Improve your UK field skills with online ID resources

Image by Oli Haines

During this year’s lockdown and social isolation, many of us have been appreciating how important nature is to our happiness and wellbeing. It has also given us an opportunity to connect with local wildlife and develop or brush up on our identification skills.

While a good field guide is invaluable for this, there are also a huge number of really useful online resources available to help with identifying wild plants and animals. In this article we have listed a few of our favourites, covering plants, butterflies and moths, amphibians, birds, mammals and invertebrates.

We have also included links to ongoing citizen science projects for each; if you’re regularly taking note of the species you find then why not contribute this information to an organisation that can use the data to monitor biodiversity and inform conservation decisions.

At the end of the article you will find a couple of apps that can be used to record, identify and share your general wildlife findings.

Image by Andrew Coombes via Flickr

PLANTS

Identification

Plantlife’s Plant and Fungi Species – Allows you to select the time of year, flower colour and habitat to narrow down your search.

Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) Flora Search – A more in-depth key that allows you to select information relating to the plant’s location, habitat and structure in order to identify your specimen.

Makaques UK/Irish Flora Key – A new interactive key to the flora of the British Isles, this in-depth database includes information on 3221 native and introduced species.

Citizen Science Projects

BSBI New Year Plant Hunt – Start the year with a plant hunt, and help the BSBI to study how our wild and naturalised plants are responding to changes in autumn and winter weather patterns.

National Plant Monitoring Scheme – This habitat-based plant monitoring scheme provides robust and much-needed data on changes in our wild plants and their habitats.

Plantlife Wild Flower Hunt – Record the wildflowers you see while in the town, woodland or countryside and help Plantlife to map wildflowers throughout the country.

Image by peterichman via Flickr

BUTTERFLIES AND MOTHS

Identification

Butterfly Conservation’s Identify a Butterfly – Search the database using criteria such as location, size, colour and markings or search using an A-Z list of species names.

UK Butterflies Identification – Includes an extensive database of butterfly photographs, including those of immature life stages.

Butterfly Conservation’s Identify a Moth – Search the database using criteria such as location, size, colour and markings or search using an A-Z list of species names.

UKMoths – A comprehensive database of 2261 moth species found in the British Isles.

Citizen Science Projects

Butterfly Conservation Recording and Monitoring – This Butterfly Conservation page contains details of all of their current volunteer monitoring projects.

National Moth Recording Scheme – Covering over 900 species of macro-moth, this scheme hopes to benefit nature conservation, public understanding and ecological research.

Image by Erik Paterson via Flickr

AMPHIBIANS

Identification

ARG UK Identification Guides – Download a helpful range of ID guides covering amphibians and reptiles, including guides to eggs and larvae.

Citizen Science Projects

National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme – Includes a range of different surveys suitable for volunteers.

Amphibian and Reptile Record Pool – The Record Pool allows users to submit UK herpetofauna sightings and makes the data available, locally and nationally, for conservation purposes.

Image by ianpreston via Flickr

BIRDS

Identification

RSPB Identify a Bird – This bird identifier lists 406 species of UK bird and allows you to search the database using a combination of physical and behavioural characteristics.

BTO Bird Identification Videos – This series of videos will help you with identifying some of the trickier species.

Xeno-canto – A comprehensive database of bird sounds from all over the world.

Chirp! Bird Songs UK & Europe – This app will help you to identify and learn bird songs. (Available for iPad and iPhone only).

Citizen Science Projects

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch – Take part in the world’s largest wildlife survey and help the RSPB to find out how our garden birds are doing. Takes place annually in January.

BTO Volunteer Surveys – On this webpage you will find a list of current BTO surveys, schemes and projects, available to suit a wide range of skills and expertise.

Image by John Campbell via Flickr

MAMMALS (including bats and cetaceans)

Identification

Mammal Society Species Hub – Find out more about the UK’s 90 species of mammal, including bats and cetaceans.

Bat Conservation Trust UK Bat Information – Learn about the 18 species of bat found in the UK and download species information sheets for each.

Citizen Science Projects

Mammal Society Record Submissions – Report your mammal sightings on this page or using the Mammal Mapper app.

PTES Living with Mammals Survey – Record your sightings of mammals and help to protect their future.

PTES Water Vole Monitoring Programme – Survey a regular site or report a one-off sighting of a water vole and help protect the UK’s fastest declining mammal.

PTES Mammals on Roads Survey – Submit sightings of any mammals (dead or alive) that you see on the roads.

Image by fen-tastic via Flickr

INVERTEBRATES / BUGS

Identification

Buglife’s Identify a Bug – Handy questionnaire to help you identify and find out more about your invertebrate specimen.

Freshwater Habitats Trust Freshwater Creatures – Learn more about our freshwater creatures (also includes information about aquatic mammals, amphibians, fish and birds).

Citizen Science Projects

Buglife Surveys – Get involved in one of Buglife’s projects, including surveying for wood ant nests and oil beetles and recording invasive species found in pot plants.

UK Glow Worm Survey – Submit your glow worm sightings using this online form.

PTES Great Stag Hunt – Help guide future conservation action for stag beetles by recording your sightings.

Riverfly Partnership Projects – Find out more about all of the Riverfly Partnership’s ongoing monitoring projects. Options are available for a range of skill and experience levels.

Apps

iSpot – Created in collaboration with the Open University and the OpenScience Laboratory, iSpot is a community-based app that allows you to record and share your wildlife sightings and get feedback from other users regarding any identification queries that you might have.

iRecord – This app enables you to get involved with biological recording by contributing your species sightings along with GPS acquired coordinates, descriptions and other information. Data is then made available to National Recording Schemes, Local Record Centres and Vice County Recorders (VCRs) to help with nature conservation, planning, research and education.

The NHBS Guide to Rockpooling

Rockpooling is an educational and extremely enjoyable wildlife activity that introduces you to a colourful world of creatures that are usually hidden beneath the sea. Rock pools are full of limpets, crabs, whelks, periwinkles and anemones, all of which have fascinating adaptations that allow them to live in this unique place. The intertidal zone is an exceptionally harsh habitat, with animals needing to cope with exposure to saltwater, rainwater, changing temperatures and sun. Rockpooling is a brilliant hands-on activity to introduce children to this unique habitat and discuss how animals and plants cope with living there.

Photo credit: S Webber

Planning a Rockpooling trip

The best time to go rockpooling is in the late spring or summer, when the weather is milder and temperatures are warmer. There are many excellent locations to go rockpooling on the UK coast and, by searching the local area or consulting this list by The Wildlife Trusts, you can find some of the best spots. Once you know which area you are heading to, you need to consult the local tide table. Rockpooling is best done on a low spring tide, because the most interesting range of creatures are likely to be found nearest the sea edge. Pick a day with calm weather conditions and when the low tide point is at a suitable time in the day – you need to time your visit to be there for low tide and then watch carefully for the tide coming back in. Make sure that you take a sun hat, sun cream and wear sturdy shoes, as the rocks can be very slippery.

Rockpooling equipment and method

Photo credit: S Webber

Bucket – a clear or white plastic bucket is great for storing your finds temporarily.

Net –a net can help with catching crabs when used carefully, but avoid scraping along rocks.

ID guide – there are a range of ID guides including laminated FSC sheets and seashore identification guides.

Pots – smaller animals can be transferred carefully to pots for a closer look.

Endoscope – peer deep into the depths of the rockpools and record images and videos with a handheld endoscope.

