Over 1.1 million people take a trip to Scotland to see wildlife each year, with 58% of visitors citing scenery and landscape as their top reason for choosing Scotland as a holiday destination.
With a rich diversity of landscapes, 790 islands and 6,200 miles of coastline, Scotland is home to a wide range of wildlife. From whale and dolphin watching t0 viewing eagles and red kites there is plenty of variety, either as part of a trip of the main reason for a holiday. But where to go ? My ‘Top 10’ guide to places to see wildlife gives a snapshot; much more information is available from the Wild Scotland website.
10. Scottish Borders
The visitor centre (and restaurant) at Philiphaugh Estate, just outside Selkirk, is an excellent place for spotting salmon. The Salmon Viewing Centre shows views from an underwater camera that gives a “fish eye” view of the river, and features a fish counter showing the number of salmon passing through the fish ladder. You can also look for otters, red squirrels, roe deer, badgers, foxes, hares and a range of nature birds on the Estate.
9. Perthshire & Stirlingshire
Having visited Argaty Red Kites at Doune I can recommend it as a really good place to see Red Kites. They have a hide where a guide will explain the birds’ habits as well as feed them at 2pm each day. It’s a real treat to these large birds – their wingspan is about an a human adult’s height – circling overhead then swooping down to catch some morsels of food. A little further north, Pitlochry is home to the famous fish ladder where you can watch salmon leaping – October and November being the best times. You can find a good guide to other salmon leaps in Perthshire here. I can highly recommend a visit to Highland Safaris near Aberfeldy for a mountain or forest safari. This is a great day out for all ages: they have a good cafe and shop, a BMX track and red deer to see just beside the visitor centre.
8. Isle of May
The Isle of May ferry sails from Anstruther (check website for times) to the Isle’s National Nature Reserve. This is home to tens of thousands of seabirds during the summer, including puffins, razorbills, terns and shags, and is also a popular pupping spot for grey seals in the autumn.
To the south of Edinburgh, North Berwick is home to the Scottish Seabird Centre. Open all year, this award-winning visitor centre, cafe and shop explores the wildlife-rich islands of the Firth of Forth. Check out their live webcams. One of the main attractions is the Bass Rock which during the summer is home to over 80,000 pairs of North Atlantic gannets, almost 10% of the world population on one rock ! You can get a closer look at the islands by joining Seafari Adventures boat trips from the Seabird Centre.
7. Dumfries & Galloway
The Galloway Red Kite Trail is a self-guided driving route centred on Loch Ken. An essential stop is at the Red Kite Feeding Station at Bellymack Farm (2pm each day), where dozens of red kites can be seen feeding. Nearby you can also walk to the ‘Secret Cages’ to see where the red kites were reared in captivity before being released into the wild.
6. St. Kilda
The islands are a UNESCO Reserve, National Nature Reserve, Ancient Monument and a World Heritage Site due to their environmental importance and scenic beauty. I can recommend taking a trip out to St. Kilda from Leverburgh (Harris) with Kilda Cruises (I made this trip in 2009, a fantastic experience).
The St Kilda archipelago is Europe’s most important seabird colony, and one of the major seabird breeding stations in the North Atlantic. Boreray and its adjacent sea stacs have the world’s largest colony of gannets nests and St Kilda has the largest colony of fulmars in the British Isles (nearly 65,000). The St Kilda fieldmouse is unique to the islands, a larger variety (sub-species) of the mainland wood mouse, probably brought to St Kilda by Norsemen. The St Kilda wren is a larger sub-species of the mainland wren found throughout the St Kilda archipelago. There are believed to be only about 113-117 pairs on Hirta, the main island.
5. Wester Ross
Gairloch is a great centre for seeing whales and dolphins. Take a boat trip wildlife and whale-watching from the harbour or head out west through Melvaig to the remote Rua Reidh Lighthouse. Their new visitor centre is a great base for a walk along the coast. Enjoy the spectacular aerial acrobats of the fulmars along the coastal route and keep an eye out for otters on the coast, basking sharks and dolphins out at sea.
Loch Maree and Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, to the south of Gairloch, are good places to look for rare black throated divers. There are a number of trails in and around the mountains and ancient pinewoods of Beinn Eighe where you might just spot deer, golden eagles and the elusive Scottish crossbill.
4. Cairngorms National Park
The Abernethy Forest NNR, near Grantown on Spey, is the largest native Scots pinewood in Britain. I can recommend the visitor centre at Loch Garten for viewing osprey on their treetop nest (April to August). The rare capercaillie can also be seen here at an organised viewing hide, just after sunrise during April and May, together with the Scottish crossbill and crested tit. Go out for the day with a wildlife guide from Speyside Wildlife or Highland Wildlife & Birdwatch Safaris to see ptarmigan, dotterel and other mountain wildlife.
The Rothiemurchus Estate offer various guided tours to see wildlife including seeing ospreys coming in to fish at their fishery. At nearby Craigellachie National Nature Reserve peregrine falcons regularly nest here from April to July.
Insh Marshes National Nature Reserve, near Kingussie, is one of Europe’s most important wetlands where you’re likely to see lapwings, redshanks and curlews as well as oystercatchers, snipe and, in the winter, vast flocks of whooper swans and greylag geese.
The nearby Highland Wildlife Park is well worth a visit, particularly to see the Scottish Wildcats.
From Tobermory you can take a whale-watching trip to look for minke whales, basking sharks and dolphins. Another great boat trip is from Ulva on the west coast to the island reserves of Staffa and the Treshnish Islands, both of which are great places to see puffins and other auks. There’s also a sea-eagle hide at Loch Frisa run by the RSPB, Forestry Commission and Mull & Iona Community Trust (book in advance).
2. Moray Firth
The Moray Firth is home to the world’s most northerly population of bottlenose dolphins. To get up close you can join one of the Wild Scotland boat trips from Cromarty, Lossiemouth or Buckie. However, you don’t need to since they come in close to the shore. On a couple of occasions I’ve enjoyed watching the dolphins from Channonry Point (near Cromarty on the Black Isle); just pack a long lens and a picnic. Elsewhere on the Black Isle there are opportunities to see red kites, otters, pine marten and even Scottish wildcat.
1. Loch Ness
Of course, some of the wildlife are fairly commonly seen. For a real challenge – and the chance of getting into the history books – head for Loch Ness to look for the particularly elusive Loch Ness Monster …!