Cambridgeshire - Paxton pits

Cambridgeshire - Paxton pits - The UK's Best Wildlife Locations
For around 5000 years this area has been farmed, but a century ago the aggregates industry found that it was rich in sand and gravel. Where the material was removed many of the holes were allowed to fill with water, creating the Paxton Pits which we know today - a haven for wildlife.

By car, from the south: from the Black Cat roundabout on the A1 (the junction with the A421 to Bedford), drive north for 5¼ miles and take the exit signposted to St Neots and Little Paxton. The Nature Reserve is signed (left) from the edge of Little Paxton village.

By car, from the north: from Buckden, drive south on the A1 for 2¾ miles and take the first exit, signposted St Neots and Little Paxton. The Nature Reserve is signed (left) from the edge of the village.

By car, from the east: from St Neots, follow the signs to Little Paxton. At the T-junction at the end of Mill Lane, turn right onto the Great North Road. The Nature Reserve is signed (right) after quarter of a mile.

By car, from the west: follow the B645 from Higham Ferrers to the junction with the A1, at St Neots. Follow the A1 north for 1½ miles and take the exit signposted to St Neots and Little Paxton. The Nature Reserve is signed (left) from the edge of Little Paxton village.


The best chance to see most of the mammals is around dawn or dusk.

Paxton is famous for its small otter population Sightings in 2002 and 2003 occasional sightings suggested that otters were back after a 30 year absence. To encourage them, volunteers have built an artificial holt on the east bank of Heronry North, viewable from Kingfisher Hide (look on the right hand bank and you should see the entrance pipes). In February 2007 breeding was confirmed with the welcome record of a female and two small cubs.

A small number of Brown hares can sometimes be seen around the northern pits.

There are several family groups of foxes, especially on the farmland around the northern lakes, with some being seen resting on the banks of 'Heronry North' on sunny winter days.

Stoats and weasels are only occasionally reported at Paxton Pits.

Badgers are present, but scarce, with infrequent signs of them and even fewer sightings.

At least two species of bat occur at Paxton, the noctule and the pipistrelle.

Muntjac deer are seen regularly, as are grey squirrels and rabbits.

Mink have been present around the reserve for two decades, but anecdotal observations suggest that they are less common than just five years ago. Two theories have been put forward: the increase in otters in the Ouse catchment (which may out-compete the mink for food), and Aleutian disease, a virus that can kill up to 98% of young mink and leave the adults in poor health.

Of the small mammals, surveys have confirmed the presence of harvest mice at the Pits, which is good news as they are declining nationally. Water shrews were also surveyed in 2000 and were found in two areas. Short-tailed field voles are found in all areas of coarse grass, and are found every year on the Sailing Lake islands by conservation work parties. Wood mice and brown rats are present around the lakes, the latter seen occasionally on the bird tables.


Little grebe
Winter: small numbers on the Heronry Lakes.
Summer: main breeding area is not in the nature reserve.

Winter: one often overwinters (November-February), usually roosting in Hayling Pit, but feeds in Rudd, Cloudy or Weedy Pit during the day, and sometimes as far north as Washout Pit.

Little egret
Year-round, but generally scarcer in the breeding season: sometimes feed in Washout Pit, and increasingly roost among the cormorants and grey herons on Heronry South.

Winter: Heronry Lakes tend to be the most frequently used Pits, but also worth checking out A1 North and Island Pit (which often holds the last birds into March)

Winter: Washout Pit is often favoured, but Heronry North also used regularly

Spring: up to 15 hobbies feed during migration over the Heronry Lakes, Weedy Pit and the Meadow during the second and third week of May, best in afternoon and evening.
Summer: can be very difficult to see, as hobbies don’t breed at Paxton Pits, but sometimes single birds can be seen over the Heronry Lakes and the arable fields to the east.

Water rail
Winter: almost any damp, shallow lake edge can hold a water rail - check in front of the Hayden Hide, in Hayling, Rudd and Washout Pits. You’re more likely to hear than see them - they squeal like pigs!
Spring/summer: breeds only sporadically, so no reliable places

Migrant waders
Spring: this tends to be the best season for passage waders. Unfortunately, the main pits that attract waders are currently outside the nature reserve, but Sailing Lake and Washout Pit can hold a few birds, such as common sandpiper. April to early June are the main months.
Autumn: Paxton holds fewer passage waders (probably because low water levels at Grafham Water make that more attractive), but larger waders - such as curlews, whimbrels and black-tailed godwits - can be identified as they fly south up the Ouse Valley. August and September are the main months.