Approach rock pools carefully, as animals can be wary of noise and shadows appearing above them. Dip your bucket into the water to catch mobile animals or carefully search through with your hands. If you fill your bucket and pots with a little seawater then you can keep any creatures you find in there for a short period of time while you identify them. Watch out for crab claws as they can nip, and anemone tentacles as they can sting. Do not remove any creatures that are attached to the rocks as they may have a specific place that they attach to until the tide comes back in. Turn over stones to find crabs and have a good look to see if there is anything hiding in the seaweed. Once you have finished looking, make sure you return the animals gently back into the pool.

Common UK Rock Pool Inhabitants

Green shore crab (Carcinus maenas)

Photo credit: John Haslam via Flickr

Hermit crab  (Pagurus bernhardus)

Photo credit: Peter Corbett via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common blenny  (Lipophrys pholis)

Photo credit: Duncan Greenhill via Flickr

Beadlet anemone  (Actinia equina)

Photo credit: Deryk Tolman via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snakelocks anemone  (Anemonia viridis)

Photo credit: NHBS (taken with Video Endoscope)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flat top shell  (Steromphala umbilicalis)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

Limpet  (Patella vulgate)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common periwinkle  (Littorina littorea)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

Recommended reading and equipment

The Essential Guide to Rockpooling
#243734

 

 

 

NHBS Rock Pooling Kit
#247074

 

 

Rock Pool Extraordinary Encounters Between the Tides
#249715

 

 

 

The Rocky Shore Name Trail
#228841

 

 

Rocky Shores
#242624

 

 

 

Bloomsbury Concise Seashore Wildlife Guide
#245646

 

 

 

RSPB Handbook of the Seashore
#241750

 

 

 

White Plastic Bucket
#197160

 

 

60ml Collecting Pot
#199488

 

 

 

Hand Held Magnifier
#202230

 

Video Endoscope
#243795

 

The NHBS Guide to UK Seaweed Identification

Seaweeds by Windel Oskay via Flickr

Seaweeds, or marine macroalgae, are plant-like organisms that live in coastal areas, usually attached to rocks or other substrates. They are divided into three taxonomic groups: brown, red and green. Broadly speaking, species fall into the group that most closely matches their colour. However, the groups also differ in more complex structural and biochemical features, such as their photosynthetic pigments and cell structure. While green and red seaweeds are classified in the Kingdom Plantae, which also includes all of the world’s land plants, brown seaweeds belong to the Kingdom Chromista and are more related to algae, diatoms and protozoans.

British and Irish seas are home to more than 600 species of seaweed; this is more than 6% of the known species globally. They are incredibly important ecologically and provide both food and shelter for numerous other creatures. In fact, one of the great pleasures of studying seaweeds is the many other species that you find along the way.

If you find yourself enjoying your seaweed studies, why not contribute to the Natural History Museum’s Big Seaweed Search. It only takes around an hour and will provide valuable data that can be used to research the effects of environmental change on our seashore communities.

When and where to find seaweed

Seaweed is present all year round. At low tide, more of the shore will be exposed which means that you are likely to find a greater range of species. This is also the only time that you are likely to spot a glimpse of those seaweeds that thrive in the lower intertidal zone. Sheltered shores tend to provide a better location for many species, as most cannot survive the battering of the waves in more exposed locations. However, there are a few species that are specially adapted to live on exposed shores so it’s always worth a look there. Similarly, as most species require a firm substrate to anchor to, rocky shores will be home to more seaweeds than sandy or muddy ones.

Ten common species to look for

Brown seaweeds:

Bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus)
Bladderwrack from the Dr. Mary Gillham Archive Project via Flickr.

ID notes: An olive-brown seaweed that has branching fronds with smooth edges. Paired air-filled bladders run along the length of the fronds on either side of the central rib. 15-100cm in length. The number of bladders present is related to the exposure of the shore; in very exposed places this species may grow without any bladders and will also be much reduced in length.

Distribution: Found on rocky shores between the high and low water line.

Knotted wrack (Ascophylum nodosum)
Knotted wrack from the Dr Mary Gillham Archive Project via Flickr.

Also known as: Egg wrack

ID notes: This yellow-brown seaweed has long fronds reaching up to two metres in length. Single large air bladders appear at regular intervals along its length.

Distribution: Found on the mid-shore on sheltered rocky coasts. Knotted wrack is very long-lived (up to 15 years) in comparison to other algae; this allows it to become dominant on many sheltered coastlines. When the tide goes out it often forms huge piles.

Spiral wrack (Fucus spiralis)
Spiral wrack from the Dr Mary Gillham Archive Project via Flickr

Also known as: Twisted wrack

ID notes: Spiral wrack is generally a pale olive-brown and grows up to 40cm. As the name would suggest, fronds are generally (although not always) twisted and have smooth edges and a distinct central rib. When mature, fronds have yellowish, paired swollen tips; these are the reproductive structures.

Distribution: Found high on the rocky shore, just below the high-water mark.

Serrated wrack (Fucus serratus)
Serrated wrack by aka CJ via Flick

Also known as: Toothed wrack or saw wrack

ID notes: This brown seaweed forms branched fronds 50 to 80cm in length. Edges are serrated.

Distribution: Found on sheltered and semi-exposed rocky shores just above the low water mark. Fucus serratus is often the dominant algal species found at this point on the shoreline.

Oarweed (Laminaria digitata)
Oarweed by Leslie Seaton via Flickr

ID notes: Oarweed has dark brown-green fronds that are up to two metres in length and split into long finger-like blades. Attaches to the rock with a claw-like holdfast which allows it to survive in rough subtidal conditions.

Distribution: Grows in dense beds in the lower intertidal and shallow subtidal zones (at a depth of up to 20m). Often all that can be seen of this species are the tops of the fronds during low tide.

Sugar kelp (Saccharina latissimi)
Sugar kelp by brewbooks via Flickr

Also known as: Sea belt

ID notes: Forms long undivided blades that are yellow-brown in colour and have ruffled sides. Grows up to five metres in length.

Distribution: Found on the lower shore and in deep rock pools. Mostly on sheltered shores and can be found up to a depth of 30m.

Green seaweeds:

Sea lettuce (Ulva lactua)
Sea lettuce by seaspicegirls via Flickr

ID notes: Sheet-like light green seaweed which grows up to 25cm in length and 30cm in width. Very delicate and almost translucent; almost like floppy lettuce leaves.

Distribution: Found attached to rocks or floating in rock pools.

Gutweed (Ulva intestinalis)
Gutweed by AuT CRONE via Flickr

Also known as: Grass kelp

ID notes: As the Latin name would suggest, gutweed resembles the intestines of mammals and consists of inflated hollow fronds which have bubbles of air trapped along them. Bright green and grows up to 40cm in length.

Distribution: Occurs in a wide range of intertidal habitats including rockpools and on sand or mud. Can also be found growing on shells or other seaweeds.

Red seaweeds:

Carrageen (Chondrus crispus)
Carrageen from the Dr Mary Gillham Archive Project via Flickr

Also known as: Irish moss

ID notes: Dark reddish-purple branching seaweed which appears iridescent when submerged. Turns green with exposure to bright sunlight.

Distribution: Rocky shores and estuaries, on rocks and in pools in the lower intertidal and upper subtidal zones.

Purple laver (Porphyra umbilicalis)
Purple laver from the Dr Mary Gillham Archive Project via Flickr

ID notes: Forms fronds of variable shape which are thin and membranous. Olive to purple-brown in colour and up to two metres in length.

Distribution: Found in the mid to upper shore, generally on mussel-covered rocks. Common on exposed coastlines.

Further reading

A Key to Common Seaweeds
#118696

This laminated guide from the FSC will help you to identify 36 of the most common seaweeds.

