Berry Head National Nature Reserve is Torbay's most important wildlife site, with many rare plants dependent upon the thin soils, mild climate and exposed conditions of the headland. The high cliffs are home to large numbers of nesting seabirds and it is a good place to spot sea mammals. The walk also visits the two 'Napoleonic war' forts that dominate the headland, and Britain’s highest and smallest lighthouse.
If you are doing this walk in the summer you are likely to see a wide range of flowers, including orchids (8 species are found on the reserve). Feeding on these can be found 25 species of butterfly, with for many this being their first landfall after migrating across from France.
- At the far end of the car park take the path leading off to the right towards the cliffs to a viewpoint.
Behind the fence in front of you, you may be able to see the goats that have been brought in to graze the steep grassland above the cliffs. The thin soils overlying limestone, and exposed conditions make Berry Head a harsh place for plants to grow, and this has meant that it is home to many rare specialised plants that have adapted to cope with these conditions. The goats are helping to conserve these plants by keeping invasive species such as blackthorn in check which would otherwise shade them out.
- From the viewpoint turn right to take the path leading up the ramparts and into the Southern Fort.
This fort along with the one further along the headland was built between 1795 and 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. The North Fort contained a formidable battery of guns designed to protect the British Channel Fleet who used the sheltered waters of Torbay as an anchoring and re-supply point.
This southern fort protected these batteries from any landward attack. In comparison to the substantial walls and ditches of the forts, the soldiers lived in rudimentary timber barracks. Nothing remains of these save their foundations, but several more substantial buildings survive in part intact, including Guardhouse, Kitchen, the Artillery Store and Magazines.
- Once you have explored the Southern Fort, retrace your steps back to the car park, and when you reach the main tarmac track, turn right and follow it out towards the headland.
In the field on your left, you may see ‘Red Devon’ cattle, bought in by the Torbay Coast & Countryside Trust to provide a home and food for dung beetles, who in turn are a favourite food for Greater Horseshoe Bats. These bats are amongst the most threatened mammals in the UK with in total only about 5500 left, and there is a small, but hopefully expanding, colony living in caves at Berry Head.
You will soon go through the narrow passageway between the North Fort walls, and you can imagine how difficult it would be for an enemy to get through here unscathed, with the defenders being able to attack them from above. On the ramparts on the left-hand side are replica cannons.
Just inside the fort is a café, and a Visitor Centre, where you can discover more about the wildlife and history of the headland and their staff can advise on any recent wildlife sightings and upcoming events. They also have a CCTV system linked up to allow you to view close-ups of the nesting sea birds on the cliffs.
Behind the cafe is a viewpoint, with a coin-operated telescope. This is one of the best spots for looking at what is the largest guillemot colony on the south coast of England, nesting (March to the end of July) on the cliffs below the Southern Fort. These black and white birds (known locally as the ‘Brixham penguin’) spend most of their lives out at sea and only come ashore during the nesting season. Their small wings mean that flying appears hard work, but to compensate they are excellent swimmers and will swim down to depths of 50m/160ft to catch fish. They lay a single egg which is very tapered to stop it rolling off the narrow cliff ledges. Once the chicks are about 20 days old, the chicks will jump (as they are at this stage unable to fly) from their ledge into the sea, and the male bird will then guide them out to sea.
- Moving onwards, continue out along the track to the lighthouse.
The cliffs around this last part of the headland are unfenced, and so you are advised to keep children and dogs under close control. On the way, you will pass the fort’s artillery store which has been converted into an information centre, with displays on the geology, wildlife and history of Berry Head. Just past here is the lookout station for Brixham coastguard and the Berry Head lighthouse. It came to be known as the smallest, highest and deepest light in the British Isles - the tower is only 5m/15ft high, requiring no further elevation than that given by the 58m/180ft high headland itself, and the optic was originally turned by the action of a weight falling down a 45m/150ft deep shaft, now made redundant by a small motor. Its white light flashes twice every 15 seconds and can be seen for 19 nautical miles. According to the nearby toposcope from here, you can see over 2000 sq km/800 sq miles of sea, and on a clear day the Isle of Portland, 42 miles away on the other side of Lyme Bay, and most of the coast in between.
Situated high on these cliffs provides a good vantage point to spot passing sea mammals, with harbour porpoises being frequently sighted. In spring and autumn, many migrating birds will be passing Berry Head, and around 200 different species have been recorded either on the headland or seen from it.
- From the lighthouse retrace your steps back out of the fort to where the track splits, and instead of taking the track back to the car park, turn right.
- After about 100 metres at a waymark post take the path leading off on your left into an area of scrub.
This path enters a quieter part of the reserve, and you are likely to see, or at least hear, some of the smaller birds who use the bushes to feed or nest in. Soon you will pass under a radio beacon used for air traffic control. This beacon can communicate with passing aircraft allowing them to pinpoint their location and altitude. With the widespread adoption of GPS systems, based on satellite navigation it is likely that this system and the beacons will become redundant within a few years.
- From here follow the access track back down to the car park.