True Highlands Blog
With its glens, mountains, lochs and forests, the Highlands are a haven for wildlife. The areas sparse human population leaves plenty of space for animals and plants to flourish, and the Highlands have become a top destination to come and see some of Britain’s rarest species.
For some animals, however, it hasn’t always been this way. Over the years, some of Scotland’s most spectacular inhabitants have been hunted to extinction, lost their natural habitats, or been pushed out by unwelcome incomers in the form of non-native species. Thanks to the work of national bodies, NGOs and the public, some of these species are making a comeback to the Highlands and, in some cases, are thriving.
In the 1800s, red kite numbers dropped so low that they became ‘functionally extinct’ – their numbers were so low that they were no longer able to breed. This was due to a number of reasons. Culling by grouse shooting estates, hunting for the taxidermy trade and egg collecting. It is thought that the last pair to breed, prior to reintroductions, was in 1917 in Lochaber. Prior to this, their numbers were abundant across Scotland, evidenced by their gaelic name, Gled, featuring in many place names including Gledfield near Dornoch.
In 1989, Scottish Natural Heritage and RSPB Scotland teamed up to reintroduce the kite to its former range in Scotland. The Black Isle was the first site to be chosen, and 93 birds were transported from Sweden for release. This was followed by further reintroductions in central and southern Scotland and Aberdeenshire, with kites imported from Germany and from the northern Scottish population.
Since their reintroduction, the population has thrived – they produce as many young as any kites in Europe, and around 300 breeding pairs have been recorded across the country. They have become a common sight in many areas, and RSPB Scotland have established several feeding sites, which can be visited at a daily feeding time to see these beautiful birds diving, swooping and soaring in the skies.
Where to see them:
The Black Isle in Easter Ross is one of the best places in the Highlands to spot kites – they are often seen hovering above fields right by the roads. Visit Tollie Red Kites RSPB Nature Reserve to see them at daily feeds!
Red squirrels are Britain’s only native squirrel and, until the late 1800s, were its only squirrel. That changed when North American grey squirrels hitched a ride across the pond and spread their way from south to north, pushing the smaller reds out as they went.
Grey squirrels can store more fat, produce more young and live at higher densities than reds, giving them a better chance of surviving the harsh winters. To add to this, they carry the squirrel pox virus which reds have no immunity to – meaning that they spread the disease to the native inhabitants.
The Highlands are one of the only areas of the UK that the grey squirrel has not yet reached. Until recently, their numbers here were declining due to habitat loss, conservation efforts by organisations including Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland have stabilised their numbers nationally – and in some places, they’re increasing. In 2016, charity Trees for Life reintroduced reds to Wester Ross, and the population has naturally expanded.
Recently, new research has found a fascinating link between pine martens and squirrels – the pine marten is the squirrel’s natural predator, yet in areas where they coexist, red squirrel numbers are thriving. How could this be? It turns out that pine martens prefer the fat, slower grey squirrel – controlling their population and leaving the reds to thrive!
Where to see them
The Cairngorms are a stronghold for the red squirrel, and at the right time of year, you can see several leaping overhead and dashing across the path in front of you. Loch an Eilein is a particularly good place for spotting them – don’t forget to keep an eye out up high!
The white tailed eagle, or sea eagle, is a majestic bird – Scotland’s largest bird of prey and the fourth largest eagle in the world. Hundreds of years ago they were found across the country, and appeared in ancient art and folklore. They had spiritual significance to some people, evidenced by their boned being found alongside human remains in places such as Tomb of the Eagles in Orkney.
Unfortunately, the eagles’ importance to people declined with an increase in farming. Already suffering due to habitat loss as the forests and wetlands were converted to farmland, eagles were hunted as ‘vermin’ as they were seen as a threat to livestock. Laws actively encouraged this, with ‘bounties’ offered for their bodies in some parts of the country. The last white-tailed eagle in Scotland, an old female, was shot on the isle of Unst in Shetland in 1918.
