How to get hands on with wildlife

Girl and woman birdwatching in Cornwall

To most in the UK, the word "safari" conjures images of the African savannah filled with an array of exotic creatures.

But nature lovers are now being encouraged to look closer to home and experience the wonders of the UK's wildlife stars.

In an echo of Africa's big game safaris, visitors from near and far are being invited to celebrate the Year of Natural Scotland in 2013 by witnessing its own "big five": red deer, red squirrels, sea eagles, otters and grey seals.

These animals are among the most loved in the UK and by adding seabirds, whales, wildcats and beavers to the list, you have some serious appeal to wildlife tourists.

All at sea

Puffin by Darren Ritson

The waters surrounding our island nation contain all manner of surprises:

See killer whales (orca) between Pentland Firth and the Scapa Flow, Orkney

Spot grey and common seals at Blakeney Point, Norfolk

Look for basking sharks around Cardigan Bay, west Wales

Watch the gannets, kittiwakes and puffins at Bempton Cliffs, East Yorkshire

In 2010, the Scottish government released a report that suggested over a million trips are made in and around the country just to watch wildlife each year.

The highlands and islands certainly have some of the top locations for spotting charismatic species, but if it's too far for you to travel, there are still a wealth of places waiting to be explored across the UK.

National parks

Whether you're camping or just taking a day trip, National Parks are great protected spaces for wildlife. The UK has 15, the largest of which is the Cairngorms National Park in north east Scotland. The mountains and moorlands here are a haven for 25% of Britain's threatened species including the rare Scottish wildcat and capercaillie - the unmistakable forest grouse.

Elsewhere, the New Forest, Hampshire is a top destination for deer fans - here you can see all six of the UK's species. Alternatively, city-dwellers can see red deer and fallow deer at royal Richmond Park, London.

Numerous species of butterfly make their homes in the chalk grasslands of the South Downs National Park, notably the vivid electric wings of the adonis blue.

The largest of British butterflies, the swallowtail, can be found in the Norfolk Broads which is also home to the remarkable great raft spider: our largest species and one that walks on water.

Nature reserves

For a more guided experience, you can visit one of the specialist reserves managed by conservation groups.

The RSPB's Minsmere reserve in Suffolk is a fantastic area for watching both our native birds and migrant species. The wetlands are also an ideal place to see damselflies and dragonflies.

Closer to the capital, the WWT London Wetland Centre is a man-made reserve that is home to rare bitterns and is also a great place to see bats.

Formby sand dunes, Merseyside - by Sarfaz Hyat Formby's sand dunes are rich habitats for amphibians and reptiles

As well as the rare Dartford warbler and heathland-loving nightjars, the RSPB's Arne reserve in Dorset is home to all six of our native UK reptile species including the rare sand lizard.

The National Trust protected sand dunes at Formby, Merseyside, are also home to these lizards plus rare natterjack toads. The nearby pines are also home to red squirrels.

Gigrin Farm near Rhayader, Mid Wales is the well-known feeding site for red kites, but the once-endangered birds are enjoying a resurgence and can also be seen along the M4 corridor, in Oxfordshire and at Rockingham Forest, Northampton.

Otters are another species making a comeback and they are now found in all rivers across England. They're naturally secretive but local Wildlife Trust reserves nationwide are great places to look for the playful mammals.

Island paradises

If you're seeking out some of our rarest species, islands are often safe havens from predators or human influences that trouble species on the mainland.

Rum in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland, is home to red deer and the Isle of Mull is the stronghold of the successfully reintroduced white-tailed sea eagle - Britain's largest bird of prey.

The woodlands of Brownsea Island off the coast of Dorset are the ideal home for endangered red squirrels as well as green woodpeckers.

Swallowtail butterfly on thistle, Strumpshaw Fen - By James Mills Rare species, such as Norfolk's swallowtail butterfly, can often only be found in certain corners of the UK

The Farnes off the coast of Northumberland are famous for their seabirds - particularly the puffins. Rathlin Island in County Antrim boasts Northern Ireland's largest seabird colonies featuring guillemots and razorbills amongst others.

Lundy Island in the Bristol channel is the UK's first designated Marine Conservation Zone. The mixture of warm currents and cooler water provides ideal conditions for underwater wildlife to thrive, and the area is protected from interference. It is considered one of the top dive spots in the country, offering views of corals and colourful cuckoo wrasse.

Close to home

You may be surprised by the rich wildlife experiences available in your county and even on your own doorstep.

There are hundreds of local nature reserves across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These protected sites near to towns and cities include wildflower meadows and canal towpaths, and are perfect for spotting local specialities.

To find a wealth of wildlife activities and experiences near you, simply type in your postcode on our Things to Do site. From bat walks to badger watching, experts are on hand to help you get the most out of your wild adventures, and you can volunteer to help out too.

Hummingbird hawk moth drinking nectar Even garden species such as this hummingbird hawk-moth can provide a spectacle

Finally, there's nothing better than a "staycation" for really getting close to wildlife. Our gardens are more biodiverse than the Amazon rainforest and cover more land than all the UK nature reserves combined.

Look to flower borders in the South for hummingbird hawk moths or catch a glance of a grass snake near the pond. We have some top tips for making wildlife feel welcome in your green patch, from plant guides to bird box tips.

Do you have any good recommendations for places to see the UK's wildlife? Tell us about them and join the big Summer of Wildlife conversation on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature - #summerofwildlife #seeitsnapitshareit.

And don't forget to share your wildlife garden photos on the Summer of Wildlife Flickr group.

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