 

Seaweeds of Britain & Ireland
#235692

This photographic guide aims to demystify seaweed identification for the non-specialist. Over 235 species are described in detail, with colour photographs, information on habitat, distribution and confusion species.

 

The NHBS Guide to UK Bumblebee Identification

Bumblebee by James Johnstone via Flickr

Bumblebees are familiar, much-loved animals in Britain. Together with ants and wasps, these winged insects are in the order Hymenoptera. The Latin name Bombus, meaning to buzz or boom, is wholly appropriate for bumblebees, who are frequently heard before they are seen.

Keeping an eye on brambles and purple flowering plants – both of which are particularly popular with bees – can be very productive when out on an insect hunt or daily stroll. At first glance, bumblebees may all look very similar, but take a closer look and a range of colours and stripe patterns can be spotted.

There are 24 species of bumblebee found in Britain. Seven of these are particularly widespread so are aptly named the ‘Big 7’ by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.  Due to this prevalence, these seven species are a great place to start when learning to identify bees.

The colouration of the different species is the easiest way to identify bumblebees; particularly the colour of the tail and the number and colour of stripes. In our guide we have sorted the seven species by tail colour (or overall colour for the common carder) so that easily confused species can be directly compared.

Bumblebees with white or buff tails
White-tailed bumblebee by OldManDancing via Flickr

White-tailed bumblebee – Bombus lucorum

Tail: As expected from the name, this bumblebee has a pure white tail.

Banding: Two bands of bright yellow, often described as lemon-yellow.

Other: Males of this species can be identified by the presence of additional yellow hairs on their faces.

Buff-tailed bumblebee by Jonas Myrenås via Flickr

Buff-tailed bumblebee – Bombus terrestris

Tail: Named for the orangey beige, or “buff” tail of their queen. Males and workers of this species have white tails and so are very challenging to distinguish from the white-tailed bumblebee. In some males, a thin band of yellow/buff can be seen at the top of the tail, which is absent in the white-tailed species.

Banding: Has two bands of yellow, similar to the white-tailed species. The bands on a buff-tailed bumblebee are often more of an orange-yellow than seen on the white-tailed bumblebee – although these can fade later in the season.

Garden bumblebee by gailhampshire via Flickr

Garden bumblebee – Bombus hortorum

Tail: Bright white tail that tends to go further up the body than the lucorum species.

Banding: Has three stripes of yellow unlike the other species with white tails. Although, this can sometimes appear as one band around the “collar” and another wider one around the “waist”/midriff.

Other: The garden bumblebee has an incredibly long tongue, the longest of any of our species in the UK. At up to 2cm, its tongue is the same length as its entire body. This impressive adaptation allows these bees to reach the nectar in deep flowers such as foxgloves.

Tree bumblebee by Orangeaurochs via Flickr

Tree bumblebee – Bombus hypnorum

Tail: White.

Banding: The tree bumblebee has an entirely ginger-brown thorax, with a black abdomen. This colouration makes it the most distinct of the pale tailed bumblebee species.

Other: Unlike the other six species, these bees like to nest in trees and are commonly found in bird nest boxes. The tree bumblebee is a fairly new addition to the UK, with the first individuals recorded in 2001.

Bumblebees with red tails
Male (left) and female (right) Red-tailed bumblebees by Donald Hobern and S. Rae via Flickr

Red-tailed bumblebee – Bombus lapidarius

Tail: Very bright red or dark orange tail that is difficult to miss.

Banding: Unique in that the females have no banding, they are just jet black other than the tail. The smaller males, however, have two slim yellow bands and yellow facial hairs.

Early bumblebee by Gertjan van Noord via Flickr

Early bumblebee – Bombus pratorum

Tail: Has an orange-red tail. However it is generally smaller and less bright than in the lapidarius species.

Banding: The early bumblebee has two yellow stripes on males and females.

Other: Smaller and fluffier in appearance than the lapidarius species.

Bumblebees with ginger bodies
Common carder bee by stanze via Flickr

Common carder bee – Bombus pascuorum

The common carder is similar in colour to the tree bumblebee – orangey brown. However, with this species the colour continues across its entire body and tail. Some individuals have darker bands across their abdomens, especially later in the season as the orange begins to fade

Other: There are two other species of carder bee in the UK that are orange all over, however, the common carder is the most often seen across Britain.

Find out more

If this guide has piqued your curiosity in bumblebees we recommend the following products so that you too can get outside, identifying species and learning more about these important pollinators…

FSC Guide to Bees of Britain
#171559

This lightweight fold-out guide shows a variety of bee species, including the ones mentioned above and will provide a useful reminder of their identification features when out in the field. Also includes additional information such as UK distribution.

 

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland
#245313

The ultimate guide – this book provides a comprehensive introduction to the ecology of bees and details of all 275 species found in Great Britain and Ireland.

 

 

Bumblebees: An Introduction
#241722

This Bumblebee Conservation Trust book fills that gap by introducing these charismatic species to a wider audience. Written by Trust staff, it covers bumblebee biology and also has an essential identification guide to all UK bumblebee species, packed with over 250 colour photographs

 

A Sting in the Tale
#211475

Dave Goulson’s The Sunday Times bestseller has inspired thousands of readers to share his excitement for bees and develop a passion to protect and conserve them.

 

 

Opticron Hand Lens
#210081

A hand lens is an essential part of your naturalist kit. We offer many different magnifications and options to suit all budgets.

Hand-Held Magnifier
#202230

The size of this magnifier and its non-slip plastic handle makes it particularly suitable for use by families and children.

The NHBS Guide to Pond Dipping

For many naturalists, some of the most exciting encounters with wildlife as a child were around the edge of a pond, with a net in hand and a sampling tray filled with murky water. It is an excellent activity for children of all ages and is a great way to introduce them to a wide range of plants, insects and amphibians. It offers the opportunity to learn about food chains and food webs as well as discovering some of the amazing insect transformations during their lifecycles. For school groups, a pond dipping trip will satisfy many of the criteria for learning about life processes and living things, and it can also be used to provide inspiration for art, maths or English projects. Younger children will enjoy drawing or painting pictures of the creatures they find, as well as writing stories about their experiences.

Don’t forget that pond dipping isn’t just for children. For adults feeling out of touch with nature, it is an ideal way to reconnect. Ponds, pools and small lakes are also an integral part of our ecosystems and surveying the plant and animal diversity within them is an important way of assessing their health. If you are interested in volunteering as a pond surveyor, take a look at the Freshwater Habitats Trust website for more information.

What you need:

White tray – Rummage through your recycling bin for an old ice cream tub or place a sheet of white paper in the bottom of a baking tin. Our heavy-duty sampling trays come in three sizes and are sturdy enough to be carried full of water.
Net – For younger children a small aquarium net is ideal. For adults and older children, a larger pond net will allow you to reach further into the pond.
Collecting pots – Although it’s perfectly fine to observe your catch directly in the tray, individual pots, particularly those with a magnifying lid, are helpful for looking more closely at individual specimens.
•  Field guide – A guide to freshwater animals will help you to identify the species that you find in your pond. You’ll find a few of our favourites at the bottom of this post.

When and where to go:

May to August are the best months for pond dipping as this is when most creatures will be active and breeding. Any body of still water is suitable for studying, but make sure that you have permission to access the area and that the bank of the pond provides safe access to the water. Ponds with a variety of vegetation and open water are likely to support a high diversity of species.

