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Scotland Wildlife in Winter

Updated: May 6, 2023

Surprisingly enough, Winter in Scotland can be a lucky time to view wildlife in action. Although many animals will leave for warmer climates or to snuggle into hibernation, there is still plenty of wildlife to see between snow-capped mountains, frosted forests, tranquil lochs and rivers. Wherever you are headed, inland, coasts, even busy city environment, you can still spot varieties of wildlife, but what are the most popular birds and animals to look out for in Scotland?

1. Wintering greylag, pink-footed and barnacle geese

Hundreds of thousands of swans, geese and ducks move south to Scotland from Greenland and the arctic circle to escape the extreme cold weather and enjoy the relatively “mild” Scottish weather.

Where: Mersehead Nature Reserve on the Solway Firth, Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve on Islay, Montrose Basin Visitor Centre in Angus, Loch Leven Nature Reserve in Perthshire, Loch of Strathbeg Nature Reserve in Aberdeenshire, North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory on Orkney, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserves of Caerlaverock, RSPB reserve at Loch Leven.

When: Dawn is the optimum viewing time to see the skein of geese take off, looking for food.

2. Playful red squirrels

Wherever you see nut shells rest assured there are red squirrels!

Where: Loch Garten Nature Reserve in Inverness-shire, Highland Wildlife Park in Kingussie, Red Squirrel Trail in Dumfries & Galloway, Red Squirrel Trail in Dundee, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, and obviously The Highland Club!

When: Squirrels are less active on cold, wet days but you can usually spot them throughout the day, especially morning and afternoons.

3. Flock of starlings

Starlings are noisy characters. In winter, together with starlings from northern Europe, they form huge flocks.

Where: Mersehead Nature Reserve on the Solway Firth, Loch of Kinnordy Nature Reserve in Angus, Gretna Green in Dumfries & Galloway, near Collieston north of Aberdeen

When: Dawn and dusk.

4. Red deers

Winter is a very good time for deer watching, but please be careful while driving. Scottish Natural Heritage has published some useful information about it here:

Where: Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve in Torridon, Cairngorms National Park, Lochaber Geopark and around, Galloway Red Deer Range in Dumfries & Galloway, Isle of Arran in Ayrshire, islands of Jura and Rum in the Inner Hebrides, Queen Elizabeth Forest Park

When: Throughout the day

5. Ptarmigans 

With snow and cold weather Ptarmigan or Arctic Hare adapt by changing into their winter plumage or white coats. The arctic hare survives in fact with a thick coat of fur and usually digs holes under the ground or snow to keep warm and sleep.

Where: Ptarmigans reside in remote parts of the Highlands. Only if the weather becomes extremely cold they move down the lower level mountainsides and into the forest edges.Cairngorms National Park, Ben Lawers Nature Reserve near Killin in Perthshire, Glenshee, Applecross

When: Throughout the day

If you are ready to go and explore try to follow a few simple rules to make the most of your experience but also not to stress the animals:

1. Be quiet and listen to nature carefully

You might not be familiar with the sounds of winter wildlife in their natural habitats and chances are that you will first hear the birds and animals before you see them.

2. Blend in!

Wildlife is particularly wary of people and can be easily spooked, camouflage yourself in their setting and avoid bright colours that make you stand out too much.

3. Be well equipped

Trekking boots, Waterproof outer layers, and warm hat and gloves to keep toasty in the outdoors and obviously all your technology equipment, smartphone, camera, torch, binoculars.

4. Keep your distance

It might sound very obvious but wildlife is per their very nature wild animals so always keep a safe distance and try not to disturb them.

5. Be respectful

Know your rights and responsibilities when enjoying the outdoors. Find out some simple guidelines set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code to ensure you enjoy your experience:

This post was first published 2nd October 2020

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