Scotland is renowned for its stunning landscape and the great variety of wildlife that this supports. To help showcase, protect and support Scotland’s many habitats and species, which range from pine forests to blanket bogs and from seabird colonies to mountains plants, we have 41 National Nature Reserves (NNR) located all over the country. Described by Scottish Natural Heritage as containing the ‘crown jewels’ of Scottish wildlife and scenery (with habitats and species that are nationally or internationally important), these range in size – the smallest is Corrieshalloch Gorge NNR at around 7 hectares and the largest, not far from us here at Knockderry, is The Great Trossachs Forest NNR at 16,541 hectares.
In addition to the National Nature Reserves, Scotland has a number of other nature reserves that are managed for their natural heritage interest and 74 designated local nature reserves (LNR) that provide wild areas for common and rare plants and animals to thrive. Together with numerous Forestry Commission sites, Scottish Wildlife Trust projects and country parks, we are able to preserve our iconic landscape and wildlife and to share the wonders of our natural heritage with you.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Scotland is nature’s paradise and you do not have to travel far to become immersed in all its glory.
But what animals are you likely to see?
Let’s take a look at Scotland’s Big 5 – the golden eagle, the red squirrel, otter, red deer and the harbour seal.
The Golden Eagle
(Gaelic name: iolair bhuidhe)
Scotland’s top predator, the golden eagle, is a large bird of prey that lives in the wild open moorland and mountains, favouring islands and hidden glens. Although it is not Britain’s largest bird of prey, with the rarer white-tailed or sea eagle taking that title, the golden eagle is truly magnificent. Growing up to 90 cm in length and with a wingspan of a little over 2 metres it is quite a formidable sight soaring high over the Scottish hillside. It hunts mainly for rabbits and mountain hares but has been known to take grouse, foxes and young deer. Following years of illegal persecution, it is encouraging to see that there are now over 400 breeding pairs of golden eagles in the UK. For more information about the monitoring and conservation of Scotland’s birds of prey take a look at the Scottish Raptor Study Group website.
Although it is possible to see golden eagles all year round, they are more commonly visible during crisp winter days or very early spring when they will be seen displaying (swooping and soaring) as part of their mating and breeding activities.
Red Squirrel (Gaelic name: feòrag ruadh)
Fewer than 120,000 red squirrels remain in Scotland, that’s more than three-quarters of the total UK population. Smaller than grey squirrels with reddish-brown fur and characteristic tufts at the tips of their ears, red squirrels are at risk of disappearing from our shores if urgent action is not taken. To help address this there has been a three-year project to save Scotland’s red squirrels.
Red squirrels are mostly found in mixed broadleaf and coniferous forests, so if you are out walking make sure you look out for them demonstrating their amazing acrobatic skills in the canopy above you. They have very keen eyesight with wide-angled vision and are very quick to notice movement. So the best way to watch them is to stand still!
Easily spotted when there are no leaves on the trees, red squirrels can be seen chasing each other during the mating season, with the males trying to impress the females with their climbing, running and jumping. But in early summer there is also the opportunity to see the young venturing into their new woodland world – practising their skills for adulthood.
Otter (Gaelic name: dòbhran)
Otters are one of Scotland’s top predators, found from the west coast and islands to the inland rivers and lochs.
Ideally adapted to an aquatic life with strong musculature, webbed feet, dense fur and the ability to close their nose and ears underwater, the otter is mainly active at night along the waterways.
Inland otters catch fish such as trout, salmon and eels, covering many kilometres along river banks in search of food. They are extremely wary of people (particularly people with dogs) and it is more likely that you will see the signs of their night excursions – footprints and droppings – rather than the animal itself.
Luckily, coastal otters are active during the day and are more likely to be spotted hunting in the tidal waters for fish, and foraging along the seashore for shellfish.
Red Deer (Gaelic name: fiadh ruadh)
There are two native breeds of deer in Scotland – red and roe deer. Other deer breeds, fallow and silka, have also been introduced through both deliberate releases and escapes from country parks. The British Deer Society has a wealth of information about the different deer breeds in the UK.
Red deer are the largest land mammal in the UK and an iconic species in Scotland. They play an important part in our rural economy and culture and are an integral part of Scotland’s biodiversity.
Red Deer live on moorland and mountainsides, as well as grasslands near to woodland. Woodland deer are often larger than their moorland cousins due to their access to higher quality food and better shelter. They are mainly seen in large groups on the mountainside and small groups near woodland. If you’re walking you may be lucky enough to see a group silhouetted against the sky or glimpse them briefly as they leap across the path in front of you – disappearing as quickly as they appeared.
Deer are active throughout the entire 24 hour period, although tend to curtail their movements to dawn and dusk in areas where they experience more disturbance. Hind and stag groups live separately except during the breeding season (between September and November) when the stags return to the hinds and compete for them with displays of dominance known as the ‘rut’. These ‘clashes’, if between stags of a similar size, can end in serious injuries and even death.
Harbour Seal (Gaelic name: ròn calaidh)
The UK is home to two species of seal, the harbour seal (also known as the common seal) and the grey seal. Both live and breed along the Scottish coast. The harbour seal is smaller than the grey seal and has a more ‘dog-like’ or ‘spaniel’ appearance. Its coat is mottled and each seal has its own pattern of spots which is how they can be identified by researchers and seal enthusiasts.
Harbour seals tend to haul out (get out of the water during periods of foraging) in more sheltered waters and are faithful to a relatively small area, routinely travelling 40-50Km from their haul-out site to forage for food. When out of the water, Harbour seals can often be seen adopting a very characteristic ‘banana’ shape as they are able to bend their body (raising their head and tail simultaneously).
Recent figures show that harbour seal numbers around Scotland as a whole are declining. The decline was first noticed in the Northern Isles and the east coast and the latest results confirm that the harbour seal populations of Orkney, Shetland and the Firth of Tay continue to decrease. In order to try and determine the reason for this the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews has conducted an investigation.
There are of course many animal species within Scotland, too many to mention here. But we hope that this gives you an idea of the opportunities that are available to see these stunning creatures when you are out and about in the Scottish countryside.