What to do:
  1. Half fill a tray or bucket with water from the pond and set aside. Do the same with your collecting pots and/or magnifying pots (if using).
  2. Use a net to dip into the pond. Sweeping in a figure of eight will ensure that you retain the catch. Areas around the edge of the pond, especially near vegetation, tend to be the most productive. Take care not to scoop up mud from the bottom of the pond, as this will clog up your net and make it difficult to see what you have caught.
  3. Gently turn the net inside out into the tray. Once everything has settled, you should be able to view a fascinating selection of pond-dwelling creatures. A pipette can be used to transfer individual specimens to a magnifying pot for a closer look.
  4. Use a guide such as the Freshwater Name Trail or the FSC What’s in your Pond pack to identify the creatures found. For adults or older children, a more in-depth guide such as Ponds and Small Lakes or the Bloomsbury Concise Pond Wildlife Guide will cover a greater range of species.
  5. When you have finished, make sure to return all water and inhabitants to the pond. Trays, pots and nets should be rinsed and dried thoroughly before storage.

Pond dipping equipment and books:

At NHBS we stock both individual and class-sized pond dipping kits. These contain nets, trays, pots, magnifier and pipettes, as well as the excellent (and waterproof!) Freshwater Name Trail which will help you to identify the key animals found in UK ponds. Or why not choose from our top 10 list of equipment and books for pond dipping:

1. Pond Net
Made at our workshop in Devon, the Pond Net is a high quality, lightweight net with a removable bag for cleaning. The bag is made from woven 1mm mesh which is ideal for pond life. Also available in a telescopic version.

2. What’s in your Pond?
Find out the names of the insects, plants, amphibians and reptiles that you see with this wildlife pack. Features three of the FSC’s popular fold-out charts: Reptiles and Amphibians (frogs, toads, newts, slow worms, lizards and snakes), Freshwater Name Trail (classic pond dipping guide) and Commoner Water Plants (from lilypads to water mint). Also includes a card-sized magnifier.

 

3. Heavy-duty Sampling Trays
These strong white trays are ideal for pond dipping as they are robust and stable enough to be carried when full of water. Available in three sizes.

 

4. Bug Pots (Set of 10)
This set of ten Bug Pots is perfect for pond dipping, as well as general nature studies. Each pot has a 2.5x magnifying lid and a measurement grid of 5mm squares on the base. They are ideal for storing and observing specimens.

5. Field Guide to Pond and River Wildlife of Britain and Europe

The Field Guide to Pond and River Wildlife of Britain and Europe will help you to identify more than 200 species that can be found in our freshwater habitats, including marginal plants, aquatic plants, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and invertebrates such as pond snails, crayfish, water spiders and dragonflies.

 

6. Economy Telescopic Pond Net
With an aluminium telescopic handle and knotless fine mesh net bag, this pond net will not harm specimens and is guaranteed not to run if holed. Not suitable for heavy-duty use.

7. Ponds and Small Lakes: Microorganisms and Freshwater Ecology

Suitable for adults and older children, this book introduces some of the less familiar and microscopic species found in ponds such as diatoms, desmids and rotifers. Along with excellent photographs, the book provides useful identification keys so that readers can identify, explore and study this microscopic world.

 

8. Pipettes
Small pipettes are extremely handy for sorting through and picking up tiny creatures found when pond dipping. They can also be used to transfer samples to microscope slides to look at the microscopic specimens found.

 

9. 125ml Collecting Pots 
These sampling containers are made from see-through rigid polystyrene and have secure screw-on lids. They are recommended for liquids and so are ideal for keeping specimens when pond dipping or rock pooling. Available either singly or in packs of 10, 30 or 100.

 

10. Bloomsbury Concise Pond Wildlife Guide

This concise guide is packed with information on more than 190 species of animal and plant that inhabit ponds, pools and small lakes in northern Europe. Among the fascinating animals featured are freshwater sponges, hydras, water bears, worms, leeches, water snails, dragonflies and damselflies, frogs and toads, bats, fish, birds, water voles and otter.

 

Creating your own pond:

During the lockdown imposed by Covid-19, the UK and many other countries have seen a rapid growth of interest in nature, especially found in gardens. It is widely considered that the best way to encourage and benefit wildlife in your garden is by adding a pond. There are many books to help in this process, such as Making Wildlife Ponds or the more complete guide called The Pond Book by Pond Conservation.

The NHBS Guide to UK Tree Identification

Trees are a vital part of our ecosystem and essential to all life. Trees offer habitation and food to wildlife, they provide us with oxygen, clean the air, conserve water and stabilise soil. As such, trees are invaluable to our environment and to human well-being. 

In the UK there are at least fifty native tree species, and they come in many different sizes and shapes. All trees have distinct features that can help with identification. In this blog we will focus on 10  common native trees and provide you with the most important things you need to look out for, so you can recognise Oak from Elder or Silver Birch from Ash. 

How to Identify a Tree: 

By looking at the overall features as well as where the tree is growing you can work out what the species is. Below are some key characteristics to look out for when trying to identify a tree :

  • The size and shape of the tree
  • Leaves and needles
  • Flowers and fruit
  • Bark, buds and twigs

10 Common British Trees and How to Identify Them:

1. Oak (Quercus robur)
Oak by Gedomaru via Flickr

Where to find: The ancient, wise oak is one of Britain’s most iconic species, standing tall for hundreds of years, it can be found across the country

How to identify:

The common pedunculate oak is a large deciduous tree growing up to 40m tall, with a grey bark when young and darker brown with fissures as it ages.

Look out for: Its oval to oblong shaped leaves with its familiar deep lobed margins with smooth edges. Oak can be easily identified by its distinctive acorns that hang on long stalks. 

2. Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)
Ash tree by David Radcliffe via Flickr

Where to find: Ash is a common, widespread tree often found amongst British hedgerows and in many mixed deciduous woods in the UK.

How to identify: 

Ash grows tall, up to 30-40m, the bark is pale brown and fissures as the tree ages.

Look out for: The tree can be recognised by its pinnately compound leaves, usually comprising three to six opposite pairs of light green, oval leaflets. The buds are one of its defining characteristics. The buds are a sooty black with upturned grey shoots. Sadly, ash is also identified by a serious disease called Ash dieback that is a substantial threat to the species. The fungus appears as black blotches on the leaves, and the whole tree appears to be dying back. 

3. Common Lime (Tilia x europaea)
Lime tree by louis.quinzexv via Flickr

Where to find: The sweet smelling lime is native to much of Europe, found scattered across the wild it is more commonly found in parks and along residential streets

How to identify: 

Common lime is a tall, broadleaf tree, and is a natural hybrid between large-leaved and small-leaved limes. 

Look out for: The Common lime has dark green heart-shaped leaves. It is known for its sweet, smelling white-yellow flowers, that hang in clusters of two to five and  develop into round, oval fruits with pointed tips. The common lime can be distinguished from other lime varieties by the twiggy suckers around the base of its trunk. 

4. Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
Hawthorn by David Lee via Flickr

Where to find: An ancient tree steeped in mythology and folklore, hawthorn is most commonly found growing in hedgerows, woodland and scrub. 

How to identify:

Hawthorn is identified by its dense, thorny foliage, and if left to fully mature can grow to a height of 15m.

Look out for: Shiny lobed leaves, and five petalled, sweet smelling flowers that are similar to cherry blossoms. It is characterised in the winter by its deep red fruits, known as haws.  

5. Hazel (Corylus avellana)
Hazel by Stoutcob via Flickr

Where to find: Used regularly for coppicing, hazel can be found in a range of habitats, including woodlands, gardens and grasslands.

How to identify:

A small shrubby tree, with a small, grey-brown bark, and can reach up to 12m when left to grow. 

