Norfolk Broads Wildlife Explorer’s Guide

Norfolk Broads Wildlife Guide

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The Norfolk Broads covers an area of around 117 square miles and is located in the east of England across Norfolk and Suffolk. The area is well known for its rivers and waterways and is a popular destination for boaters. Wooden boats called wherries can be found here in large numbers, and while they were once used to transport goods, they’re now dotted around on display as part of the area’s history. The water is frequently covered in pretty water lilies which are another of the main attractions of this region.

Historically, the Broads was believed to be a natural occurrence until the 1960s when it was discovered that the lakes here were actually man made formations. It’s thought that this happened in the medieval period when peat was excavated by local monks and then flooded by the rising sea levels. The peat was then sold as fuel.

Over the years, the natural beauty of the area has been much appreciated and, as such, has long been protected through conservation projects dating back to the 19th century. Today, as many as 28 areas have been marked as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and there are many other protective measures in place.

Because of the diverse habitat in the Broads, such as wetlands, lakes, and waterways, the area is home to a unique and rich biodiversity. This includes a vast array of bird species like kingfishers, marsh harriers, and avocets as well as many fish species like pike and perch that are popular with hobby anglers. Dragonflies and other aquatic insects are abundant here, as well as many butterfly species. You’ll also find plenty of opportunities to spot aquatic mammals like water vole and otters.

Going back to boating, which the Broads is famed for, it’s not just us commoners that frequent the area. In fact, the British Royal Family often spend their Christmas here at nearby Sandringham House and going back even further, the area was a popular haunt for Queen Victoria. You can take a boat safari to check out the local wildlife or see some of the windmills, another reason that this area is so well known.

Types of Wildlife to See

One of the best types of wildlife to see in the Norfolk Broads are birds. There are more than 300 species known to live here, including an array of water birds like avocets and brightly colored kingfishers. But it’s perhaps the bittern that’s one of the most well-loved and also difficult to spot. These rare herons might be elusive, but the Norfolk Broads offers one of the best chances to see them.

They’re thickset birds that are much shorter than other heron species and can often be heard making a loud booming call during breeding season. Another elusive bird that’s sometimes seen here is the spoonbill, with its uniquely shaped bill and unusual fishing habits.

Other birds of interest include the marsh harrier, which can be spotted soaring in the skies looking for small birds and mammals as well as various species of waterfowl like shoveler geese, gadwall geese and many duck species. Migratory birds like grebes and ospreys can also be spotted at certain times of year, and the area is very famous for its swan population, including whooper swans and Bewick’s swans that can be seen in winter. 

In summer, bird lovers can be treated to the call of the nightjar which are commonly found around heathlands, but let’s not forget about the other wildlife we can see here, including rare butterflies such as the Swallowtail. Check out the many wildflower meadows to see these and many other insect species like the Norfolk hawker and the cockchafer.

Otters aren’t always easy to spot in the UK, but the Broads have the perfect habitat, and many are spotted here particularly around Ranworth and Barton Broads. Along the water, you may also spot water voles as well as dragon and damselflies.

Moving away from the water, the Norfolk Broads also has a lot of woodland habitat where various species of deer can be seen, including the Chinese water deer, the muntjac, and the roe deer.

Best Time to Visit


Between April and June many migratory birds are returning to their breeding grounds in the broads which provides an excellent wildlife photography opportunity.

At the same time, wildflower species like yellow iris and bluebells; in fact, there are more than 1000 plant species here, making spring a great time to spot these and the pollinators they attract.


July and August offer the chance to spot the kingfisher which can be seen making a rapid descent into the water from its perch when catching prey.

Many waterfowl chicks are now swimming around the Broads, and this is the best time to spot the rare Norfolk hawker.


At the beginning of autumn, you will be able to see many aquatic bird species making their preparations for migration. It’s also at this time that young mammals like otters and Chinese water deer can be easily spotted.

As the foliage starts to change color, autumn is a wonderful time to enjoy the landscape and, as we move into the later part of fall, we start to see more activity from the overwintering bird species like geese and teal. This is also an excellent time to spot the rare bittern.


