The wilds of Scotland are home to many awesome sights but did you know you can spot wildcats, playful pine martens and golden eagles while out exploring? We take a look at where to see Scotland's most unusual wildlife.
Things associated with Scotland: haunted castles, questionable delicacies (haggis), excellent whisky (try Tomintoul) and wild nightlife (Glasgow we’re looking at you). Exotic wildlife in the U.K.? Shouldn’t have thought so. It's common enough knowledge that hedgehogs, badgers and hares are found aplenty, but that's not all the northernmost reaches of Britain are packing.
From the still waters of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, north to the re-naturalised scotch pines of Cairngorms National Park and way up to the serrated firths of the Isle of Harris in the North Sea, Scotland is busy re-wilding its woodlands and lochs. Whilst we’re unlikely to see brown bears reintroduced any time soon (that picnic basket is safe for now), there is plenty hidden betwixt Scotland's glens, trossachs, leiths and mountains: the 'Highland Tiger' or Scottish Wildcat, majestic golden eagles, endearing pine martens and adorable beaver families worthy of internet fame are all making a comeback.
And you don’t have to travel far from international airports to find them. That’s the real beauty of Scotland’s wild places - accessibility. You can find Scotland's most exciting wildlife on the verges of major cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness which all provide international flight paths.
None of the featured animals hibernate nor do they migrate for winter. You can see them at any time of year; all you need is a little know how, some natural history and a bit of luck to behold four of Scotland’s stirring creatures - a crowning achievement to a Highland holiday fling.
The Highland Tiger - Scottish Wildcat
The ferocity of this predator has earned it the nickname of the Highland Tiger. Practically extinct, Scotland’s most imminent conservation challenge is the Scottish wildcat dilemma. At most there are 200 left in small, confined areas like Strathspey and Cairngorms National Park. Chances of spotting one in the wild are highest around quiet highland roads, often used as territory markers but only the luckiest will catch a glimpse of this rare and secretive feline. We recommend you rent a car so you are free to stop and explore the surrounding area. Aberdeen airport is a two-hour drive away from the Cairngorms and Edinburgh airport is an extra half hour. Trains run from both airports to Aviemore, a short bus ride from Boat of Garten village.
If you’re approaching from Edinburgh, better to stop by the Highland Wildlife Park in Cairngorms National Park first to get a good look at captive specimens that have been banked for breeding programmes. Notice uninterrupted stripes of the coat, a thickening not tapering tail and a sunken, grumpy profile that distinguish it from domestic breeds. After a day making the acquaintance of these ferocious tabbies, you'll find a comfortable bed at The Boat Hotel in Boat of Garten whose monsoon showers are a delight after a few drams from the restaurant's extensive whisky selection. While you're in the area, don't miss the opportunity to take a tour of The Cairngorm Brewery (free Monday to Friday).
The most adventurous will make it as far north as the Isles of Mull, Harris, Rum and Skye where only rain competes with the great golden eagle for rule of the skies. Arrive from Inverness airport and rent a car to reach the largest of Scotland's outlying islands. This magnificent raptor is the envy of neighbouring countries, having gone extinct in the early 1900s bar one failed revival in the Lake district. Arrive from February to May when the birds are most active caring for chicks. Pack waterproofs, trail mix and a pair of binoculars for the climb to the North Harris Eagle Observatory which offers stunning views of lochs, mountains and of course eagles. If you’re not one for heights, golden eagles take small territories and can be spotted from all over the estate.
Measure your wing span on a king sized sleigh bed at the Ceol Na Mara Guest House, a 30-minute drive south to the outskirts of Aird Asaig village. You'll be welcomed with a dram of whisky or sherry and make sure you step out onto the sun deck overlooking Loch Kindebig after the locally sourced and homemade breakfast. Make the time to drive another 25 minutes across to Luskentyre beaches, where the talcum powder sands and turquoise waters are worthy of a Thai postcard. No really, just don’t come expecting to catch any rays. Instead wrap up warm and scope out the pink red rocks jutting from the sands.