Look out for: Leaves are oval, toothed, and have soft hairs on their underside. It is familiar for its long yellow catkins that appear in Spring, and crop of hazelnuts in the winter. 

6. Common Alder (Alnus glutinosa)
Alder via Flickr

Where to find: Common Alder enjoys moist ground and so can be found along riversides, fens and wet woodlands, providing shelter to fish. 

How to identify:

Alder is a deciduous tree that grows to 25m. It is broadly conical in shape, and the bark is dark and fissured.

Look out for: Small cone like fruits and young catkins that harden when pollinated. It can also be recognised by its purple buds and purple twigs with orange markings in winter.  

7. Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Holly by Douglas Cox via Flickr

Where to find: A favourite in Christmas decorations, holly is widespread and found commonly in woodland, scrub and hedgerows. 

How to identify:

The dense, evergreen tree has a smooth bark and dark brown stems. It can grow up to 15m in height. 

Look out for: Holly can be easily identified by its dark, evergreen, shiny leaves that have prickles on the edges, as well as its bright red berries.

8. White Willow (Salix alba)
Willow by Bill Cheesman via Flickr

Where to find: The weeping, romantic willow can be spotted growing in wet ground, for example along riverbanks and around lakes. 

How to identify: 

White willow is a large, fast growing tree growing up to 25m, with an irregular, leaning crown.

Look out for: Willow is distinguished from other trees by its slender, flexible twigs that drape into the water. White willow appears more silvery than other willows due to its pale, oval leaves, that carry silky, white hairs on the underside. In early Spring look out for its long yellow catkins.

9. Silver Birch (Betula pendula)
Silver Birch by Jan Roles via Flickr

Where to find: A pioneer species, silver birch is a popular garden tree, and thrives in moorlands, heathland and dry and sandy soils.

How to identify:

Can be easily recognised by its silvery, paper bark. It has drooping branches and can reach 30m in height. 

Look out for: Its triangular-shaped leaves that grow from hairless leaf stalks. In Spring flowers appear as yellow-brown catkins that hang in groups, once pollinated female catkins thicken and darken to a crimson colour. 

10. Elder (Sambucus nigra)
Elder by Rüdiger Heiß via Flickr

Where to find: Historically known for its magical properties, Elder appears in hedges, scrub, woodland, waste and cultivated ground.

How to identify: 

Elder can be identified by its short greyish-brown trunk, that develops deep creases as it ages. The tree can grow to around 15m.

Look out for: Elder has compound leaves, each leaf divided into five to seven leaflets. In summer Elder is recognised by its creamy, sweet, smelling white flowers that hang in sprays, and later in autumn develop into deep, purple berries. 

Recommended reading and guides:

Collins Tree Guide: The Most Complete Field Guide to the Trees of Britain and Europe

#151916

An essential, definitive, fully-illustrated guide to the trees of Britain and non-Mediterranean Europe.

 

 

The Tree Name Trail: A Key to Common Trees

#115887

This 12-page laminated fold-out chart contains a full-colour illustrated key to the leaves, twigs, fruits and seeds of the commonest broadleaved and coniferous trees of Britain and Ireland.

 

 

London’s Street Trees: A Field Guide to the Urban Forest 

#249755

London is home to an astounding diversity of tree species and this portable book offers a field guide to their identification, as well as suggested walks to see them.

 

RSPB First Book of Trees

#226307

Through beautiful full-page illustration accompanied by key information about each creature, books are designed to encourage young children’s interest in the outside world and the wildlife around them.

 

 

Trees: A Complete Guide to their Biology and Structure

#229286

Roland Ennos sheds new light on trees and their structure by answering questions from the apparently obvious to the obscure but fascinating.

 

Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Trees

#248320

A dendrochronological delight, the beautifully written and illustrated Tree Story reveals the utterly fascinating world of tree-ring research and how it matters to archaeology, palaeoclimatology, and environmental history.

 

Winter Trees: A Photographic Guide to Common Trees and Shrubs

#209999

This AIDGAP guide covers 36 of the common broad-leaved deciduous species, or groups of species, that are most likely to be found in the UK, as well as a few rarer trees.

 

 

The NHBS Guide to UK Small Mammal Identification  

Harvest Mouse by Charlie Marshall via Flickr

Small mammals are charismatic animals, but often elusive. They are rarely seen as more than a passing glimpse of a small scurrying creature. Although sadly often viewed as pests, small mammals are an important part of our ecosystems.

In this blog we will focus on some of the most common, native species of rodent and insectivore in the UK, providing key characteristics that will help you to identify them in the field.

Mice

There are four species of mice in the UK. All have relatively large eyes and ears and long scaly tails with little or no hair.

Wood mouse by Vince via Flickr
Wood mouse/Field mouse– Apodemus sylvaticus

Identification: The wood mouse is a stereotypical’ mouse in terms of appearance and has a chestnut-brown back and white belly. Long tail, large ears and big eyes. Moves quickly by hopping/jumping.

Size: 8-10cm with a very long tail of up to 10cm.

Habitat: Often found in woodland and fields but also common in a variety of other habitats. Generally the most often caught in small mammal surveys.

House mouse by Richard Adams via Flickr

 

House mouse – Mus musculus

Identification: Greybrown all over including the undersides.

Size: 7-9cm with a tail of up to 10cm.

Habitat: Commonly associated with houses, buildings and barns, although also found in the countryside. This species is one of the more commonly spotted due to its cohabitation with humans.

Harvest Mouse by Charlie Marshall via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harvest mouse – Micromys minutus

Identification: A very small mouse with golden fur and white undersides. Its long tail is prehensile and can be used as an extra ‘limb’ to hold onto vegetation as it climbs.

Size: The UK’s smallest rodent; roughly 5-7cm in length.

Habitat: Lives in long vegetation such as reed beds, marshes and roadside verges. Builds small, round nests made of intertwined grass stalks.

Did you know? The average adult harvest mouse weighs roughly the same as a two pence piece!

Yellow-necked mouse by Teemu Lehtinen via Flickr
Yellow-necked mouse – Apodemus flavicollis

Identification: This species looks almost the same as the wood mouse in appearance, except that the yellow-brown colouration on its back continues around in a band across the neck.

Size: 9.5-12cm, very slightly larger than the wood mouse. Tail 8-12cm in length.

Habitat: Woodland, hedgerows and gardens; range is restricted mainly to southern Britain.

Voles

In comparison to mice, voles have much shorter and more rounded snouts. They also tend to have smaller ears and eyes in proportion to their body size. There are three species of vole native to mainland UK: two of these species – the bank and field vole – appear very similar and are easily confused.

Bank vole by Peter Trimming via Flickr
Bank Vole – Myodes glareolus

Identification: Red-brown upper coat with a pale cream/grey underside. The bank vole’s tail is about half the length of its body. This is an important distinguishing factor for comparison with the field vole which has a proportionately shorter tail.

Size: 9-11cm, tail length 3-7cm.

Habitat: The bank vole is often found in hedgerows, heathland, grassland and woodland, as well as in more urban areas.

Field vole by Jeremy Halls via Flickr
Field Vole – Microtus agrestis

Identification: The fur of the field vole is more yellow-brown than the bank vole. It is often described as ‘cooler’ in colour. The underside is creamy-grey. Its tail is about a third of the length of its body (shorter proportionately when compared to the bank vole). For this reason it is also known as the short-tailed field vole.

Size: 9-12 cm in length (not including tail).

Habitat: Ungrazed grasslands and areas of tussock are the preferred habitat, although this adaptable mammal will find a home wherever grass is available.

