Wildlife in Scotland

wildlife watching activity in the cairngorms

Scotland is one of the best places in Britain for wildlife.

Here in the Highlands we have world famous habitats and some of the most well known wildlife in the world. Every year, thousands of people visit Scotland in search of puffins, red deer, golden eagles, whales, dolphins and more. In fact, wildlife watching makes up a large part of this countries tourism economy. Read on to learn more of the great animals and plants you can find here.

wildlife watching scotland

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Birds: famous feathered Scottish wildlife

golden eagle
The Golden eagle is one of Scotland’s star wildlife species

For many residents of and visitors to Scotland, birds are one of their main interests when it comes to wildlife. Our hedge rows, woodlands and farmland have a good mix of familiar thrushes, tits and smaller birds of prey. But the wilder areas are important for many rarer species. Amongst the mountains, there are important populations of golden eagle and ptarmigan. And our ancient pine forests hold species of grouse, tits and finches, not found anywhere else in Britain. These highlight species live here all-year-round (so-called ‘resident’ species).

Highlight Scottish birds

Resident birds, present year-round.

And it’s not just our resident bird species that are worth looking for. Scotland is also both a stop over and destination for many migratory species. These include ospreys, dotterell, corncrake and waxwings for example, plus many species of geese, terns, divers and waders. Additionally, our summer coast line is marked by huge sea cliffs, dotted by thousands of noisy puffins, guillemots and gannets.

To learn more about our varied bird life (and download a species list), read our Scottish birds guide.

Mammals: Scotland’s wildlife megastars

red squirrel
Scotland has many protected wildlife species, including the Red squirrel

Scotland is not well known for large wild mammals (aka ‘charismatic megafauna’). However, our rugged mountain and forest scenery is home to several species of wild mammal that are scarce in many other parts of Britain, for example Pine marten, Scottish wildcat and Red squirrel. In addition, our clean freshwater lochs and rivers have provided important habitat for highly protected species such as otter and the water vole. Lastly, our productive seas and miles of coastline feature regular sightings of a wide range of marine mammals (dolphins, whales and seals).

Highlight Scottish mammals

Mammals present year-round

Many centuries of hunting led to the deaths of all our large herbivores and predators (eg: Lynx, Elk, Brown bear and Wolf). However, recent reintroduction of species such as beaver are an encouraging sign of change.

Check out the guide to Scottish mammals to learn more.

Fish, reptiles and amphibians

basking shark filter feeding
Basking sharks are often seen in summer off Scottish coasts

Scotland’s diverse habitats also support a a number of other vertebrates (animals with a backbone).

Firstly, there are about 300 species of fish in Scotland (about 260 marine and around 40 freshwater). The second largest fish in the world breeds in Scottish waters (the Basking shark), and the heaviest occurs regularly (the Sunfish). Several species are very important in the economy and culture of Scotland, namely herring, mackerel and Atlantic salmon (amongst others). Many of our seabirds depend on sandeels as their main food source. Meanwhile, various lochs and rivers are protected for their populations of Brown trout, lamprey and Arctic charr.

male adder snake in heather
Adder, Britain’s only venomous snake

Secondly, a total of 9 amphibian and reptile species are native to Scotland (possibly 10 if you include Nessie!). These include the Adder, which is Britain’s only venomous snake. Additionally, the relatively warm Gulf Stream current occassionally brings marine turtles into Scottish waters.

Invertebrates: Scotland’s most abundant animals

scottish wildlife includes lions mane jellyfish
Lions Mane jellyfish

Unsurprisingly, the largest group of wildlife in Scotland, in terms of species numbers, is the invertebrates (ie: those without a backbone). These include the insects, spiders, worms and molluscs, etc. Visits to the coast are likely to result in sightings of edible sea urchins and various starfish and shellfish, together with jellyfish such as the Lion’s Mane and Barrel.

kentish glory moth
Kentish Glory moth

Examples of Biodiversity Action Plan insects include Butterflies and moths such as the Pearl-bordered fritillary, Chequered Skipper and Kentish Glory and the Great Yellow bumblebee, Narrow-headed ant and Aspen hover fly.


dense pine forest
Caledonian Scots pine forest

Scotland’s wildlife includes a wide range of native woodlands, plant communities and wildflowers. Many of these are, again, nationally rare or protected. They include montane scrub, peatland, maritime heath, machair and Caledonian Pine forest, for example. Scotland’s marine environment includes rare habitats such as cold water coral maerl beds and kelp forests (which are attracting interest as carbon sinks). Our Atlantic oak wood lands technically count as rainforests and support huge numbers of mosses, liverworts and lichens.

One of Scotland’s three heathers: Cross-leaved Heath

Scotland’s flowering plants are diverse and, in some cases, world famous. So, as well as the common wildflowers and shrubs, you can also find various orchids, wintergreens, heathers and alpine flowers, for example.


fly agaric fungus in pine woods

In terms of species numbers, fungi are the second largest group of Scottish wildlife after the invertebrates. Although they are often hidden away amongst vegetation, and often difficult to identify, they include some very distinctive species. Fly agaric looks like the classic fairy tale mushroom, whilst chanterelles offer famously good eating. Although not technically a fungus, slime moulds often occupy similar habitats and are very noticeable (eg: Dog sick ‘fungus’).

Scottish wildlife – an overview

Britain has been described as ‘one of the most nature depleted countries in the world’ *. In spite of this, it is Scotland where many of Britain’s rarest and most highly protected species can still be found.

This wildlife has had a complicated, five thousand year long relationship with people. As a result, we see a wide range of introduced, reintroduced, feral and non-native species. Also, wild plants and animals feature strongly in Scottish wildlife folklore and Gaelic history.

The biodiversity of Scotland is notable for a relatively small country. At a very rough estimate, Scotland is home to at least 67,000 living species of wildlife. Of these, an estimated 40,000 animal and plant species can be found in Scottish seas.

chart showing numbers of wildlife species in scotland
Approximate species numbers in Scotland (data from NatureScot and others)

However, centuries of human impacts have also led to pressure on native species and their habitats. Now, many of these species and their habitats are protected by national and international laws (for example, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and Natura legislation). Furthermore, conservation, rewilding and reintroduction projects are gaining public support. See the post Scotland’s native wildlife to learn more.

birding scope

Scottish Highlands bird sightings (inc Aviemore and Cairngorms)

The Cairngorms is one of many places in the Scottish Highlands with great birds and other wildlife – click below for our recent sightings (opens new tab).

* Natural History Museum 2020, The UK has ‘led the world’ in destroying the natural environment

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