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Wildlife in Scotland you need to see

Wildlife in Scotland

If it’s Wildlife in Scotland you’re after, why not embark on an unforgettable journey to Scotland’s wild northern isles, where the rugged beauty of Shetland and Orkney meets a vibrant tapestry of marine life.

From the majestic humpback whales and playful dolphins to the charming otters, these remote islands have become a sanctuary for wildlife enthusiasts.

Recently, Shetland has earned a reputation as one of the best places in Scotland to witness these magnificent creatures, highlighted by a rare beluga whale sighting in January 2024.

As tour companies offer thrilling excursions and a new documentary, “Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story,” captures hearts, there’s never been a better time to explore the natural wonders of Shetland and Orkney.

Shetland & Orkney, and the western isles, whales and dolphins (and otters!)

Moray Speyside and the city of Aberdeen have long been popular spots for whale and dolphin sighting in Scotland, with Chanonry Point on the Black Isle being a particularly popular spot for fans of the mammals, as well as wildlife photographers.

However, it is the northern isles of Shetland and Orkney have seen a recent increase in sightings with statistics showing that Shetland in particular is one of the best places to see whales in Scotland

Humpback, sperm, fin, pilot and minke whales are frequent visitors. In January 2024, in Shetland, there was even sightings of the beluga whale, which is only the sixth time that the mammal has been seen in Scottish waters.

Orkney is one of the best places to see whales and dolphins with 12 species being record over the past 18 seasons. 

Tour companies in Shetland that offer boat trips where visitors might spot a whale or dolphin include Seabirds and Seals (a recent regional Scottish Thistles Award winner) and a special winter whale-spotting tour with Shetland Sea Adventures (the winter tour being not for the faint-hearted as conditions will be decidedly colder and sea conditions rougher!).

In Orkney, there is Orcadian Wildlife Tours which arranges orca spotting tours upon request, although they cannot guarantee sightings.

Alternatively, if it’s otters that are of interest, a brand-new documentary is on the way called Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story (2024)

This film tells the story of love between a wild otter and a man and was filmed in Shetland.   

Produced by Silverback Films, and from director Charlie Hamilton James and producer Jeff Wilson, the documentary follows Billy, a salt-of-the-earth philosopher and Molly, a half-drowned, starving young female otter that Billy stumbles on one rainy evening. From there, an unlikely relationship begins that eventually saves them both.

Billy & Molly is a remarkable story of trust, of joy and a shared love of the simple things in life. 

The documentary premieres 6 May on National Geographic and is available to stream on 7 May on Disney+/Hulu (US release dates only).

Beavers in Perth city

Perth is the first city in UK to have resident urban beavers. In fact, beavers are thriving in the city, according to a survey from NatureScot.

A stroll along Tay Street in the city (by the River Tay) offers the chance to see urban beavers as well as cheeky otters, and majestic Kingfishers. 

The River Tay Special Area of Conservation (SAC) has the highest wildlife accolade and is part of the Natura 2000 network – a series of internationally important wildlife sites throughout Europe.

Don’t miss the River Tay Public Art Trail, and head to the 63 Tay Street restaurant to re-fuel, before a short walk to the brand-new Perth Museum, currently home to the historic Stone of Destiny and an exhibition on Scotland’s national animal, the unicorn.

Wildlife in the Galloway & Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere

Covering almost 9,800 km² of southwest Scotland’s land and sea, the Galloway & Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere follows the rivers that flow out of the Galloway Hills: through forests and farmland, historic villages and towns, all the way to a ruggedly scenic coast.

The region includes outstanding and rare habitats which are home to some of Scotland’s most iconic wildlife.

The peatlands are carbon-storing, the ancient native woodlands sing a chorus of beautiful birdlife, and the catchments of seven rivers support leaping salmon and secretive water voles.

Visitors are encouraged to explore the Biosphere’s woodlands responsibly and one of the best ancient woodlands in Scotland can be found locally at the Wood of Cree.

Listen out for the symphony of the woods sung by the redstarts, wood warblers, pied flycatchers and willow tits seldom heard elsewhere.

In autumn, a bounty of mushrooms and toadstools grow in troves under the canopy and the mixture of orange hues in the leaves make a stunning backdrop.

This location is ideal to see conservation efforts in action, as the RSPB remove invasive conifers, plant native hardwoods and facilitate natural regeneration by thinning, ensuring the woods’ survival into the future.

Squirrels in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

With their inquisitive natures and sprightly personalities (as well as cute faces and bushy tails), it isn’t difficult to see why squirrels are a favourite animal for many visiting Scotland. 

Scotland has a large population of both grey and red squirrels, and indeed red squirrels are in danger of becoming extinct in Scotland due to the invasive grey squirrel.

The team at the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park aims to create good habitat free of grey squirrels, as well as encouraging red squirrels back into areas where they haven’t been seen in a while, making the National Park one of the best places to spot them.

In particular check out the forests in the west, such as Glenbranter Forest in the Argyll Forest Park.

Benmore Botanic Gardens, also in the Forest Park, has a good hide where visitors can watch the squirrels.

They can also be spotted in the Trossachs (for example around Callander) and in places like Balmaha. 

The Lodge at Aberfoyle is another good place to see red squirrels.

There’s a visitor centre, red squirrel feeders and a hide. Visitors interested in helping to save Scotland’s red squirrel population are encouraged to visit the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels website including reporting a red squirrel sighting to keep track of their numbers.

Deer in the south of Scotland and the Lothians

Scotland has long been associated with the image of a running stag at a Highland estate with an image of the misty mountains in the background. 

However, visitors need not travel as far north as the Highlands to potentially catch sight of a deer in Scotland; they can be seen in the Scottish Borders and also East Lothian.

For example, roe deer (the smallest native British deer) can be seen at Ruberslaw Wild Woods Camping in Hawick in the Scottish Borders. 

Similarly, the woods near Gosford Park in Aberlady, East Lothian are known to be frequented by deer.

Special care and respect for the habitat should be taken near deer to avoid frightening then and it is advisable to keep dogs on leads. Bainloch Deer Park in Dumfries and Galloway offers safari tours to see the deer respectfully (with dogs not allowed on tours).

The park is set in the wild hills overlooking the Solway Coast and is home to Japanese sika, wild roe deer and Britain’s largest land mammal, the majestic red deer.

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