Scotland is home to many species of native animals. The wild mountains, extensive forests and woodlands, pristine coastlines and not to forget the green urban spaces are great habitats for a variety of mammals, birds and marine wildlife. And spotting them is not necessarily hard! From puffins to ponies and basking sharks – this post includes some of the best places to see wild animals in Scotland.
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When you think about wildlife holidays, your first thoughts probably travel to the savannah’s of southern Africa or the rainforests of South America. I bet Scotland was not on your radar for wildlife safaris!
But Scotland’s diverse landscapes offer habitats and safe havens for many species, some animals native to Scotland year-round, others seasonal visitors on their way further south or north.
This guide includes some of the best wildlife tours in Scotland, which Scottish wildlife to keep your eyes peeled for on the road and which nature reserves to include in your itinerary. Read on if you want to learn about ethical wildlife encounters in Scotland, the best places for birdwatching and other animal experiences around the country.
Birdwatching in Scotland
Scotland is home to many kinds of native and migratory birds from huge predators to cheerful songbirds, populating the mountain valleys and the vast moorlands of the Highlands, the mixed woodlands of central Scotland and the coastlines and islands out in the sea.
If you plan a birdwatching holiday in Scotland one of your first points of research should be the website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). They operate a wide network of nature reserves all over Scotland to protect essential habitat for rare bird species that live in Scotland.
Here are some of the most unique birdwatching experiences in Scotland.
Puffins on the Scottish Isles
Puffins are some of Scotland’s most iconic sea birds, even though they spend the majority of the year feeding out at sea. They only come to land to breed from May to August and settle in colonies all across the west coast of Scotland. They dig small nesting caves in the earth on top of steep cliffs to protect their offspring from predators. They are generally not scared of humans, so if you find a colony you can come fairly close to take pictures – but stay within reason and don’t disturb the animals.
Some of the best places to see puffins in Scotland are the Isle of May, the Treshnish Isles and Staffa near Oban, Handa Island off the north-west coast, the Shiant Islands near the Outer Hebrides and St Kilda.
The largest sea bird colonies in Scotland
The islands off the Scottish coast are home to some of the largest sea bird colonies in the UK. A great starting point to learn more and find out about birding expeditions is the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick. From here, you can also join boat expeditions to Bass Rock, the Isle of May, Craigleith and the Lamb.
One of my favourite wildlife tour in Scotland is the cruise to St Kilda, an island group approx. 50 miles off the west coast of the Outer Hebrides. It is a cultural and natural World Heritage Site and a paradise for birdwatchers. The island of Dun is home to the UK’s largest puffin colony and the sea stacks of Boreray house the world’s second largest nesting colony of gannets. On some staacks, there are so many gannets – the back rock appears to be white! Other birds on St Kilda include guillemots, fulmars, petrels and skuas as well as the St Kilda wren, an endemic subspecies.
Another uninhabited bird island off the Scottish coast is Handa Island. It can be reached via a small passenger ferry from Tarbet on the NC500 (Cost: £15 adult, £5 children over 5, free for children under 5). Over 150 bird species live on Handa, and among those is a guillemot colony of 100,000 birds. Handa is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is run as a nature reserve by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. High on my bucket list is this 4-day sea kayaking expedition to Handa from Kylesku!
Birds of Prey in Scotland
Seabirds are not the only iconic bird species in Scotland – there is also a wide range of birds of prey. Unfortunately, they are much harder to spot, since they don’t nest in large numbers, but live rather solitary lives as loners or in couples. When driving through the fields and woodlands of Perthshire, the Cairngorms and Aberdeenshire, keep your eyes peeled for buzzards, ospreys and falcons perched on dead trees, fence posts or electricity towers – they sit up high to look for prey in the surrounding area.
If you want to learn more about Ospreys, in particular, visit the RSPB Osprey Centre near Nethy Bridge in the Cairngorms National Park. While sightings of ospreys cannot be guaranteed, the reserve is also home to many other rare species of birds.
Finally, if you find yourself in the Outer Hebrides, head to the North Harris Eagle Observatory. It is part of the Outer Hebrides Bird of Prey Trail which includes many potential sites for sightings. The valleys among the mountains of North Harris are home to several pairs of golden eagles. A great place to stay in this area is Vigadale House at Loch Seaforth – if you are lucky you might even spot some of the local eagles from the outdoor hot tub! I stayed here last summer when I hiked the Hebridean Way – book it here and bring a set of binoculars.
