Walks: 5 of the best nature reserves to visit in Somerset

A bittern at Ham Wall

A bittern at Ham Wall - Credit: Ben Andrew, RSPB-Images

As winter begins to turn to spring, get out in the open and visit these wildlife-packed spots for a walk amongst nature, says Catherine Courtenay.

Tarr Steps Woodland

Tarr Steps woodland and the River Barle

Tarr Steps woodland and the River Barle - Credit: ENPA

The importance of this Exmoor woodland can’t be underestimated. Tarr Steps National Nature Reserve is classed as a temperate rainforest, even rarer than the more familiar tropical rainforests. Certain areas along the west coast of southern Britain are home to this type of ancient woodland. Temperate rainforests are at least 400 years old and made up of native deciduous trees of varying ages, living in damp and humid conditions. They are home to a mass of mosses, ferns, lichens and liverworts, many of which are very rare. 

The reserve has a clear trail, leading along the River Barle, but don’t rush, take time to really look around, just one tree can be home to many individual lichens. Breathe deep and savour the aroma of mosses, ferns and humus-rich soil.

Steart Marshes

Steart Marshes is one of country’s largest new wetland reserves

Steart Marshes is one of country’s largest new wetland reserves - Credit: Sam Stafford WWT

One of the country’s largest new wetland reserves, Steart Marshes was created to help both wildlife and the local community – as protection from rising sea levels. The project was led by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Environment Agency. Situated between the River Parrett and Bristol Channel, the reserve finally opened in 2014 when the tides were allowed to flood the area for the first time.  

With its mix of saltmarsh and freshwater wetlands, this is a very valuable home to wildlife including birds, wildflowers, invertebrates, butterflies and 18 species of dragonfly and damselflies. In 2020 black-winged stilts bred on the reserve for the first time, the only known pair to do so in the country that year. The saltwater marsh also absorbs carbon and its system of creeks shelter fish fry. 

Ham Wall 

A bittern at Ham Wall

A bittern at Ham Wall - Credit: Ben Andrew, RSPB-Images

This former peat industry site in the heart of the Avalon Marshes came into the hands of the RSPB in 1994. Once common reedbeds are now rare and when Ham Wall was established, volunteers helped grow and plant reeds by hand to form the restored landscape. 
It’s now home to a wealth of wildlife. One of the original aims of the reserve, to help the endangered bittern, has been a success and the birds’ ‘booming’ call can now be heard over the reedbeds in spring. As well as the abundant birdlife, Ham Wall is home to otters and water voles. With views of Glastonbury Tor, this is an ancient-feeling landscape and its unique atmosphere can be felt on a walk along boardwalks and trails through the reserve’s lakes and reedbeds. 

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Ebbor Gorge

A woodland at Ebbor Gorge with Woodruff in flower in the foreground and bluebells in the background

A woodland at Ebbor Gorge with Woodruff in flower in the foreground and bluebells in the background - Credit: ©National Trust Images / Richard

Ancient woodland, small areas of grassland, and a limestone gorge with caves thrown in, makes the National Trust’s Ebbor Gorge an adventurous spot for an afternoon ramble. 
This National Nature Reserve sits on a southern escarpment of the Mendip Hills and various trails lead through the site. Small streams and rock formations (the caves are home to hibernating bats) make it feel quite magical, along with the woodlands, which are covered in bluebells and wood anemones in spring.

The reserve consists of two valleys, Hope Wood Valley and Ebbor Gorge itself. Although the gorge is dry, there is a stream running through Hope Wood, helping to create a perfect environment for its many mosses, liverworts and lichens - over 250 species of which have been found. 

Dolebury Warren

Landscape view of grassland and surrounding countryside, Dolebury Warren, Avon, UK in May.

Landscape view of grassland and surrounding countryside at Dolebury Warren - Credit: smartimages.co.uk

Wildflowers and butterflies are in abundance at Dolebury Warren, once the site of an Iron Age hillfort built 3,000 years ago. 
With views across North Somerset and the Mendips, it’s on a limestone escarpment between Churchill and Rowberrow and is owned by the National Trust and managed by Avon Wildlife Trust.

The reserve has an unusual mix of both lime-loving plants, like rockrose, as well as acid-loving plants, including bell heather, which thrives on patches of acidic sand, blown onto the site during the Ice Age. 
Orchids, scabious and eyebright flower in the grassland and there is an abundance of butterflies, including small blues and marbled whites. The fort’s ramparts are still in evidence and in medieval times the site was used as a rabbit warren.