Because South East Cornwall is so unspoiled and has such a wide variety of natural environments – everything from sea to high moorland – it’s a great place to watch wildlife and sea life.
It’s worth taking a boat trip out to sea to experience the best wildlife that our sea has to offer. There are plenty of wildlife boat trips available in places like Fowey, Looe and across the river in Plymouth. South East Cornwall is home to some of the richest marine wildlife in the British Isles. Grey seals are large creatures and surprisingly common (the UK has 80% of the world population, and many of them can be found around the South East Cornwall coast. For more than twenty years, a male with one eye amused locals and visitors in Looe Harbour, and his lifesize statue can be seen at the harbour entrance. Cornwall Seal Group identifies and monitors Grey Seals – if you get a good photo of one in the Looe area, they’d love to hear from you.
Grey seals, image Victoria Clare
Dolphins and porpoises are also relatively common in our waters, particularly harbour porpoise, common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins. Minke whales are also seen from time to time.
Common dolphins, image Victoria Clare
Perhaps the marine animal that the south coast of Cornwall is most famous for is the basking shark. This is the second largest of all fishes – twice as large as the great white, but a harmless plankton feeder, despite its enormous mouth. Reaching lengths of up to 12m, basking sharks are spring and summer visitors to southeast Cornwall and come in very close to beaches to feed off plankton in the water. Many of the boat captains pride themselves on knowing the sharks’ favourite spots, but it’s not unheard of for basking sharks to come close to beaches where holidaymakers are sunbathing. Numbers seem to be increasing, which is great news. Even so, the best chance of seeing interesting marine life is definitely to go on a boat trip with an experienced guide.
You don’t have to be out at sea to see sea life – much of it can be seen on the shore! One thing we have plenty of in South East Cornwall is unspoilt beaches, and that means rock pools. In fact, we have some of the best beaches for rock-pooling anywhere in the world! Hannafore Beach in Looe was named by the Wildlife Trusts as one of the best rock-pooling beaches in the country. It’s a sheltered area of rocky shore that forms part of the Looe Marine Conservation Area. The seaweed provides cover and food for starfish, crabs, sea anemones, fish and other shellfish.
Rockpooling at Seaton, image Matt Jessop
Other local beaches that are great for rock-pooling include Cawsand, Kingsand, the rockier parts of Whitsand Bay (like Seaton) and Plaidy Beach.
Those same boat trips that take you out to look for dolphins and basking sharks also know where to go to find interesting sea birds. Off the coast, you can expect to see such interesting birds as gannets, great skua, arctic skua, guillemots and shearwaters as well as fulmars and a wide range of gulls. If you’re coming to do some birding in South East Cornwall, you’ll be missing out if you stay on land for the whole of your holiday.
Fulmars at Whitsand Bay, image Victoria Clare
Nevertheless, South East Cornwall is a great place for birdwatching. We have many different environments (cliffs, moorland, tidal estuaries, mixed woodland, etc), low pollution and we’re on the migration route for many species.
The Rame Peninsula (especially Rame Head) is a favourite site for local birders, offering up a very diverse selection of native birds and rare visitors. The area is especially good for raptors (especially slightly later in the year) – look out for peregrines, hobbies, merlins, hen harriers, marsh harriers and short-eared owls around Rame Head.
Our wide river estuaries are excellent habitats for wading birds, and in recent years we have been seeing some increasingly exotic visitors, especially to the Tamar and Lynher estuaries. Little egrets and avocets are now common here, and you may even see spoonbills. Of course knowing where to look is important, and viewing from a boat might be the best way. Bruce Taggart of Tamar Wildlife organises guided wildlife tours on foot and by boat.
Avocets, Lynher Estuary, image Victoria Clare
Cornwall is an important habitat for butterflies, including some rare and endangered species. Butterfly Conservation identifies four sites in South East Cornwall as being of particular importance - Greenscombe Wood in Luckett (heath fritillary, marbled white, ringlet and small copper), Bunny’s Hill in Bodmin (pearl-bordered fritillary, small pearl-bordered fritillary, dark green fritillary, silver-washed fritillary), Rame Head (marbled white, pearl-bordered fritillary, small pearl-bordered fritillary, green hairstreak, clouded yellow) and the coast path near the Wild Futures Monkey Sanctuary in Looe (pearl-bordered fritillary, dingy skipper).
Clouded yellow, image Victoria Clare
As well as these rarer species, expect to see speckled woods, gatekeepers, brimstones, small tortoiseshells, small heaths, red admirals, commas, peacocks and painted ladies, at the right time of year, in the right place.
You might have to get wet to see some of our most interesting wildlife. Off the South East Cornwall coast are a number of reefs, teeming with interesting marine life from colourful corals to weird marine invertebrates, fish and eels. The best way to do this is with a local diving club. See our watersports page for more information on diving.
You’ll find quite a diverse range of wild mammals in South East Cornwall. Some are common, some perhaps more common here than elsewhere in the country and some are rare. You may certainly spot foxes, badgers, stoats, weasels, hedgehogs, moles (or at least evidence of their passing), various species of shrew, various mice, grey squirrels and rabbits in South East Cornwall. However, you should also look out for otters, bank, field and water voles, dormice and brown hares, although you’ll have to be very good, very patient or very lucky. Roe deer and red deer, on the other hand, are surprisingly common, especially in the Tamar Valley. The Cornwall Mammal Group has excellent species guides showing known distribution in Cornwall of all our mammal species.
Go for a walk in South East Cornwall on a quiet spring, summer or autumn evening and there’s a good chance that you just glimpse a bat hunting for insects. The most common South East Cornwall bat (and the most common in Britain) is the pipistrelle.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Because Cornwall is the warmest part of the country, we do get reptiles and amphibians here. You’ll find grass snakes and adders all over the region, often basking on rocks on heathland and moorland. Common lizards and slow worms are also relatively common reptiles in South East Cornwall.
As for amphibians, both common toads and common frogs are (predictably enough) fairly common in South East Cornwall, frogs especially so in the wetter river valleys. Two species of newt are native to the area – the smooth newt and the palmate newt, though neither is common.
Smooth newt, image Victoria Clare
Finally, if you really want a gold star for reptile spotting in southeast Cornwall, then you need to get in a boat, because there are occasional recorded sightings of leatherback turtles off the coast!
Zoos and Wildlife Parks
If you want to see more wildlife while you’re here, why not visit one of our excellent zoos and wildlife parks? In Looe, you’ll find the Porfell Wildlife Park and Sanctuary and the Wild Futures Monkey Sanctuary. Launceston has the wonderful Tamar Otter Sanctuary. Meanwhile, just outside the region, are Dartmoor Zoo and the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, Paignton Zoo and Newquay Zoo.
The Tamar Otter Sanctuary, image Victoria Clare