Recently featured on Ewan McGregor narrated documentary, ‘Scotland’s Wild Heart’, pine martens have been brought down from Scotland to various parts of the UK like Ireland and Wales. These cute mustelids have soft brown fur and a dirty-white bibbed chest. They are practically extinct in England and Wales, which would go some way to explaining a recent poll by Forest Holidays which revealed that 60% of the population have no idea what a pine marten is; 35% of people assume that a pine marten is a bird and 12% think it is a type of tree.
There is an abundance of pine martens in Scotland however. with populations well spread throughout the Highlands, the Central Belt and even the Borders (where Scotland descends to England). In short, you can see pine martens all over Scotland and whilst there is good enough reason to go looking for them in remote wilderness, the effort is certainly not required.Although largely nocturnal, they are active making winter preparations in the summer months. Look out for blue droppings, a sure sign that blueberry loving pine martens are nearby.
Take Loch Lomond and the Trossochs National Park for example; you can sidle onto a train at Glasgow's Queen Street station and in just 90 minutes you can be in Luss dipping wholegrain bread into steaming bowls of Scotch broth, overlooking the banks of Loch Lomond. Afterwards, take a guided-walk around the surrounding woods and try to spot the pine martens and other wildlife. Rent a car and you can be in Luss in under an hour. Don't feel like driving? Let Scotland's coach tour pros Caledonian Travel take the wheel while you sit back and watch city fade to countryside.
Stay at The Inn on Loch Lomond where you can takeaway from Mr C’s Fish and Whisky Bar and enjoy your fish supper down on the banks of the loch. Traditional music is played throughout the summer months, a fitting soundtrack to the antics of the busy pine marten.
A mere 85 miles from Glasgow airport, along the banks of Lochs Collie-Bhaar and Barnluasgan and Dubh Loch further south, felled timber is stripped and stored away for future use and mulch is collected into bundles and tucked away for repair jobs. the oddly satisfying grate of enamel on lumber and the soft plunk of water droplets enclosing a furred head are subtler giveaways. The beaver’s handiwork, not seen since the late 1700s, improves water quality by straining excess and silt, creates nurseries for salmon, harbours amphibian larvae in turn supplementing songbird’s diets and even adapts the landscape to better cope with flooding.
The best place to stay to see the beavers is Seafield Farm Cottages in Achnamara, an hours walk away from the Knapdale forest. The leather chairs around the stocked log burners are perfect for quizzing the beaver savvy owners. For lunch or dinner take a long walk down south to Tayvallich Inn where local sea fare is served. Try the pan seared scallops dressed in sweet chilli and ginger sauce.
As the largest land mammal in the UK, the red deer lives in small pockets throughout the country. However their population is most concentrated in the woodlands, moors and hills of Scotland. The male stag is the most easily recognisable, with antlers branching as long as 45cm. Both the does and stags have reddish brown coats in the summer, which turn grey in winter. The mating season, known as the rut, takes place from mid-September to October and this is when the stags compete for the females’ attention by locking their antlers in ferocious battles. Red deer have inhabited Scotland for 11,000 years and although they no longer have any natural predators, they were once hunted by wolves, bears and lynx. Make Forest Holiday's Silver Birch cottage to see these magnificent animals in action on a Hidden Glen Safari.
Whilst otters have almost disappeared from England, they have continued to flourish in Scotland’s clear waters. Although there are plenty of otters in Scotland, they are one of the rarest to actually spot. There have seen sightings in Lock Lubnaig in Strathyre and there are reports some are returning to Loch Long at Ardgatran Argyll which is a prime location to stay to increase your chances of spotting an otter which can take immense patience. A top tip would be to look out for and follow their tracks which are five-toed footprints, around 6cm long and droppings which have visible fish bones in them and a smell a bit like hay or jasmine tea.
The red squirrel has recently been voted Scotland’s favourite wild animal, but there are only an estimated 150,000 left in the UK, mostly living in rural Scotland and Wales. Pushed out by the aggressive American grey squirrel and falling victim to squirrel pox, the red species is now a very rare sight in the UK. Sightings in Scotland, however, are much more frequent, with at least 75% of the red squirrel population thought to reside in the highlands. Make Strathyre your base in a wood-clad cabin and expect the little beggars to practically knock at the cabin door. Red squirrels are only really their namesake colour in the summer months and in the winter their fur turns a deeper brown colour. Although they don't actually hibernate, they still stores nuts for winter and not many people know that they can even swim.
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