Scottish Animal Facts - the good, the bad and the cuddly
Scottish animal facts - you're promised encounters with roaring red deer, fierce wild cats and friendly seals in the tourist brochures. But you have to be patient.
Scottish Animal Facts
It's a wild Scotland out there
Here are some Scottish animal facts so you can get an idea of what sort of wildlife you can expect to see on your visit to Scotland. In tourism promotion terms, there's a lot of emphasis on wild Scotland and the unspoilt nature of the place, so - to be quite plain - some of the promotional material available can be slightly misleading. (I mean, most of you won't see a wildcat!)
I’m going to exclude birds from this section and cover them elsewhere. Link is at the foot of the page. Keep reading on this page and you’ll find some facts about Scottish wildlife, mostly with four legs (or none). And I’ll be realistic about what you are likely to see as you travel about the wilder or more unspoiled bits of Scotland.
As implied above, read a tourism brochure about Scottish wildlife and you would be forgiven for thinking that bellowing stags pranced on every hilltop and dolphins constantly leapt out of firths and waved their flippers at you in welcome. In Scotland, meanwhile, otters are always ‘shy’, seals are ‘friendly’ and – my favourite phrase of all – you have to be on the alert for ‘the rustle of the unique Orkney vole‘. (Yes, I found that one year in material produced by the national tourism authority for Scotland. They would like you to go all the way to Orkney and listen out for mice.)
But of course, encountering Scottish wildlife isn’t like the brochures most of the time. Having said that, given the number of nature reserves and forest walks, you will definitely see something. So here are some no nonsense Scottish animal facts. (Well, actually, there could be the odd bit of nonsense, but only when I stop being serious). Let’s start with a quick look at Scotland’s larger mammals.
(Pictured here) Roe deer, photographed in Perthshire, but widespread throughout the country these days. Note the wee antlers.
Deer – red and roe
Scottish animal fact number one: the biggest on land is the red deer. (NOT pictured left. That’s a roe. Look at the wee antlers.) In a way, red deer are the exception that proves the rule about the habitually elusive wildlife of Scotland. You should be able to spot them in many parts of the Highlands. I have a couple of favourite places where I’m always on the alert for red deer. The first is south of Braemar, Aberdeenshire, on the A93, where I have many memories of them looming up out of the dusk, especially in winter, and causing a heart-stopping moment as they cross the road in front of the car.
I could stick my neck out a little and say this icon of wild Scotland is also all but guaranteed at the road-end at Glen Muick, that runs south, into the big hills, from Ballater in Royal Deeside. And you’ll see them from the A9, the main Highland road, again, especially if the weather is poor. You should look out for them from the Inverness-Perth train as well, especially south of the high point of Drumochter. In summer, they tend to go higher into the hills, but basically they are all over the Highlands in good numbers, from the Trossachs to Sutherland.
The red deer’s smaller cousin, the roe deer, pictured above, is pretty common these days as well. We would expect to see them, for example, in good numbers in, uhmm, those big fields on the left after the Tranent road junction, Edinburgh-bound, on the main A1 south-east of the city. (Gosh, that’s daringly specific.) And all I mean by that is, there are plenty of field edges, with woods and thick cover nearby, that carry good roe populations all over Lowland Scotland. The sea-braes (slopes) of the east coast are another good bet. The Lowland parts of Perthshire also have plenty. Actually, they're all over the place these days, even in woods close to cities. Keep your dog under control if you don't want an epic deer-hunt on your hands.
Yeah, sure, we have foxes. Who hasn’t? Best view I ever had was of the one that used to come and wait outside my mum-in-law’s French windows to be fed. At least, I think it was a fox. Should have checked for a collar. (Pictured here.) I have to point out that glass separates our dog from the fox. This is in Edinburgh. I suppose this is where wild Scotland comes to town.
This is another favourite for any Scottish wildlifel promotion. The Scottish wild cat is a bit like a tabby on steroids. I’ve climbed hills, wandered in woods with camera and binoculars and generally covered a lot of rough ground all my life and I’ve seen wildcats, oh, maybe twice. And one of these was late at night, in a car. I mean, I was in the car. Obviously, wildcats are fierce, but they don’t steal cars.
