distance, we watched them bask for nearly an hour. Though I could have stayed far longer, it was time to head to Chesters bothy before it grew dark.


Leaving the adders behind, we drove to the end of the road, where urbanisation ended and true wilderness began. Shouldering our bags for the weekend, we began the two-mile walk through the beautiful Breamish Valley, accompanied only by the bleating of sheep and the infamous scraping call of pheasants.


As the day drew to a close, the hills faded from shimmering orange to dusky pink with a patchwork of dark green conifers and purple heather. Then suddenly a flash of brown as a hare darted up the hill, white tail flashing. He was too far for my camera to get a clean shot, but it was a great sighting on my first day in the Cheviot Hills. Fascinatingly, hares can be pregnant with two young that are not twins simultaneously. The unborn leverets may have been conceived at different times, meaning they have different growth rates.

Before long we reached a patch of conifer forest that looked like something from a fairytale. As we threaded up the pinecone-dotted track I couldn’t help but think how well a pack of wolves could fit in here, miles from interfering humans.


Just as we emerged on the other side of the forest and paused for a breather to gaze upon some truly stunning views of the River Breamish, Heather explained how there were tales of red squirrels in the Cheviot Hills, but due to habitat fragmentation resulting in isolated patches of woodland, she didn’t think the area could support a breeding population. As if we’d been overheard, a high-pitched chattering sounded from above and two red squirrels appeared, hopping from bough to bough and scrabbling up the trunks. Not only were these the first red squirrels I’d seen in the wild, they were the first individuals that Heather had seen at Chesters, so it was a special moment indeed.

After such good luck, we almost had a skip in our step as we made the rest of the way up the hill to Chesters bothy. Almost immediately we were met by a flock of fieldfare as they swooped overhead, another new species for me.


After dumping our bags, we sat outside on the dry stone wall and listened to the evening’s birds before the generator drowned them out. Amongst the shrieking pheasants, there was the distant hoot of a tawny owl, and later when the sun finally sunk behind the hills, the bizarre wing beats of snipe reverberated across the landscape. If you’ve never heard a snipe drumming, any description I could give would never give it justice. It’s a sound I’ll never grow tired of hearing. It reminded me that I was in the middle of nowhere. I was cut off from technology and we needed a fire to get hot water – it’s the sort of living many people have never truly experienced. Sitting outside in complete silence could seem eerie, but to me there’s a haunting beauty to the only traffic being speeding fieldfare and the occasional skylark hovering overhead. It’s like stepping back in time to when technology was an unheard of impossibility.

Later, when Cain arrived, the three of us headed over the hills in search of long-eared owls, a bird Cain was eager to tick off during our stay at Chesters. The night was as beautiful as the day had been – the sky was clear and a huge ethereal glow encircled the moon. Sadly, the owls didn’t appear, but the night walk was the perfect end to my first day in the Cheviots. When we returned to the bothy I spent some time writing about the day to jog my memory when I returned home. I knew that without a doubt, my notebook would be essential this weekend.

Species seen/heard:

Adder Vipera berus Coal tit Periparus ater European hare Lepus europaeus Fieldfare Turdus pilaris Great tit Parus major Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris Robin Erithacus rubecula Snipe Gallinago gallinago Song thrush Turdus philomelos Tawny owl Strix aluco