Did you know? The field vole is estimated to be the most abundant mammal in the UK, although it is rarely seen. Look out for small round tunnels in areas of long grass. You may even find a ‘lawn’ at the entrance with shortened grass and piles of grass cuttings.

Water vole by Peter Trimming via Flickr
Water Vole Arvicola amphibious

Identification: Dark brown fur and a hairy tail which is about half the length of the head and body. Characteristic bright yellow teeth.

Size: Up to 22cm in length excluding the tail. Roughly rat-sized (double the size of the field and bank voles).

Habitat: As the name suggests, this vole spends much of its life in the water. They live in burrows alongside river canals and are most often spotted swimming.

Did you know? When startled, water voles dive into the water making a characteristic ‘plop’ sound. So, be sure to keep an ear out when walking alongside rivers.

Shrews

There are four species of shrew native to the UK, although only three are found on the mainland. The other – the greater white-toothed shrew – is found only on islands such as Guernsey, Alderney and Herm.

Shrews tend to be smaller than most other species of small mammal found in the UK, and have a distinctive long pointed snout and very small eyes and ears.

Common shrew by Jo Garbutt via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common shrew – Sorex araneus

Identification: Fur is three-toned, transitioning from dark brown on the back to paler brown to white on its undersides. The common shrew has a tail which is roughly half the length of the body; this is shorter, proportionally, than that of the pygmy shrew.

Size: 4-8cm in length, tail 2.5-4.5cm.

Habitat Widespread across a variety of habitats including gardens, hedgerows, grassland and woodland.

Did you know? Common shrews have a very high metabolism and must eat every 2-3 hours in order to survive.

Pygmy shrew by Andrew via Flickr
Pygmy shrew – Sorex minutus

Identification Two-toned fur going from a grey-brown upper to an off-white belly. The pygmy shrew has a longer and wider tail in proportion to its body when compared with the common shrew; roughly two-thirds of its body length.

Size: 4-6cm in length, tail 3-5cm.

Habitat: Widespread across a variety of habitats including hedgerows, grassland and woodland.

Water shrew by Ulrike & Jörg via Flickr
Water Shrew – Neomys fodiens

Identification: Black/dark brown fur on top, with a very contrasting pale grey underside. Often have little silver ear tufts and white hairs around the eyes.

Size: 6-10cm, the UK’s largest shrew species. Tail 4.5-7.5cm.

Habitat: Usually found near streams and wetlands. If you see a shrew swimming, it is most likely this species! They even swim underwater to hunt for prey.

Did you know? The water shrew is a venomous mammal. Its saliva can paralyse even larger prey such as frogs and newts.

Other

Hazel dormouse by Frank Vassen via Flickr
Hazel DormouseMuscardinus avellanarius

Identification: Golden fur, big ears and eyes. The most characteristic feature is their incredibly fluffy tail. This means that they are sometimes mistaken for a young squirrel.

Size: 6-9cm, tail 5.5-7cm.

Habitat: Dormice are arboreal, meaning that they spend most of their lives in trees, although they return to the ground to hibernate during winter. Despite their name, hazel trees are not a habitat requirement – although they are often preferred. Found in coniferous, deciduous and mixed woodland.

Did you know? The hazel dormouse is not technically a true mouse. They are related to both mice and squirrels but are classified in their own separate family.

Recommended reading/guides:

How to Find and Identify Mammals
#210208

Provides a solid grounding in mammal identification skills. Includes excellent illustrations of mammals, their tracks and signs and also discusses survey methods using the latest techniques and technologies.

 

 

Live Trapping Small Mammals: A Practical Guide
#248012

Provides practical advice on trapping small mammals.

 

 

 

Guide to the Land Mammals of Britain
#200858

This laminated pamphlet is produced by the Field Studies Council and contains images of all of Britain’s land-based mammals. Provides a useful overview and aid to identification.

 

 

A Guide to British Mammal Tracks and Signs
#128853

This Field Studies Council guide is the perfect solution to identifying the presence of mammals from their tracks and signs. Footprints, dropping and feeding remains are all included in this helpful laminated pamphlet.

 

Water Vole Conservation Handbook
#196267

This handbook aims to improve the understanding and awareness of the requirements of water voles.

The NHBS Guide to UK Butterfly Identification

Orange Tip image by L Wilkes

Butterflies are an iconic and popular sight during the spring and summer months. They are also important indicators of a healthy ecosystem and provide valuable environmental benefits such as pest control and pollination. As food for birds, bats and other mammals they are a vital part of the food chain and have been used for centuries by scientists to investigate navigation, pest control and evolution, as well as countless other subjects.

In the UK there are currently 57 resident species of butterfly and two regular migrants. Of these, it is estimated that 76% have declined in abundance, occurrence or both over the past 40 years. Almost all of these losses can be attributed to man-made changes such as habitat destruction and pollution, along with larger patterns of weather and climate change.

Recording and monitoring butterflies is a vital step in ensuring their conservation. Contributing to citizen science projects such as Butterfly Conservation’s Butterflies for the New Millenium, the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, or via the iRecord app are vital to gain a picture of how our butterflies are faring. Although at this time it is not possible to travel to survey and record butterflies, sightings within your garden or on your own land, as well as those spotted on local walks, still provide a valuable source of data. (Please read the most recent Covid-19 statements on each of these websites before undertaking any surveys.)

In this article we have compiled a short guide on which butterflies you are likely to see outside this spring/summer, as well as some tips on the features by which you can distinguish certain species.

Gardens

For many butterflies we need look no further than our back gardens. In the UK many generalist species of butterflies survive and thrive in the network of gardens that stretch out across the country. These species are drawn in by the bountiful supply of nectar offered by flowering plants such as Buddleia, which are seldom without a visiting Red Admiral or Peacock. Gardens with unmanaged patches are even more favourable, as these can provide larval host plants such as thistles and nettles, the latter of which are used by four different butterfly species.

LOOK OUT FOR:

1. Large White: Large and often found near brassicas and nasturtiums
2. Small Tortoiseshell:
Medium-sized, often bask in open sunny spots
3. Red Admiral: 
Large and territorial with unique black and red colours
4. Painted Lady:
Large fast flyers with very angular wings
5. Small White: Medium-sized with yellowish under-wings, eat brassicas
6. Peacock:
Large, dark butterfly with distinct eyespots on its wings

Grasslands, Parks and Fields

Grasslands are an incredibly valuable habitat for many of the UK’s moths and butterflies. Semi-natural grassland, pasture, arable land, urban parkland and any areas with rough unmanaged grass will all support a variety of butterfly species. In the height of summer these areas can be teeming with Skippers, Common Blues, Ringlets and Meadow Browns. Be sure to inspect any flowering plants (particularly thistles and knapweeds) as these can act as vital nectaring points for many butterflies. Pay close attention for the fast and subtle movements of smaller species as these can often disappear against such a busy environment. A prime example of this is the Small Copper which is notoriously hard to spot due to its minute size, fast flight and discrete colouration (when its wings are closed).

LOOK OUT FOR:

1. Meadow Brown: Very common, with dull orange patches on the wings
2. Green-veined White: Have a distinct green colour around the wing veins
3. Small Copper: Small and fast, has deep brown and bright orange wings
4. Common Blue:
 Small with a vivid blue colour and unbroken white border
5. Six-spot Burnet (moth): Has distinct pattern, often feed on Thistles
6. Ringlet: Common, wings can appear black and have distinct yellow rings
7. Marbled White: Large slow flyers with a unique chequered pattern

Hedgerows and Woodland-Edge

Edge habitats are well known for their butterfly diversity and abundance, housing many threatened and elusive species. There are a few species which you are likely to see in these areas, however, bear in mind that species such as the Brimstone, Speckled Wood and Gatekeeper can also occur in several other habitats. Sunny areas with flowering shrub such as Bramble are hotspots for activity, particularly for Gatekeepers. Holly Blues may be hard to spot as they are mostly arboreal, only descending to feed on flowering plants such as Ivy. Woodland interiors are unlikely to yield many butterflies, particularly those with little light and/or limited forest floor plants, however open sunny glades are worth visiting.