Things become much quieter in winter in terms of tourism, so this is a good time to visit the Broads if you want to avoid the crowds. Where wildlife is concerned, there’s a lot of activity on the water from swan species and at night, there’s a good chance of spotting various owl species, like the barn owl which is commonly spotted at Strumpshaw Fen and Hickling Broad.

Other Times to Visit

If you’re heading to the Broads for the boating activity, be sure to come in spring and summer when the boating season is in full swing. At other times of the year, there may be restrictions on where you can boat, so it’s important to check this before you travel.

Also consider the tide patterns in the area, which could affect your chances of spotting certain wildlife.

What to Explore?

  • Strumpshaw Fen: An RSPB nature reserve, Strumpshaw Fen can be found on the River Yare. There are several habitats here, including wetlands, reedbeds, and woods, where you’ll find various birds, including warblers, barn owls, and the elusive bittern. It’s also an excellent spot for kingfishers.
  • Ranworth Broad: The Broads Wildlife Center is a great place to get a view of the local area and is a floating building accessed by a boardwalk. This is a fantastic place to spot rare butterflies and is well known for its otter populations.
  • Hickling Broad: Hickling is the largest broad filled with reedbeds that are home to countless bird and wildlife species. Here, you’ll find plenty of walking trails and beautiful scenery.
  • Hoveton Great Broad: The water lilies are one of the top sights in the Broads, and they’re abundant at Hoveton. There’s a chance to take a boat trip and see wildlife like the marsh harrier, swallowtail, and otter.
  • Barton Broad: If you’re into sailing, the open waters at Barton will be a real treat. Boat tours operate most days, allowing you to get a glimpse of wildlife such as herons, siskins, and buzzards.
  • Belaugh Broad: One of the smaller broads, but teeming with wildlife like birds and dragonflies.
  • Visit local towns & cities: The main city in Norfolk, Norwich has some great sights, including its cathedral that’s home to a peregrine falcon cam. There are open top bus tours and don’t forget to check out the castle and market. Twin villages Wroxham and Hoveton are considered gateways to the Broads and offer great opportunities to hire boats.
  • The marshes: Marshlands are common in and around the broads and are well worth checking out. For walking opportunities try the Bure marshes, where there is a healthy water vole population. Slightly outside of the Broads on the North coast of Norfolk lies the Cley marshes which are home to many birds, including the pintail, the Egyptian goose, and the grebe. Berney marshes are owned by the RSPB, so ideal for bird watchers especially if you’re keen to see wading birds like pink-footed geese and shovelers.
  • Burgh Castle: An ancient Roman fort built in the 3rd century, Burgh Castle is not only a historical site but one known for its birdwatching opportunities.
  • The windmills: The Broads is famous for its windmills, and Horsey Windpump is one of the most well-known. Located in Great Yarmouth, it’s ideal for walking and dogs are allowed but also provides great wildlife spotting opportunities. Hardley Windmill is a beautifully restored structure on the River Yare, which often hosts events.
  • Wildlife tours & safaris: The great thing about the Broads is the sheer number of tours and excursions, which include boat safaris, photography opportunities, and various conservation centers where you can learn more about the area and how it’s being looked after. At night, you might take a wildlife walk and experience the calls of iconic birds like the barn owl or the nightjar.

How to Get There?

Public Transport

  • Norwich has a major train station which connects the Norfolk Broads to cities like London, Leeds, and Birmingham.
  • Once you arrive, there are various bus services operating around the area that will take you to local towns and villages.
  • If you want to access some of the water-based nature reserves, there are ferries available, such as the Chain Ferry that crosses the River Yare.


  • Driving to the Norfolk Broads is easy from anywhere in the UK, thanks to the great road network. You’ll either need to use the A1151, A47, or A1062, depending on where you’re coming from.
  • If you’re staying in Norwich, the Broads are a short 20 minute drive, and areas of interest will be signposted.

Walking & Cycling

  • For an eco-friendly holiday, consider hiring a bike to explore the Broads.
  • As many as 78 walking and cycling trails can be found in the Norfolk Broads, making this a great way to explore and see wildlife.

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