Most of us know about Scotland’s Big 5 species – red deer, red squirrel, golden eagle, otter and harbour seal. They are wonderful animals, we don’t dispute it, but what about the species that don’t make the list?
To give some of Scotland’s less celebrated wildlife the attention it deserves, here’s our 'alternative' Big 5 Scottish species.
1. Orca (killer whale)
The first thing to clear up is that orcas, known as killer whales, are not actually whales but dolphins. They have gained their fearsome title from the fact that some have been known to prey on whales, so they’re whale killers rather than killer whales!
The largest of the dolphin species, they are more likely to be spotted in the waters off Scotland than anywhere else in the UK. Their highly distinctive black and white colouring makes them stand out, but travelling at speeds of up to 35mph, they are quick movers.
Migratory pods follow the herring shoals in the northern and eastern waters, while over on the West Coast, a 9-strong pod, completely separate and known by experts as the West Coast Community, are resident throughout the year.
Orca is one of many whale, shark and dolphin species that are regularly seen off the coast of Scotland. Other common sightings include basking sharks, humpback whales, minke whales and bottlenose dolphins, making Scotland perhaps the best place in the UK for catching sight of these magnificent sea creatures.
2. Scottish wildcat
Britain’s only wildcat, the Scottish wildcat is a survivor. It had roamed our lands for many thousands of years, long before any of the cute domestic tabby cats which resemble it. This likeness is one of the many factors which hamper conservation efforts, along with the fact that interbreeding with domestic cats is gradually diluting the wildcat gene pool.
The defining feature of the wildcat, which makes it identifiable from your pet cat, is its powerful tail, which has dark bands around it. Also, the wildcat can be up to twice the size of a domestic cat and it isn’t quite as cuddly…
Surprisingly little is known about the Scottish Wildcat and attempts to quantify how many are still roaming the wilderness landscapes of northern Scotland are really just guesstimates. What is accepted, is that the number is dangerously low and the Scottish Wildcat, having survived for thousands of years, is now possibly Britain’s most endangered mammal.
3. Mountain hare
The Scottish Highlands is the true home of the UK mountain hare. Unlike the brown hare, it is a native British animal, which originated right here in Scotland. Why is isn’t on the official Big 5 list is anybody’s guess!
The most striking fact about this lively creature is how it changes the colour of its fur in the winter. During summer the fur is grey-brown with a slight bluish tinge but come the winter an amazing transformation takes place. To camouflage the hare in the snow-covered mountains, the fur becomes almost completely white, apart from the black tips of the ears.
The best time to spot mountain hares is on a spring evening. As the winter snows melt, they retain their white colouring for a while, making them easier to spot.
Capercaillie… it just sounds Scottish doesn’t it? That’s because it is Scots Gaelic and means, literally, horse of the wood. It’s not a horse but it is Scotland’s largest game bird, whose natural habitat is the native pinewoods that cover so much of upland Scotland.
A member of the grouse family, the male is about the size of a turkey, and black with a blue green hue to its breast. The much smaller female is brown. Like the Scottish wildcat, it’s now in great danger of becoming extinct and conservationists in its heartlands of Badenoch and Strathspey are working hard to ensure its survival.
5. Pine marten
When people hear the name, pine marten, they immediately think it’s a bird, but the pine marten is a handsome mustelid – from the same family of stoats and weasels. If the mustelid family wanted to promote their species with a good-looking spokesperson, they would surely choose the pine marten.
We love them here at Forest Holidays because we share our Strathyre location with them and they have delighted guests on many occasions. Another of their endearing qualities is that they keep grey squirrels at bay, and in doing so afford protection to our beloved red squirrels.
The ones that got away
We had to be ruthless to bring you our Alternative Big 5, there are so many wonderful Scottish wildlife species. Out went the northern gannet, even though Scotland has over 80% of the UK’s population and boasts the largest single colony in the world. Out went the shaggy Highland cow and out too, went the colour-changing Ptarmigan. We considered including the wild haggis, often seen scrambling clockwise round Scottish mountains and we also considered the one and only Loch Ness monster – but we can’t be sure it’s still there…
On balance, we’re happy with our list, but how about you, what’s your favourite Scottish wildlife species? Share them with us in the comments below!
Enjoy a wildlife holiday in Scotland
If you are inspired to seek out some of these wonderful species, or indeed the original Big 5, come for a Scottish wildlife holiday at Strathyre or Ardgartan Argyll, and start by having a chat to our Forest Ranger – another unique Scottish species!