There is some anxiety in conservation circles that the Scottish wildcat Felix sylvestris is in danger of losing its pure blood-line thanks to inter-breeding with feral moggies (domestic cats). Ditto the red deer, though not because of amorous moggies, but through mating with the non-native, introduced sika deer. (Well, it’s always better to be introduced before mating.)
Scottish animal fact alert: you have a better chance of seeing a pine marten than you have a wildcat. But just don’t expect them to be dropping out of the trees on top of your camera lens. The best view I ever had of one was walking along the railway line near Plockton in the north-west of Scotland. In this case both pine marten and I were walking on the line, in opposite directions. Technically, we were both trespassing, though I doubt if the pine marten was worried.
You hear tales in the north-west Highlands of local residents putting food out of pine martens on their bird-tables. Apparently, they are very fond of jam sandwiches (the pine martens). And I always used to write in guidebooks and brochures that they hang about and forage in roadside litter bins (again, the pine martens), especially by Loch Maree, near Kinlochewe on the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. To be honest, I never saw one doing that but have been peddling this line for, oh, years and years now. Are litter bins the same as trash cans?
(Pictured here) Yes, it’s a badger, a young ‘un, I think. Out in broad daylight. Odd.
Yeah, sure, we have badgers, just like foxes. Who hasn’t? I am exceptionally proud of this picture of one but only because, unless you know where a sett (a badger-hole) is and go and hang out there, the possibility of a chance encounter isn’t all that great. Especially with the noise you make.
But not only was this picture a random encounter, it was also daylight – a balmy summer evening and I had the tele lens on the camera. What are the chances? Only when I walked up to this badger and attempted to tell it that in wild Scotland, animals didn’t flaunt themselves like this, did it eventually lollop away. This is the only verb I could think of to describe a badger gait. It isn’t quite ‘flump’, as that suits seals better, see this page on Scottish wildlife, where we look at some other Scottish species.
Final point about badgers is that they tend to be associated with mixed countryside and wooded settings. In Scotland, in my experience, there are also plenty down by the sea, on coastal headlands - what we might call the sea-braes. The one photographed here was certainly on sea-braes, with high cliffs close by.
Extinct (or re-introduced) Scottish wildlife
Obviously, there would have been a lot more Scottish animal facts and advice to relate if you had visited when Scotland was a lot wilder, a very long time ago. We lost brown bears a thousand years ago though they were exported by the Romans for their brutal circuses. (Martial makes reference to ‘Caledonio urso’ in his descriptions of these entertainments.) We killed off beavers in the 15th or 16th centuries – and there is currently much huffing and puffing about their re-introduction. They seem to be doing fine in Knapdale in the not at all intensively farmed part of Argyll.
However, the ones that escaped from a wildlife park in Perthshire and set up homes in various Perthshire river systems are causing the well-to-do Perthshire farmers to foam at the mouth. These guardians of the countryside are shooting them on sight, especially pregnant females apparently, accusing them of a whole list of crimes, including chomping through trees and building dams (duh!) with a risk of flooding, interfering with the fishing, also entering homes to pilfer valuables, carrying off children, not voting Conservative etc etc - in fact, all manner of terrible crimes against cosy Perthshire.
Wild boar had gone by the 16th century. Except, oh dear, like the beaver, these days they keep turning up where they ought not to be. (They escape from farms mostly. I wish I didn't find this so amusing!) Oh yes, they are around in a few places, doing their own piggy thing.
But what of the wolf? Some Highlanders who fought in the Jacobite uprising, say, in 1715, would have known the wolf, though the species did not last much longer. In 1743, Macqueen, the stalker to the laird Mackintosh of Mackintosh, on the River Findhorn, apparently killed the last one. His ‘long dog’ brought the wolf to bay. Then, his own account reads ‘I buckled wi him, and dirkit him, and syne whuttled his craig…‘ (I joined with him, knifed him and soon cut his throat….’ Today controversy rages about wolf re-introduction as well.
The picture here is of re-introduced reindeer in the Cairngorms, where they are a visitor attraction, and much in demand around Christmas time, when some are hired out to pull Santa’s sledge. They don't interfere with intensive farming practices or pull off bank heists, so are generally accepted.
