FSC | Field Studies Council

Field Studies Council: Bringing Environmental Understanding to All

Star Species

Slapton Ley Nation Nature Reserve is home to huge diversity of wildlife owing to its variety of habitat types, from open water to scrub, grassland and woodland. This, coupled with intensive study by naturalists for over half a century means the number of species recorded here is very large indeed. Many of these species are too small, rare, or located in inaccessible locations, so the chance of seeing them is low. There are, however, many amazing species that you are likely to encounter on a visit to the Slapton Ley. Some you can observe from the nature trail, while others you stand a greater chance of seeing by coming along to one of our many events. You can learn about birdsong on our Dawn Chorus walk, get a hands-on experience of bird ringing on our Bird in the Hand event and see a range of bats feeding in different habitats on our Bat Watch. 

To join us on an event click here




Cetti's Warbler - Cettia cetti

This bird has been spreading North West across Europe from the Mediterranean since the 1940s, arriving in the UK in the 1960s with first proven breeding in Devon in 1975. As a non-migrant insect eating bird it can suffer severe population declines in hard winters, but because of the relatively mild climate of South Devon, the Slapton Ley population usually remains stable at between 35 and 45 breeding pairs. These high numbers mean that population at Slapton Ley is classified as ‘nationally important’, making it one of the best places in the country to see this bird.

One of the best places to see this bird is at Slapton Bridge and along the Nature Trail; however, while it’s fairly common here, it is a notoriously shy bird and is almost always heard before it is seen – listen out for its distinctive loud and explosive burst of warbles 


Cirl bunting - Emberiza cirlus

The cirl bunting can be found throughout much of Europe, breeding in England as far north as Cumbria by the mid-1930s. Changes in agriculture, specifically the post-war intensification of agriculture, brought about a rapid decline to the extent that just 118 pairs were present in 1989 with 96% found in South Devon.

Conservation work carried out by the RSPB and other conservation organisations has helped this species increase in number and range. Their work has involved working with landowners to encourage them to manage their land less intensively as well as a successful reintroduction project in 2006, with the help of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust. At Slapton Ley, we manage a mixture of arable and pasture for cirl buntings; they require protein-rich insects, particularly grasshoppers, during the summer to rear their young but switch to cereals and seeds in the winter, when insects are scarce. They also need tall, bushy hedges to nest in – we have these three important components in close proximity, making our land at Loworthy the perfect habitat.

While there is no public access to Loworthy, you can see Cirl buntings in farms and hedges around Slapton, Torcross and Strete. Listen out for their rattling song, which they usually give from a prominent place, like a tall tree of the top of a hedge. 


Great Crested Grebe - Podiceps cristatus

The great crested grebe is an attractive waterbird with an elaborate courtship display, which it has become famous for. This species first nested on the ley in 1973 and its breeding population has fluctuated from year to year depending on the availability of the fish upon which it feeds. They nest in dense stands of reeds and when the chicks have fledged, it is possible to see the unmistakable black and white stripy youngsters, which occasionally hitch a lift on the backs of their parents. 

Starlings - Sternus vulgaris

A fairly common bird that’s regularly seen in gardens and farmland. While not particularly striking from a distance, up close it is beautifully mottled with an iridescent sheen. It’s a star species not because of its rarity or individual appearance, but because of the large flocks or ‘murmurations’ that gather in the evening to roost in the reedbed, which they do in late autumn and winter. They roost together at night time for protection and warmth and disperse during the day to feed. This pre-roost flocking is a way to remain conspicuous to incoming starlings while making it difficult for predators to pick them off. At Slapton Ley, flock size can occasionally reach up to 100,000 birds. It’s difficult to know exactly where they will flock or roost on any given night but Slapton Bridge is a good spot to look out for them, as it gives good views north and south. The best time to look for them is October to December – wait for a still evening and head to Slapton Bridge about an hour before sunset.




Hazel Dormice - Mascardinus avellanarius

Dormice are small and secretive mammals that hibernate in winter and nest in dense scruby vegetation such hedgerows. Confusingly, dormice are not mice, but belong to their own family ‘gliridae’ (mice are in the family ‘muridae’); their name comes from the French word ‘dormeuse’ meaning ‘she who sleeps’.

Dormice have been declining in the UK for the last century, having previously been widespread. Their habitat is predominantly traditionally-managed, broadleaf woodland and hedgerows but they can also be found in conifer plantations and, as in Slapton Ley, coastal scrub. The ‘traditional’ management of woodland refers primarily to coppicing: the rotational cutting down and regrowth of small areas within a woodland as a sustainable source of timber for a variety of uses. In particular, dormice like the stage of regrowth where the vegetation is still relatively low and dense as this provides good protection and food sources. They rely on a wide variety of food including hazelnuts, berries, flowers and insects; honeysuckle is also important as this is their favoured nesting material.

We have recorded dormice at Slapton Ley in two of their habitat types: traditionally managed woodland and coastal scrub. Many areas of the reserve are yet to be surveyed so there may well be populations that we’re not aware of. Unfortunately, this is a species you’re unlikely to see as they’re only active at night and are very good at hiding their nests.


Otters - Lutra lutra

Otters are a wonderful species that, if you’re lucky, you might see at Slapton Ley, although they can be frustratingly elusive. They experienced huge declines from the 1950s to the 1980s as a result of organochlorine pesticides but the banning of these chemicals and subsequent conservation efforts focused on improving water quality has resulted in a slow but steady recovery of otter populations. Devon remains one of their stongholds and Slapton Ley one of the best places to see them. 



Slapton Ley is a great place to see bats: there have been 14 species recorded on the reserve (there are 18 found in the UK), it has one of the highest population densities of soprano pipistrelles and it has the second largest maternity roost (where the female bats rear their pups) of lesser horseshoe bats in Devon. What’s more, if you want to get really close to bats you can come on one of our Bat Watches, where you’ll be able to visit the lesser horseshoe bat maternity roost and use devices that allow us to hear their echolocation calls. 




Strapwort - Corrigiola litoralis

Strapwort is a very rare plant that only occurs on the shore of Slapton Ley. The UK is at the northern extent of its range with the current UK population is restricted to this single site.

Since 1962 it has been found at a decreasing number of sites, from being found in most areas along the shoreline to only one in 2006 with a declining number of plants present until that date. The primary reason for the decline is the loss of suitable open shoreline habitat due to the successional changes in vegetation.

Due to its declining numbers, English Nature initiated a species recovery programme for strapwort in 1996. Germination and translocation of Slapton 'native' stock was recommended and a programme of re-introduction is halting the decline.


Shingle Vegetation

Slapton Ley is known by botanists for its diverse assemblage of coastal shingle vegetation. Good examples of this habitat are fairly uncommon, which makes Slapton Ley an important site. Indeed, the shingle vegetation is part of the reason the nature reserve was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The plants that grow here are what ecologists call ‘pioneer’ species and can survive in the very dry, salty, constantly-shifting shingle. Examples of the plants found on the shingle ridge are the yellow-horned poppy: an attractive yellow poppy, with very long seed pods; sea kale, with its glaucus, purple-hued and edible leaves; viper’s bugloss: tall spikes of bluey-purple flowers, popular with bees.