LOOK OUT FOR:

1. Brimstone: Large with a powdered yellow/green colour and slow flight
2. Comma:
 Large with a uniquely scalloped wing edge and fast flight
3. Gatekeeper: Small size, often found around hedges with bramble growing
4. Holly Blue:
 Very small, flying around tree tops, especially those with Ivy
5. Speckled Wood
: Medium size, very territorial and regularly sun bask
6. Silver-Y (moth): Fast flying with a distinct silver ‘Y’ on the upper wing

Butterfly Conservation

Thanks to Butterfly Conservation for letting us use their images throughout this article. For more information on UK butterflies and how you can help them, please visit Butterfly Conservation.org. Here you will find a wealth of information to help you find and identify butterflies and moths.

Butterfly Field Guides

Guide to the Butterflies of Britain and Ireland
#245262
The illustrations in this guide, from originals painted by Richard Lewington, show 58 British butterfly species. The paintings are a quick identification aid to the butterflies most likely to be seen and all are drawn to life size.

 

 

Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland
#245485
This handy pocket-sized book has become the essential guide to identifying the butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland. It contains over 600 superb illustrations of the life stages of each species, together with beautiful artworks of butterflies in their natural settings.

 

Butterflies of Britain and Europe: A Photographic Guide
#245243
Packed with beautiful photography, this is the definitive guide to all 482 species of European butterflies (42 more species compared to the first edition) with additional information on over 60 species found in the far east of Europe, stretching as far as the Urals and Caucasus.

 

Collins Butterfly Guide
#173624
This comprehensive guide describes and illustrates about 440 species, depicting both males and females and – where there is significant variation – subspecies. Distribution maps accompany every widespread species.

 

 

The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland
#245487
Provides comprehensive coverage of all our resident and migratory butterflies, including the latest information on newly discovered species such as the Cryptic Wood White and the Geranium Bronze. The definitive book on the subject, it includes fully updated distribution maps.

 

Field Guide to the Caterpillars of Great Britain and Ireland
#248267
This beautifully illustrated field guide covers caterpillars of the moth and butterfly species that are most likely to be encountered in the British Isles.

 

 

The NHBS Guide to UK Wild Flower Identification

 

Germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys). Image by L Wilkes

Plants and fungi are not only beautiful and interesting to study, but they also provide the building blocks on which all of our other wildlife (and ourselves) depend. Monitoring their abundance and diversity is key to understanding the health of our habitats. Plus, there are numerous studies that suggest that being around plants has benefits for our mental wellbeing, including improved concentration and memory as well as a better overall mood.

Spring and early summer are the perfect time to study your local plants as many will be in flower at this time, making them much easier to identify. (For other times of the year, a guide such as the Vegetative Key to the British Flora is invaluable – but it may take a bit of practice. For beginners, we suggest starting during the flowering season).

In this article we’ve featured a number of wild flowers that you’re likely to find, either in your garden or when out walking. These are separated into Town and Country/Woodland, but bear in mind that there will be some overlap, so it’s worth looking at both lists. Chances are that you’ll also find a few species that aren’t included here – you can find lots more information on the Plantlife website, including ways to submit your findings to their records. Or why not check out one of our wild flower ID guides listed at the bottom of the post?

Town

Here you will find nine of the most common species that you’re likely to encounter in urban areas. Pay particular attention to parks, waste ground and walls, and don’t forget to check the pavement cracks too.

LOOK OUT FOR:

 

Image by Catherine Singleton via Flickr

1. Daisy – Bellis Perennis
Flowers March-October.
Easily recognisable flower with a yellow centre and numerous white petals. Abundant in short grass such as parks and garden lawns.

 

 

Image by Far Closer via Flickr

2. Silverweed – Potentilla anserina
Flowers May-August.
Common on bare or well-walked ground such as the sides of tracks. Easy to recognise due to the silver-white underside of leaves.

 

 

Image by Siaron James via Flickr

3. Bramble – Rubus fructicosus
Flowers May-October.
Very abundant on waste ground as well as on heaths and in hedgerows and woodland. Thorny shrub with white or pale pink flowers.

 

 

Image by Judy Gallagher via Flickr

4. Scarlet Pimpernel – Anagallis arvensis
Flowers April-October.
Commonly found in gardens as well as arable fields, dunes, cliffs and heathland. Low growing and sprawling. Flowers are red with a purplish base.

 

 

 

 

Image by cazstar via Flickr

5. Rosebay Willowherb – Chamerion angustifolium
Flowers June-September.
Abundant on disturbed ground, verges and railways. Produces tall spires of purplish flowers. Often found in dense stands.

 

 

Image by Franco Folini via Flickr

 

6. Ivy-Leaved Toadflax – Cymbalaria mularis
Flowers May-September.
Often found on old walls and in pavement cracks. A straggly plant with ivy-like leaves and small lilac flowers with a yellow spot.

 

Image by Dean Morley via Flickr

7. Buddleia (Butterfly Bush) – Buddleja davidii
Flowers June-October.
Likes dry, disturbed places such as waste ground, railways, walls and roofs. Long sprays of purple, white or lilac flowers; a favourite of butterflies.

 

Image by Melanie Shaw via Flickr

8. Feverfew – Tanacetum parthenium
Flowers July-September.
Found in walls, pavement cracks and on waste ground. Flowers similar to a daisy but with shorter, broader petals. Aromatic leaves.

 

 

Image by Andreas Rockstein via Flickr

9. White Clover – Trifolium repens
Flowers May-September.
Found in most types of grassland as well as on waste/disturbed ground. Globular clusters of flowers on long stalks; usually off-white or pale pink. The leaflets usually have a pale chevron shape near the base.

 

 

Country/Woodland

This list features nine species commonly found in the countryside and wooded areas. Hunt along the hedgerows and meadows as well as on river banks and in woodland clearings.

look out for:

Image by saydelah via Flickr

1. Cow Parsley – Anthriscus Sylvestris
Flowers late April-June.
Extremely common during May on roadside verges and in woodland rides and clearings. White flowers radiate out from the stem on spokes. Fern-like leaves.

Image from Lawn Health via Flickr

2. Germander speedwell – Veronica chamaedrys
Flowers March-July.
Common in grass and roadside verges. Bright blue flower with a white eye on a sprawling stem. Leaves oval and toothed.

 

Image by Amanda Slater via Flickr

3. Meadowsweet –Filipendula ulmaria
Flowers June-Sept.
Likes damp ground such as roadside ditches and wet woodland. Long stems with clusters of cream, fuzzy flowers which smell of honey or almonds.

 

Image by Melissa McMasters via Flickr

4. Herb Robert – Geranium robertianum
Flowers April-October.
Likes banks, woods, gardens and walls. Purple flowers with lighter stripes on petals. Whole plant may sometimes turn red.

 

Image by Siaron James via Flickr

5. Bugle – Ajuga reptans
Flowers April-June.
Common in damp deciduous woodland and other shady places as well as unmanaged grassland. Forms long stems with rosettes of green-purplish leaves and blue flowers marked with white.