Breeding waders, gulls and terns
Spring/summer: Lapwing, redshank, ringed plover and common tern usually breed on the Sailing Lake islands, which are specially managed for them by local RSPB volunteers. Check the meadow adjacent to the sailing clubhouse, but do not enter this area. The other breeding site (which also hold black-headed gulls and little ringed plovers) are currently outside the nature reserve.

Little gull/arctic tern/black tern
Spring: regular passage migrants in late April and early May, usually on the more open pits: A1 North and Island Pit, especially during/following heavy rain showers.

Barn owl
Year-round: by no means easy, but we receive occasional reports of barn owls feeding at dusk along the river, from the Moorings, the arable fields and Great Meadow to the south.

Year-round: lots of people say they’ve never seen a kingfisher, even from the Kingfisher Hide. That really is one of the best places to catch a glimpse of one flying past or even perched on a branch overhanging the lake edge. But listen as much as watch. Listen for a series of short, high-pitched whistles: that’s the signal that one is flying. But they’re actually present on almost all the lakes in the complex - you just have to be lucky!

Lesser spotted woodpecker
Year-round: sadly, this species has all but disappeared from Paxton Pits, as it has across much of the English countryside in recent years. We receive one or two reports each year, usually from the paths to the two hides and along the wooded part of the Haul Road.

Sand martin
Spring/summer: the main breeding colony is usually in a fresh sand face within the quarry, and so out of view from the nature reserve. However, in some years they have bred around the quarry processing plant and so birds can be seen feeding over the A1 Lakes and Washout Pit.

Spring: vocal from early April until about the third week of June. The Heron Trail holds the majority, so check out scrub to the east and north of the Heronry Lakes and the wooded part of the Haul Road, as well as close to the Visitors’ Centre.
Summer: after the middle of June, you’re too late. You might just be very lucky, early in the morning during July, when adults or fledged juveniles feed on footpaths before they are disturbed by visitors or dogs.

Spring/autumn: numbers on migration vary each year, and they favour open areas with exposed sand or soil. If there’s no growing crops, look in the fields east of the A1 Lakes, and the adjacent grassy footpath. April is the best month.

Grasshopper warbler
Spring/summer: listen for the long call (like a fishing reel) from late April to July. However, there is no reliable place as they move each year, and sometimes don’t show up at all. A walk along the Ouse Valley Way, from Cloudy Pit to Buckden is a good bet.

Redstart/wood warbler/pied flycatcher; also spotted flycatcher
Spring: Although rare at Paxton, one of the first three species is recorded in most years, and very often it’s in the trees and scrub just south of the Kingfisher Hide, known as Wray House Garden. The first fortnight of May is best. Spotted flycatchers no longer breed at the Pits, but family parties are often seen in this same area during mid to late summer.

Marsh tit
Year-round: there hasn’t been a willow tit here for many years, so a black-capped tit is almost certainly marsh tit. They are almost exclusively seen along Haul Road, near the Hayden Hide and sometimes on the Visitors’ Centre bird table. Best in winter.

Winter: often seen just briefly, bramblings sometimes stay for a few days in late winter. Look among chaffinches on the arable fields, especially where there is a cover crop of kale that has been left for wild birds: on the nature reserve and to the east of A1 North.

Winter: numbers vary each year, but alders are their favourite tree. The west side of Sailing Lake is a favoured area, but if you take a walk along the public footpath to Diddington, check out the adjacent trees and copse.

Winter: management work on the arable fields between Heronry South and the river has brought a flock of finches and buntings back after years of absence.

Twenty-seven species of butterfly have been recorded around Paxton Pits including the marbled white and purple hairstreak.

21 species of dragonfly have been recorded at Paxton Ptis.

530 species of moth have been recorded at Paxton Pits.

The Paxton Pits website is fantastic, with every recorded bird sighting listed, as well as the sightings for the past year and a breakdown of the highlights you can expect each month.

Take a look here:
Buy now

Cambridgeshire - Wandlebury Country Park

Also in: The UK's Best Wildlife Locations

Argyll - Ardnamurchan Peninsula
Argyll - The Isle of Mull
Bedfordshire - The Lodge: RSPB Headquarters in Sandy
Buckinghamshire - Burnham Beeches (Photo not for sale)
Cambridgeshire - Hampton reserve near Peterborough
Cambridgeshire - Wandlebury Country Park
Cambridgeshire - Wicken Fen
Cornwall - Roughtor
Cairngorms - Glen Clova
Cornwall - The Lost Gardens of Heligan
Devon - Eggesford
Devon - Offwell
Dumfriesshire - Caerlaverock
Durham - Low Barns
East Sussex - Rye Harbour


Photo comment By Frank: Very useful. Just needs a link to a map - which I found at

Leave a comment

Your Name
Your Location
Your Email
Your Comment
No info required here, please press the button below.