Marine Wildlife in Scotland
Considering all islands, sea lochs, inlets and fjords, Scotland has an incredibly long coastline. It is actually 10,250 miles (16,500 km) long – stretched out that’s about the same distance as from the north of Greenland to the coast of Antartica!
As you can imagine, this coastline and its waters are home to a great variety of marine wildlife. From shoals of fish to sea-loving mammals, the shores of Scotland are a prime location for encounters with Scottish animals, like seals, dolphins, sunfish, basking sharks and even whales!
Dolphins and Whale Watching in Scotland
Every summer, at least one video of a close encounter with whales off the Scottish coast goes viral on social media. Whether kayakers are surprised by a Humpback Whale, Orcas surface near Shetland or wild swimmers share moments with a whale near the coast – whale experiences in Scotland might be rare, but when they happen they are even more special!
Some of the best places for whale watching in Scotland are the Minch – the stretch of water between the mainland and the Outer Hebrides, the Isle of Mull near Oban, Gairloch in the north-west, Orkney and Shetland in the northern Atlantic and the Moray Firth near Inverness.
You can go on whale watching tours from Gairloch with Hebridean Whale Cruises, from the Isle of Seil near Oban with Sealife Adventures and other local boat operators. The best months for sightings are during the summer, June – August.
Dolphins are a little easier to spot and sightings are much more frequently. If you take a couple of ferries to travel between the Scottish islands, you are bound to see some dolphins frolicking in the waves created by the boat.
To learn more about Scottish dolphins, head to the Scottish Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay on the Moray Coast. Don’t expect animals in captivity here – it’s a completely ethical wildlife activity! The Centre is a learning hub that offers workshops and exhibitions, as well as land-based wildlife walks to spot dolphins off the shore as well as birds and other animals on land.
To get a closer look at the dolphins in the Moray Firth, book a dolphin cruise in the area. There are numerous operators operating out of Inverness, Findhorn, Lossiemouth, Avoch and Cromarty, such as EcoVentures, Dolphin Spirit, Dolphin Trips Avoch or North 58 Sea Adventures.
Seal Colonies on the Scottish Coast
There are innumerous seal colonies along the Scottish coast. There are two kinds of seals in Scotland – harbour or common seals and the internationally much rarer grey seals. The latter only lives in the North Atlantic Ocean, the Baltic Sea and the Barents Sea, and there are only about 350,000 to 400,000 individuals in total. The Scottish population is essential for this species.
If you are on an island holiday in on the Scottish west coast between Arran and Skye and you’d like to see seals, ask around among the locals – chances are high, that there is a beach somewhere on the island where seals like to sunbathe at low tide. On Bute, for example, you can see them basking at Scalpsie Bay. When they need a rest, seals will find suitable rocks to lie on and as the tide goes down, the sea exposes them to the sun – and the cheerful eyes of wildlife spotters.
In many coastal towns like Oban, tour operators offer boat tours to local seal colonies in the area. One of my favourite such experiences is the boat tour to a seal colony near Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye – it is not included in the castle & garden entrance fee, but must be purchased separately.
Finally, an incredible land-based seal encounter on the east coast of Scotland is a visit at Newburgh Beach. Signs lead through the dunes from the car park near the golf course and along the banks of the River Ythan. You will hear the seals long before you see them. Hundreds of seals bask in the sun across the river on a beach that is part of the Forvie National Nature Reserve. Visitors are purposefully directed to a viewpoint across the river to ensure that the seal colony is not disturbed. However, you will find them some of them are actually quite curious and will swim up to your side of the shore to take a closer look at you.
Basking Sharks near Oban
Basking sharks are the second-largest shark species in the world. They can reach up to 12 metres length and can open their mouths up to 1 metre wide – personally, not the kind of wildlife encounter I was hoping for! But rest assured, basking sharks only feed on plankton – they are the gentle giants off the Scottish coast!
Basking sharks visit Scotland between May and October following a relatively unknown migration pattern. Basking Shark Scotland offers a variety of ethical tours to see and interact with basking sharks. These range from one-day tours including snorkelling with the animals, to multi-day expeditions up to 7 days which also may also include diving or kayaking. The tours leave from Oban, but can also be joined from Tobermory on Mull and the Isle of Coll.
