The Forest of Dean is one of the largest ancient woodlands in England, covering around 110 km2 of mixed woodland habitat. The area was originally designated by the Anglo Saxons for hunting deer and wild boar in the 11th Century. It then went on to become the King’s Royal Hunting Forest for hundreds of years. To protect the area, a forest law was introduced and officials called Verderers were charged with looking after the animals and woods they lived in. The spectacular scenery has inspired artists, poets, and writers for years. Most famously providing Tolkein with the inspiration for the Lord of the Rings, and being used to film the Harry Potter series. Alongside its cultural importance, the Forest of Dean provides a home to some of England’s rarest wildlife including wild boar, pine martens, and goshawks, as well as peregrine falcons, adders, fallow deer, woodpeckers, and geese.
Average rating: 4.0 (very good)
Average cost: the forest is free to access and the only costs for wildlife watching are car parking fees. These typically cost around $2 to $10 depending on the time spent.
Best time to visit: the forest is a fantastic place to visit year-round. It’s at its most spectacular in Autumn when the leaves turn the trees gold.
How to get there: the easiest way to get to, and around, the forest is by car. The main entry points are the towns of Coleford and Cinderford which are a short drive from Gloucester. There are some good tips for getting around the forest here.
Typical activities: bird watching, picnicking, walking, wildlife watching
Number of reports: 1
WILDLIFE IN Forest of Dean
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the most popular species that can be seen here are:
Adder – 0% OF WildSide Users (0/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Forest of Dean is a stronghold for the UK’s declining adder population – although they are difficult to spot. The best place to see them is New Fancy which is located at the end of the B-road running south from Speech House. The viewpoint at the top of New Fancy is famous for its sweeping views and goshawk sightings. However, the steep path leading up to the viewpoint is a perfect spot to look for adders and other reptiles. There is a designated area of adder habitat at the viewpoint managed by Forestry England. For the best chances head there on sunny mornings in Spring when they can be found basking in the sun. While adders are the UK’s only venomous snake, they only bite when threatened, stepped on, or picked up. Bites are painful but rarely fatal.
Goshawk – 100% OF WildSide Users (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
By the end of the 19th Century, goshawks were all but extinct in the UK due to the loss of woodland habitat and persecution from gamekeepers. Thanks to deliberate (and some accidental) reintroductions, the population has begun to slowly recover. Today, one of the best places to see them is the Forest of Dean. The most popular spot is New Fancy which provides great views across the forest. On warm, clear days in Winter and Spring, you can see them doing their signature sky dance across the tops of the trees – where pairs of goshawks fly together in steep swoops and plunges. Note, they can be quite distant so take some binoculars!
Another good place to spot goshawks is the RSPB Nagshead Reserve – look out for them flying low through the trees in search of prey. Symonds Yat Rock is also a good spot, while there are fewer goshawks than at New Fancy they tend to be closer allowing for better views.
Peregrine falcon – 0% OF WildSide Users (0/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Symonds Yat Rock is a spectacular viewpoint looking over the Wye Valley and is one of the best places in the UK to spot peregrine falcons. They have been nesting in the cliff face of the Rock for over 30 years. The best time to see them is nesting season which runs from April to August. During this time there are usually a handful of RSPB volunteers who can help you look for them through their telescope. It’s worth pointing out that the falcons can be quite far away and difficult to see without a scope or binoculars.
Pine marten – 0% OF WildSide Users (0/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Pine martens were heavily hunted throughout England in the 19th Century. They were shot for sport, persecuted by gamekeepers, and killed for their fur. Their woodland habitat was also destroyed to the point where 95% of woodlands in Britain were lost by 1900. As a result, pine martens became extinct in England although small populations clung on in the Scottish Highlands. In 2019, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, Forestry England, Forest Research, and Vincent Wildlife Trust began a project to reintroduce pine martens to the Forest of Dean and begin to restore the lost population. In 2020 the first babies were born – as you can see in this adorable video!
The reintroduction process is ongoing and the pine marten population in the Forest is small and elusive. Unlike in Scotland, the population is still establishing and minimising disturbance to them is a priority for the team. As such there are no hides, bait sites, or recommended viewing locations. It is therefore very unlikely you’ll see one in the Forest, but do keep your eyes peeled as sightings should become more common in future!
Wild Boar – 100% OF WildSide Users (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Wild boar were once common throughout England but were hunted to extinction around 300 years ago. In the 1990s a number of boar escaped from a farm in Ross-on-Wye and established a population in the Forest. This grew in 2004 when around 60 boar were deliberately released from a farm in the area. Nowadays, the Forest of Dean has the largest population in England, despite a large culling operation led by Forestry England. Their presence is controversial, with some people excited to have them back, and others worried about the damage they can cause. For us at WildSide, the Forest of Dean is a fantastic place to see these incredible animals living wild in the forest.
Despite their fearsome reputation, wild boar are actually pretty difficult to find in the Forest. Good places to look include the areas of woodland between the Sculpture Trail and the Go Ape site, behind Wenchford picnic site, near to New Fancy (turn right out of the car park and look out for a field on the left-hand side of the road), and the Nagshead Reserve. They are secretive animals, coming out at dusk and feeding throughout the night so head out early morning or late afternoon. As you walk through the forest look for their footprints, poo, scratch marks on trees, and areas of soil that have been recently dug up. It’s also worth getting off the main paths and into the trees away from cyclists and other walkers. It took us a week of walking in the Forest to find them – but it was absolutely worth the wait!
Fallow deer – 100% OF WildSide Users (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
There are three species of deer to look out for in the Forest of Dean – fallow, roe, and muntjac. Fallow deer were introduced during the Norman times and are the most commonly seen in the Forest. They are the largest of the three deer species and have a distinctive black and white v-shaped tail. They can be seen almost anywhere in the Forest although deciduous woodlands are the best spots. This is particularly so during Autumn and Winter when they forage in the woodlands for food. There is a nice guide to the deer of the Forest here.
Great spotted woodpecker – 100% OF WildSide Users (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Great spotted woodpeckers are beautiful black and white birds with a shock of red on their bellies. The males also have bright red necks. They can be seen on the trunks of large, old trees in the Forest looking for grubs. Despite their striking colours, woodpeckers can be difficult to spot among the leaves. One way to find them is to stand still and listen out for their distinctive call – a loud ‘click’ or ‘tchick’ sound. You can also listen out for the incredible drumming sound which they make as they peck holes in trees. A good spot to look for woodpeckers is the Nagshead Reserve. Or you could try the feeders at Cyril Hart Arboretum – on the B4226 just East of the Speech House hotel – which attract a range of woodland birds including nuthatch, great spotted woodpecker, and marsh tit.
Greylag Goose – 100% OF WildSide Users (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The greylag goose is the ancestor of most domestic geese and is the largest of the geese native to the UK. Flocks are typically found around gravel pits and lakes and they are often seen alongside Canada geese. Greylags are a greyish-brown colour with pink legs, and their large bills are orange with white tips. The best places to spot them in the Forest of Dean are Cannop Ponds and Mallard Pike Lake. As with most geese, they can also be seen flying in ‘V’s’ above the Forest.
Photo credit: WildSide team member Chris White