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17 September 2014
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Estates | Fountains Abbey

Monastic masterpiece

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey is the UK's largest monastic ruin and a World Heritage Site.

Founded in 1132, this majestic abbey attracts 300,000 visitors a year. It's also a wildlife sanctuary in winter and boasts a stunning display of Snowdrops.

The abbey is a haven for birds and boasts stunning gardens

When the first monks arrived at Fountains, it was described as a place "more fit for wild beasts than men to inhabit".

A hundred years later the Abbey was one of the richest religious houses in England with 400 Cistercian monks and 800 lay brothers.

The power of Fountains was felt far and wide with the Abbey's economic activities embracing farming, lead mining, quarrying and horse breeding.

But Henry VIII was to put a stop to the Abbey's power with the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century.

It was bad news for the monks, but good for the wildlife especially the bird life.

Bird life

Blue Tit c/o PA ImagesToday Fountains is the most complete example of a Cistercian abbey remains in the country.

The towering walls of its ruins act as a cliff face for a resident colony of nesting Jackdaws.

Fountains is also one of the best spots in the North of England for some of our smallest birds.

Simply find yourself a quiet spot just beside the Abbey and watch out for Goldcrests, Coal Tits, and Great Tits.

The Goldcrest is amongst Britain's smallest birds, weighting the equivalent of a five pence piece.

Winter feeding very important as the birds use desperate survival tactics to survive the cold snap - 80% of Goldcrests die during winter.

Coal tits are the smallest of the tit family - and are probably the best gymnasts.

The coal refers to the bird's black head being broken by white cheeks and its distinctive white stripe.

Also worth checking out is the river that flows right by the Abbey where there are winter feeding birds such as Dippers.

Cracks and crevices

Fountains ruinsFountains Abbey's grounds boast a great network of paths which means that nature watchers can really stride out and explore.

And there are a couple of treats that you should keep your eyes peeled for.

Bats and bees are normally tucked away in cracks and crevices in winter, waiting for warmer weather

But if you get your compass out - and most importantly you have to do this on a sunny day - find a south facing wall.

If you're a Pipistrelle Bat or Black Bee, a warm wall is the perfect place to soak up a bit of heat.

Look out for 200 species of bat at Fountains.

And see if you can spot a Black Bees - some think these busy creatures may be descended from the original Black Bees that the monks kept in Medieval times.

Stunning snowdrops

SnowdropThe Abbey sits in the River Skell valley and this sheltered aspect gives the area a mild micro-climate.

As a result, the plant life at Fountains is a couple of weeks ahead of the rest of the UK.

The snowdrops are a special attraction for visitors in January and February.

Another plant to look out for is the green Hellebore - it's poisonous to eat, but what makes it special is that it blooms in winter.

The Hellebore is large, growing about two feet tall and is characterised by its smell and rich nectar designed to attract insects.

Give it a sniff but don't confuse this plant with the stinking variety of the Hellebore family, or you could be in for an unpleasant surprise!

Close to nature

DeerFountains is great for getting close to some amazing wildlife and the parkland around the Abbey is one of the best places to see it.

There are 750 deer on the Fountains estate with three distinct species - Fallow, Red and Sika.

The Fallow Deer were introduced to Fountains Abbey in 1577 - they were the classic hunting species, popular in royal hunting parks.

The ones we see in the wild today are some of the lucky escapees.

The most obvious thing about the Fallow Deer is his coat - the dappled pattern is a Fallow classic.

But there are three other distinct patterns - one is paler, another is black, and the final one is white.

You'll often see them together in the same herd.



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