In 1975, a successful reintroduction project was launched on the Isle of Rum by the Nature Conservancy Council (now Scottish Natural Heritage) and RSPB Scotland. Over a decade, 82 young birds were released, having been brought over from Norway in collaboration with Norwegian authorities and conservationists. This was followed by a second reintroduction at Loch Maree near Torridon, and another in Fife in recent years.
The population today sits at over 200 birds, and white-tailed eagles can be seen in several locations around the Highlands and in Fife. They mainly nest on sea cliffs, at the top of tall trees, and even on the ground on remote and undisturbed islands. Conservationists keep a close eye on their nests and fledglings as they are still subject to persecution, but their numbers are increasing and expected to ‘soar’ in coming years. There has even been evidence of eagles flying to Scotland from Norway!
Where to see them
Mull has a strong population of white-tailed eagles, and many boat tours can take you around the island to spot them in their natural habitat. They are also seen regularly on Rum. A holiday on Ardtornish Estate often includes sightings over Loch Aline.
Like the white-tailed eagle, ospreys were once commonly seen across the country but then hunted to near extinction in Scotland. They were killed as they were seen as competition for the trout and salmon, as taxidermy specimens, and for their eggs.
These birds of prey migrate from their feeding grounds in West Africa to breed in Scotland, appearing around April each year and leaving in August-September. For 40 years, there were no successful breeding ospreys in Scotland.
Unlike white-tailed eagles, which remain in one place year-round, bringing ospreys back to Scotland couldn’t be done by reintroduction because of their migrations. The RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage therefore set about making nesting sites as appealing as possible and protecting any birds that used them. The first site that they returned to was Loch Garten near Aviemore, followed by other sites across the Highlands. Eggs were lost at first to human thieves and interference, but slowly, the perception of these birds changed and their value was recognised. It is now estimated that around 1,500 ospreys return to Scotland each year.
Where to see them
At Loch Garten RSPB Scotland Nature Reserve and Loch of the Lowes Scottish Wildlife Trust Reserve near Dunkeld, hides have been built so that you can watch these spectacular birds of prey. The hides are far enough from the nests not to disturb the birds and are equipped with telescopic lenses so that you can still get a good view.
Our last species might seem less charismatic than cute squirrels or majestic eagles – but it every bit as important. The Scots Pine once covered much of Britain but was cut down in huge numbers for timber and construction from the 17th century onwards. An increasing population of red deer on shooting estates hasn’t helped; the deer nibble on the bark and shoots, stunting or killing the tree altogether.
So why is this tree so important? The Caledonian Pine, alongside deciduous trees such as birch and rowan, makes up the Caledonian Pine Forest. The name ‘Caledonia’, given to Scotland by the Romans, even means ‘wooded heights’. Scotland’s wildlife flourishes in this forest – once home to lynx, bears and wolves, species such as capercaillie, crested tit, Scottish crossbill and Scottish wood ant are now found only in the Caledonian Pine Forest.
Thanks to conservation by organisations such as Trees for Life, the Scots Pine is making a comeback. Deer fencing keeps the red deer from grazing on young trees, giving them a chance to establish and spread. New trees are planted and existing ones protected, and thanks to these efforts, the Scots Pine has been saved from decline.
Where to see it
Glen Affric, widely regarded as one of Scotland’s most beautiful glens, is one of Trees for Life’s conservation sites and home to many ancient Scots Pines – some so old that wolves would have once sheltered under their branches! The banks of Loch Maree near Torridon are also lined with Scots Pines, and islands in the loch are almost completely undisturbed – letting you experience how the ancient Caledonian Pine Forest would once have felt.
These success stories bring hope for Scotland’s wildlife – like almost everywhere in the world, it is affected by human pressure in one way or another. However, attitudes are changing and these species are highly regarded for their aesthetic and intrinsic value – meaning that conservation efforts are succeeding. Scotland has so much to offer in terms of wildlife – come and enjoy it!
Check out our ‘stay’ sections for accommodation across the Highlands.
Tags: eagles, endangered species, extinction, habitat, osprey, rspb, Scotland, scots pine, squirrel, trees, wildife