Scottish Highland Safaris
Some of the most iconic Scottish animals are neither birds for sealife – they are land-based mammals. Think of the scraggy Highland Cows or the fragile red squirrels, the rare Scottish wild cat or the roaring herds of red deer. The Highlands are home to many different species of animals, but they also offer them plenty of hiding places. Land-based animals are often the hardest to find.
Let’s begin with red squirrels – an increasingly rare species as their bigger and stronger cousins from North America have come to dominate the Scottish woodlands. You can still find them though, particularly in the forest of Perthshire. I recommend a road trip through Perthshire in autumn, when the trees are turning up the colours. Squirrely will be busy preparing for winter then and if you sit still among the trees, you are bound to see some of them hop past you.
Next up are deer. These are much easier to find, especially since they are also bred for their meat and recreational purposes – but let’s not get into that sad business and rather enjoy the sightings we do get. By now, Glen Etive is famous for its local deer population. Unfortunately, way too many tourists feed the deer which interferes with their natural behaviour – so please refrain from that and enjoy the animals from the distance. In other places, deer like to hang out around isolated hotels or guest houses, such as the Kingshouse Hotel or the Loch Ossian Youth Hostel in Rannoch Moor – they must find scraps there or more tourists who are willing to feed them. The best time to see the deer is anytime but autumn – that’s when they are busy fighting for the right to mate! Check out my post about staying at Loch Ossian – I’m sure it will convince you to go there & find the local deer!
The Isle of Rum is another popular place to see Scottish red deer. The population on the island is quite big and there are several hides all over the island which provide shelter for deer spotters. The annual deer rut is a spectacle on Rum, even the BBC comes here regularly to film it.
And then there are ponies and horses. Admittedly, they are not wild animals, but the native breeds in Scotland are definitely scraggier than breeds elsewhere. Head to Shetland to find the tiny Shetland ponies, look out for the white Erisakay ponies in the Outer Hebrides, or find a stable that still works with the giant Clydesdale horses!
The season I love more than anything for wildlife encounters is springtime, when animals all over the country have babies. Of course, there are the adorable farm animals – sheep and cows – that have their lambs and calves around this time, but as much as I love seeing them play, it always makes me a little sad as well to think that they were pretty much bred to die. As a vegan, I just can’t get over that. But there are many wild animals that have their babies now as well. In Aberdeenshire for example, you can watch flocks of baby rabbits hobble around the meadows and tiny mice running around the forest trails. I call it the Scottish Woodland and Meadow Safari!
And finally, there are of course the famous Highland Cows. While they are by far not as commonly used as farm animals anymore, many farms in the Highlands still keep them to please the tourists. A trip to Scotland would simply not be complete without spotting a scraggy coo! You can find them literally all over Scotland – but if you are desperate to see them try to visit the herd at Pollok Country Park in Glasgow!
Animals parks and zoos in Scotland
I wanted to end this post about wildlife encounters in Scotland with some words on animals parks and zoos. Places like the Edinburgh Zoo or activities involving birds of prey and falconry are incredibly popular and as an animal lover, I can absolutely understand the appeal – especially when you are travelling or visiting with children.
Many animal parks, like the Highland Wildlife Park or the Scottish Owl Centre, talk a lot about wildlife conservation and are affiliated with scientific societies – the Highland Wildlife Park, for example, is operated by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. Last year, I was gifted a visit to the Owl Centre by a friend and still have not made up my mind about it – on the one hand, they keep owls in captivity, train some for show flying and allow human interaction (without touching); on the other hand, they only keep couples and contribute to breeding efforts of endangered owl species. Welcoming visitors and offering engagement with their animals is a way for them to create an income stream and fund conservation efforts.
In the end, it is everybody’s own decision. Personally, I do not recommend visiting parks or centres where animals are used as attractions and kept in captivity. There are a lot of places for ethical wildlife encounters in Scotland and endless learning opportunities through guided walks and tours. Places like the Centres for dolphins, ospreys and seabirds I mentioned above offer great opportunities to see Scottish wildlife in its natural habitat and in the wild. I hope that I have inspired you to visit some of them.
As you can see, there are numerous places and activities to include in your Scottish wildlife holidays. From birdwatching to seal colonies, red squirrels and deer stalking, Scotland’s wildlife is diverse and boasts something for everyone. There is no reason to throw your ethics overboard either -simply join one of the responsible wildlife tours mentioned here and meet the wild animals of Scotland!
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