Wildlife & Nature

Alston Moor's remote and diverse environments are a haven for some of Britain's rarest plants and animals. The stunning landscapes of Alston Moor are made up of heather-clad moorlands, peat bogs, limestone grasslands, woodlands and river valleys–forming a diverse mosaic of habitats for species to flourish within. The extensive open moorlands are home to upland birds such as black grouse, golden plovers, merlins and short-eared owls, while rare alpine plants cling on in niche habitats. Peat bogs are an internationally important ecosystem and 'carbon store', with over a quarter of all England's upland peat bogs contained solely with in the North Pennines AONB. Traditionally-managed hay meadows are a riot of colour in June and July, attracting numerous insects and birds.

black grouseBirds

A larger and rarer cousin of the red grouse, the male black grouse, or blackcock, has glossy black plumage and bright red wattles above the eyes. Female black grouse, or greyhens, have more demure, mottled brown plumage which provides excellent camouflage in their moorland edge habitat. In the spring, males gather at traditional display or "lek" sites. Fanning out and raising their long, lyre-shaped tails to expose bright white feathers beneath, they make curious bubbling and rasping sounds as they rush and strut at one another in ritualised display.

The curlew, Europe's largest wading bird, breeds in large numbers in these grasslands. With its characteristic down-curved beak and rich bubbling song, the curlew is one of the most distinctive birds of early summer in the North Pennines. Three other species of wader breed in important numbers in fellside grasslands. Lapwings select areas of short vegetation in which to nest as they require all round visibility in order to watch out for predators. Lapwings are hard to miss. With their bold white and deep iridescent green plumage, long crest and dramatic plunging display flight, their return to the North Pennines in spring is a welcome sight.

Whilst not strictly woodland birds, the buzzard and sparrowhawk do nest in trees in wooded areas. If you see a large bird of prey soaring above the pastures and moorland of the North Pennines it is most likely to be a buzzard. After many centuries of absence, this species is now making a welcome return. Similarly, after declining to very low levels during the 1960s owing to the impact of organochlorine pesticides, the sparrowhawk is now a comparatively common bird in the North Pennines and can be seen hunting around bird feeders in the town and villages of Alston Moor.

The dipper is perhaps the most characteristic bird of upland rivers and streams. Dippers have a striking plumage, a deep brown head and back and a bright white breast. Often all that is seen of them, however, is a whirr of wings as they fly fast and low over the water emitting their high-pitched squeaking call. Being dependent on a rich supply of river invertebrates especially the caddis fly larva, the presence of dippers is an indicator of good water quality. They can be found regularly along the banks of the River Nent especially north of Gossipgate.

Red SquirrelMammals

Red squirrels can be spotted within the coniferous plantations that form another vital element in the landscape character of the area. They are also frequent visitors to gardens around the towns and villages on Alston Moor.

Water voles survive in the very upper reaches of most of our main rivers. There is some perfectly good habitat further downstream in many of these areas and so the assumption is that their absence is due to predation by mink either now or in the past. Intensive gamekeeping and extensive grazing in these upper reaches probably contributes to water vole survival. There have been positive sightings around Galligill in the Nent Valley and also around Garrigill and Crossgill in the South Tyne Valley.

Roe deer can be seen in the coniferous plantations on Alston Moor and occasionally on the outskirts of the towns and villages. They are regularly spotted near to the South Tynedale Railway early in the morning and evenings moving between their feeding grounds and the woods where they shelter during the day.


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