Cetaceans in Scotland
And now, some Scottish animal facts about cetaceans – a posh collective name for whales and dolphins, pronounced, roughly, ‘set-ay-shuns’ (if you’re Scottish, anyway). Best to take a dedicated whale and dolphin-spotting cruise, if you want to improve your chances of seeing cetaceans. Scotland has a good choice of these kinds of Scottish wildlife excursions, with the islands of Mull and Skye promoted as whale hotspots. On the Outer Hebrides, I once saw minke whales from the carpark at the Butt of Lewis, by the lighthouse, right at the top of the islands. However, I can’t promise they’d still be there, as it was 1988.
Again, read some of the promotional material on whale and dolphin spotting and you would be forgiven for thinking that you’re going to be lucky to get back ashore without the vessel being rammed by an orca, maddened by the smell of Goretex. Killer whales are at the glamorous and exotic end of the Scottish wildlife scale. Yes, even they turn up, from time to time. You never know with cetaceans. (Wonder if the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society uses headed cetaceanary when they write letters?) Sorry, about that.
In common with many others in Scotland, I have a soft spot for dolphins. They are generally law-abiding and don't eat fish in fish-farms or chickens in hen-houses. The bottle-nose dolphins of the Moray Firth are the big beasts of the Scottish wildlife and tourism scene. This species actually has a wide global distribution but because these northern waters are so cold, these dolphins can’t prance around in skimpy costumes.
No, they insulate themselves with a good layer of blubber, making them the largest examples of their species. Big ones go up to about 14ft, over 4 metres. Again, there are cruises from several Moray Firth harbours but you could be lucky and see them from the shore. Once and once only, from a shore vantage point near Portsoy, I was so close that I heard them exhale. But don’t hold your breath for the same Scottish wildlife encounter. More information on the Moray Firth dolphins here:
(Pictured here) an otter, photographed at the Loch Druidibeg National Nature Reserve, Outer Hebrides.
Ah, the shy and elusive otter, scoring high for cuteness amongst Scottish wildlife. As far as I can see, depending on where you are in Scotland, you will see either virtually no otters or plenty of otters. There are certainly lots of otters on, say, Shetland, and a lot on the Outer Hebrides, and on wild parts of the western mainland seaboard. Skye and Mull are also good.
Again, as an outdoor sort of chap, nearly all my otter sightings have been on the coast. I have seen them in Berwickshire, not too far from Dunbar om the east coast. There is an otter spotting hide at Kylerhea, on Skye, near the Glenelg ferry. Yes, you may well see an otter. We had fine views of a family of them at Plockton, whistling to each other, on the day we hired a rowing boat. The one in the picture here I photographed on South Uist. I think that’s a crab leg in its mouth. The ‘otters crossing’ sign (also pictured here) is on the causeway between South Uist and Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides.
The red squirrel is also a high scorer for cuteness. Its nemesis, the grey squirrel, an introduced species that some say should be called ‘The North American Tree Rat’, is much more common in most parts of Scotland. It’s the one you’ll see in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, for example. (The greys seem to go a bit reddish in autumn and winter, but don’t be fooled.)
The red squirrel just can’t take the competition from the grey, which, consequently, gets a very bad press. In fact, the sighting of a a grey squirrel in Elgin in February 2016, actually made the local newspaper under a headline (I kid you not) 'Moray Grey Squirrel Dead'. (Gasp.) Technically, it was humanely put down, or murdered, as Moray is a red squirrel stronghold, as those pesky greys not yet in control. The red squirrel somehow just looks Scottish – a kind of see-you-Jimmy squirrel. (I appreciate there may be many of you out there who have no idea what I’m talking about.) I expect it’s the fiery red.
Some people get quite emotional about its apparent decline in Scotland, though, truth to tell, it’s widely distributed right across Europe, Russia and as far as Japan. So there’s nothing uniquely Scottish about it at all. But it tends to live in wild and attractive woodlands, especially pinewods in the north of Scotland, where there are few or no grey squirrels. Walk in the woods near Grantown-on-Spey, for instance, near the river, and you’re sure to see them.
Amongst Scottish wildlife, this is the only poisonous snake. It is easily recognised by the zig-zag markings down its back. It seems to be fairly widely distributed but seldom in large numbers. I don’t see them that often. They very occasionally bite people, but usually only when they stick their hands into bracken or otherwise encounter an adder before it has time to slip away.