 

 

 

Image by muffinn via Flickr

6. Red Campion – Silene dioica
Flowers April-October.
Likes hedgerows and woodland clearings. Five-petalled pink/red flowers on long stems with opposite leaves.

 

Image by johndal via Flickr

7. Greater Stitchwort – Stellaria holostea
Flowers late March-June.
Common in hedges and verges as well as in woodland. White flowers with five petals, split halfway to the base. Sprawling with narrow leaves.

Image by johndal via Flickr

 

8. Yellow pimpernel – Lysimachia nemorum
Flowers May-September.
Fairly common in moist, shady woodland (deciduous). Low growing/sprawling with yellow star-shaped flowers.

Image by Katja Schulz via Flickr

 

9. Lesser Celandine – Ficaria verna
Flowers February-May.
Likes slightly damp soil in woods, fields and churchyards. Yellow flowers on long stalks and glossy heart-shaped leaves.

 

Further reading:

The Wild Flower Key: How to Identify Wild Flowers, Trees and Shrubs in Britain and Ireland
#143162

 

 

 

 

Collins Wild Flower Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland
#225655

 

 

 

 

Harrap’s Wild Flowers: A Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland
#245027

 

 

 

 

Guide to Flowers of Walks and Waysides
#236523

 

 

 

 

 

Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families
#229143

 

 

 

Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland
#198409

Please note that this book is currently out of print – however, second-hand books may be available online.

The NHBS Guide to UK Reptile Identification

Slow worm image by Smudge 9000 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The UK is home to six native species of reptile – three snakes (adder, grass snake and smooth snake) and three lizards (common lizard, sand lizard and slow worm). In early spring, snakes and lizards begin to emerge from hibernation – if you are lucky you may catch a glimpse of one in your garden or when out walking in the countryside. (Interesting note: adders have now been recorded as being active during every month of the year in the UK, a behavioural change which is thought to be linked to overall warmer weather).  

This article aims to provide you with some of the key characteristics of each species which will help you to identify what you’re looking at. You will also find a list of field and identification guides at the bottom of the page which will give you lots more information about each species and help you with your ID.

Snakes

Snakes are part of the suborder Serpentes and, though they vary greatly in size and colour, their limbless, elongated bodies make their overall form very distinct (although some legless lizards, such as the slow worm, may often be mistaken for a snake). The skin of a snake is covered in scales and is a smooth, dry texture – this skin is shed periodically throughout the snake’s life. All snakes are carnivorous and many species have specialised skulls with extra joints enabling them to swallow prey much larger than their heads. Most species are non-venomous and either swallow their prey alive or kill it by constriction. 

All three snake species in the UK reproduce by producing eggs. However, both the adder and smooth snake incubate eggs internally whereas the grass snake lays them in rotting vegetation such as compost heaps. 

Adder (Vipera berus)

Adder image by Jo Garbutt via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

• Size: 60-80cm in length.
• Colour: Greyish with a dark and very distinctive zig-zag pattern down its back. Red eye.
• Habitat: Prefers woodland, heathland and moorland but may also be found in grassland or on the coast.
• Interesting fact: The adder is the only venomous snake in the UK. However, bites are very rare as adders are reclusive and would prefer to retreat than confront a human. 

Grass snake (Natrix helvetica)

Grass snake image by Bernard Dupont via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

• Size: 90-150cm in length.
• Colour: Usually greenish in colour, with a yellow and black collar, pale belly and dark markings down the sides.
• Habitat: Favours wetland habitats but can also be found in grassland and gardens, especially those with a pond.
• Interesting fact: The grass snake is the longest snake found in the UK.

Smooth snake (Coronella austriaca)

Smooth snake image by Odd Wellies via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

• Size: 50-70cm in length.
• Colour: Usually dark grey or brown in colour. Similar to an adder but with a more slender body and without the zig-zag pattern along its back.
• Habitat: Very rare. Mainly found on a few sandy heaths in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey, although a couple of reintroduced populations exist in West Sussex and Devon.
• Interesting fact: The smooth snake is a constrictor, coiling around its prey to subdue it and crush it to death.

Lizards

Most lizards have four legs and run with a side-to-side motion. However, some, such as the slow worm, are legless. Lizards are mainly carnivorous and often employ a ‘sit-and-wait’ approach to catching prey. In the UK, lizards feed primarily on insects, molluscs and spiders.

Although all three species of UK lizard lay eggs, both the common lizard and slow worm incubate these internally, ‘giving birth’ in the late summer. Sand lizards lay shelled eggs that are buried in the sand where they are kept warm by the sun. 

Common lizard (Zootoca vivipara)

Common lizard image by Gail Hampshire via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

• Size: 10-15cm in length.
• Colour: Variable, but most commonly a brownish-grey, with rows of darker spots or stripes down the back and sides. Males have bright yellow or orange undersides with spots, while females have paler, plain bellies.
• Habitat: Heathland, moorland and grassland.
• Interesting fact: If threatened by a predator, the common lizard will shed its tail which continues to move – the lizard uses this distraction to make its escape. Although able to regrow its tail, the new one is usually shorter than the original.

Sand lizard (Lacerta agilis)

Sand lizard image by xulescu-g via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

• Size: Up to 20cm.
• Colour: Female sand lizards are a sandy-brown colour, with rows of dark blotches along the back. Males have green flanks that are at their brightest during the breeding season, making them easy to spot.
• Habitat: The sand lizard is very rare and can only be found on a few sandy heaths in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey with a few reintroduced populations in the south east, south west and Wales.
• Interesting fact: Sand lizards dig burrows for overnight refuge and hibernation. 

Slow worm (Anguis fragilis)

Slow worm image by Oliver Haines

• Size: 40-50cm.
• Colour: Smooth, golden-grey skin. The males are paler in colour and occasionally have blue spots. The females tend to be larger with dark sides and some have a dark line down their back.
• Habitat: Slow worms live in most of Great Britain apart from Northern Ireland and are also present on most of the islands in Scotland and the Channel Isles.
• Interesting fact: Although similar in appearance to a snake, the slow worm has eyelids (which snakes do not) and can drop its tail when threatened by a predator.

In addition to the six native reptiles, several species of non-native reptile can be found in the UK – these include the wall lizard, green lizard, aesculapian snake, European pond terrapin and the red-eared slider.

Recommended reading:

Amphibians and Reptiles
#206083
A comprehensive guide to the native and non-native species of amphibian and reptile found in the British Isles. Professor Trevor Beebee covers the biology, ecology, conservation and identification of the British herpetofauna, and provides keys for the identification of adult and immature specimens as well as eggs, larvae and metamorphs.

Britain’s Reptiles and Amphibians
#174837
This detailed guide to the reptiles and amphibians of Britain, Ireland and the Channel Islands has been produced with the aim of inspiring an increased level of interest in these exciting and fascinating animals. It is designed to help anyone who finds a lizard, snake, turtle, tortoise, terrapin, frog, toad or newt to identify it with confidence.

 

Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Ireland
#113260
This laminated pamphlet is produced by the Field Studies Council and covers the 13 species of non-marine reptile and amphibian which breed in Britain, as well as the five species which breed in Ireland. These include snakes, lizards, frogs, toads and newts.

 

Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Britain and Europe
#246563
This excellent field guide covers a total of 219 species, with a focus on identification and geographical variation. The species text also covers distribution, habitat and behaviour. Superb colour illustrations by talented artist Ilian Velikov depict every species.

 

 

The Amphibians and Reptiles of Scotland
#235838
This book is designed to be an interesting and informative guide to the amphibians and reptiles that are found in the wild in Scotland. The authors have focused on those species native to Scotland, plus those which are non-native but are breeding in the wild.