History and wildlife walks

Older buildings and structures are full of nooks and crannies in which wildlife can find space to live. Here’s some species to look out for on your walks in historic locations.

A lizard sitting curled upon a rock

Common lizard (c) Amy Lewis

A ramble through the countryside is as likely to take you past a historic landmark as it is through a nature reserve, and if you put in enough miles there’s a good chance you’ll see several of each. Many of our favourite historical landmarks hail from a time when wildlife was more abundant, and often much more eminent in the collective consciousness. References to animals were commonplace in the works of Shakespeare, and birds and mammals decorate many a heraldic crest. Wildlife played a role in our history, and today historic buildings play their own role in the lives of our wild neighbours.

When a bird surveys a crumbling castle, it doesn’t see an ancient symbol of power, scarred by age and battle, it sees a cliff face, with prime spots for nesting. When a lizard scuttles across a dry-stone wall, it isn’t admiring the traditional craftmanship that shaped the structure, it’s enjoying the perfect basking spot to raise its body temperature. Our older buildings are full of nooks and crannies in which wildlife can find space to live, and because of their historical significance, many of these buildings are protected from development, inadvertently preserving the homes of the wildlife that makes use of them.

Three baby swallows looking out from a nest

Swallow chicks (c) Vicky Nall

This spring, more than one million swallows will be winging their way back from South Africa for the summer. They’ll scour the British countryside for sheltered structures in which to sculp their nests of mud, straw, and grass. As their full name of barn swallow attests, a drafty old barn is a popular choice, but you can find them in all sorts of unexpected places. I’ve spied swallows bombing out of Second World War pillboxes, seen nests gracing the rafters of a 14th century church, and heard their chattering calls in the undercroft of an old abbey.

There’s another bird with barn in the name, which is equally keen on run-down rural buildings. Barn owls now often nest in purpose-built nest boxes, but any old barns or other abandoned structures could still host a pair of these spectral owls. You may be lucky enough to see them quartering nearby fields, a ghostly white shape in the dim light of dusk or dawn.

It doesn’t have to be a grand building to attract a wealth of wildlife. When was the last time you saw a drystone wall? Miles of these low, stone structures snake their way across the more rural parts of Great Britain – it’s estimated there are more than 8,000km/5,000 miles in the Yorkshire Dales alone! They offer a window to the landscapes of the past, but they also offer a glimpse into a world of miniature wildlife.

lichen on a rock

Lichens on a dry stone wall (c) Brian Eversham

The next time you see one, take a good, close look. Lichens and mosses coat the rocks in colour, some in low mats and others thrusting up fronds like miniature corals, as if they’d be more at home on a tropical reef. Flowers sometimes sprout between the stones, and the cracks and crevices are crammed with creatures – woodlice, millipedes, slugs, snails, spiders and more.

An owl looking out from a broken windowLarger gaps provide nesting sites for a wide variety of birds, including wrens, blue and great tits, sparrows, and pied wagtails. In some places wheatears may use them, and on islands they might even house storm petrels – the UK’s smallest seabird. As well as nest sites, dry stone walls make useful vantage points in an otherwise featureless landscape. Look out for birds of prey, like buzzards, kestrels, or even little owls perched atop them, surveying their surroundings.

Image (right): Barn owl (c) Russell Savory

It's not just the countryside that’s full of wildlife with a penchant for historical homes. Our towns and cities hold many monuments to their industrial heritage, from metalworks to mills, as well as cathedrals, manors, and a diversity of other listed buildings. Just as with their rural counterparts, urban animals look past the heritage and see opportunity. Bats are one of the most ubiquitous users of old buildings, with the gaps between bricks or tiles offering access to safe roosting spots. As our settlements have encroached on wild spaces, some bats have become reliant on these unnatural nooks.

A bird upon a statue, on a buildingThere’s one bird that’s become synonymous with old urban architecture, and that’s the peregrine falcon. These plucky predators have swapped cliffsides for the ledges of some of our tallest listed buildings, hunting feral pigeons high above the busy streets. Peregrine nests are often a point of pride amongst the populace, and a popular attraction – many even have webcams livestreaming the action of the breeding season.

Image (right): Peregrine on Houses of Parliament (c) Bertie Gregory / 2020VISION

Find out more 

There’s a range of wildlife to be seen whilst exploring our historic landscapes and landmarks - The Wildlife Trusts have a great selection of nature reserves incorporating old railways, or military history features. 

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