So, joking apart, keep a close watch on small children and also small dogs, at adder hot-spots (such as the edges of the Lammermuir Hills in East Lothian. Leave your dog at home if you’re visiting the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve at Woodhall Dean, for example.) But you can wonder around the countryside for years and never see adders.
Scottish Animal Facts about Seals – grey and common
There are two species of seal, common and grey, with the grey having a more doggy face – see picture, taken from the back of the breakwater in Mallaig on the western seaboard. They are quite common, up and down the coasts. There’s a tame one in Dunbar harbour in East Lothian, that expects his breakfast from the local sea anglers.
And the man who hired us the boat at Plockton (mentioned above) was probably called Calum. He has seal cruises that actually (and uniquely) come with a guarantee: if you don’t see any seals you get your money back. Please note that this is not the same as saying that you will definitely see seals. But the chances are pretty good……otherwise he’d be broke.
If you really have time on your hands, then you can go seal-spotting on Googlemaps on that link. This takes you to the A9 road, north of Dingwall, beyond Inverness. (I hope it does, anyway. The image is dated 2008.) There are usually seals hauled out on the rocks all along here, but Mr Google went past with his camera when the tide was a little high I reckon. (Yes, I know on my link it looks like a wee boat with two tiny wee boats behind it but I’m sure it’s seals. If your boss sneaks up and asks you what you are doing, I’m not sure that replying ‘Looking for seals in the Cromarty Firth in Scotland’ will be sufficient explanation. That’s your call.) See what you think. But come back afterwards. I wouldn’t want you to miss hearing about hedgehogs.
However, there is a place in Scotland especially noted for seals. And I say that because there is a very nice information board beside the stretch of shore where the seals haul out. (Pictured here) This is Portgordon on the coast of Moray, east of Inverness, just beyond the mouth of the River Spey. It's kinda odd that they chose this bit of shore because it's not remote, it's used by dogwalkers, there is the main road to the town of Buckie also running along side it and, finally, between road and shore is the Buckie to Spey Bay stretch of the Speyside Way long-distance footpath.
(Oh, and it's the place to hear the seals sing as well. They were in full cry right through the autumn. How do I know? Because we live beside them. And it's the strangest thing of a winter evening to stand in the garden, look up to a black northern sky and hear the mournful singing - well, OK, wailing - of these beasts.)
Stoats, weasels, rabbits
I don’t know why I’ve grouped them together. In fact, I’m not even sure why I’ve included them at all as they are more of a short food-chain than a sub-heading. For every thousand or so rabbits you notice, you will see one stoat, if you’re sharp-eyed. If that ratio alters much towards the mustelids, I expect the bunnies get nervous. You can tell a stoat from a weasel because the stoat has a black tip to its tail. There’s nothing especially Scottish about them, though my father would call them ‘whitrets’ or futtrets’ (This is from Middle English ‘white-rat’ presumably referring to the stoat’s winter colouring. I call them that as well, but only in the company of consenting Scots.)
Oh, gosh, I forgot to mention hedgehogs – all over the place and not just flattened on major roads throughout Scotland. Sure, we can do hedgehogs too. Oddly enough, apparently you’ll never find a hedgehog where there are badgers, as badgers manage to open up a balled-up hedgehog. So, that’s badger dinner taken care of.
By the way, don’t mention hedgehogs if you’re a ground nesting bird in the Uists, that is, part of the Outer Hebrides. (There’s a page on the lovely Isle of Eriskay here.) Introduced (stupidly) by someone with a slug problem in their garden in 1974, the hedgehogs ate the slugs and then moved on to chew their way through the nests of internationally-important major populations of ground nesting birds.
This in turn seemed to galvanise well-meaning hedgehog-hugging (ouch) organisations, most of which probably had the word ‘Tiggywinkle’ in their name, to rescue the animals, assess them after a probing interview, then allocate them new homes on mainland Scotland. (Again, I kid you not.)
Voles and other small furry beasties
No-one comes to Scotland to see these (as far as I know), unless they are very, very odd. Nevertheless, this does not prevent the ‘unique’ Orkney vole being offered by tourism promoters as a reason to visit Orkney, as I think I mention elsewhere on the page. Back in 2009, the Forestry Commission even issued a press release trumpeting the introduction of the release of 600 water voles in the Trossachs and the positive impact this would make on tourism. Are voles the secret ingredient for tourist industry success? I think not.