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Issue 101 - Monarchs of the Glen

Scotland Magazine Issue 101
November 2018

 

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Monarchs of the Glen

Though the temperature has dropped, there's still plenty of opportunity to spot some of Scotland’s wilder residents

Although Scotland’s brooding castles, dramatic landscapes, and lively festivals undoubtedly rank as some of the nation’s greatest assets, it will always be our abundant wildlife that ranks most highly in my esteem. All manner of beasts great and small scurry, flap and gallop through our woods and across our hillsides, to the delight of all who behold them.

Though winter is upon us and the days have shortened, one need not hang up the binoculars or long lens - there are still plenty of native residents and seasonal visitors to be seen, if you care to look.

THINGS TO REMEMBER WHILE WILDLIFE WATCHING

Stay quiet

Be extra careful not to disturb any wildlife that you come across. Loud noises or shouting can cause wildlife unnecessary stress. Be especially mindful of this as Spring approaches - there could be a nest nearby.

Feeding

While some of Scotland’s animals, namely garden birds, very much appreciate being fed with appropriate seed during the harsh winter months, most animals (especially wild deer) shouldn’t be fed or baited under any circumstances.

Don’t get too close or crowd animals

Animals will sometimes permit humans to approach, if this is done slowly and cautiously. However, one should always maintain a safe distance and, if in a group, be careful not to crowd the animal or back it into a corner. Be especially mindful of the time of year, as animal behaviour can change seasonally. Keep to an especially safe distance from deer during the rut (September-November).

Don’t get between mothers and their young

Breaking this rule can provoke unpredictable behaviour and could even lead to the young being abandoned. As a rule of thumb, always give young animals extra space.

No flash photography or dogs

Ensure the flash is not activated on your camera - you wouldn’t like a bright light being shone in your face either! Furthermore, though your four-legged friends may be well behaved, they should remain at home during wildlife watching trips to avoid potential conflict between animals.

Wrap up warm!

In all the excitement, don’t forget to look after yourself! Stout footwear, warm clothing and a flask filled with a warm drink are always recommended for winter wildlife walks.

For further tips on responsible wildlife watching and photography, we recommend reading the Wild Scotland ‘Best Practice Guidelines For Watching Wildlife’ (www.wild-scotland.org.uk), the Scottish Natural Heritage 'Marine Wildlife Watching Code' (www.nature.scot), and the RSPB’s ‘Birdwatcher’s Code’ (www.rspb.org.uk) .

FIELDFARE

Turdus pilaris

These large and colourful thrushes visit the British Isles each winter from their home in Scandinavia. Often seen in fields, gardens, and hedgerows, they tend to arrive in early autumn and the appearance of their chirping flocks is a sure sign that winter is coming. Numbers vary massively from year to year, as it is largely dependent on the severity of the weather and availability of food in their native lands. Driven largely by desperation, these industrious birds can travel as far as 1,000 miles in search of more hospitable climes - though this is good news for the UK as these attractive and social birds are welcome visitors.

BLACK GROUSE

Tetrao tetrix

This distinctive gamebird is one of Scotland’s most endangered residents. Over the past decades, the number of breeding males in Scotland has declined dramatically to less than 5,000, due to loss of habitat and over-grazing.

Female black grouse are smaller than the males and have a grey-brown colouring with black barring. Only the males possess the distinctive black colouring, lyre-shaped tails and characterful red ‘eyebrow’ wattles. Generally found on moorland with nearby woodland or scattered trees, male black grouse perform elaborate mating challenges at dawn called ‘leks’ on predetermined ‘lek sites’. These are usually open, flat areas with good visibility, sometimes with scattered boulders or other focal points. They are normally bordered by foliage from which females can watch the display, which consists of much hissing, gobbling, charging, and jumping.

Though black grouse lek during much of the year, late winter and early spring is a fabulous time to spot them due to the stark contrast between the snow and their distinctive colouring. Lekking reaches its peak during April and May. Responsible lek-watching should be conducted from a vehicle and all attending should arrive at the site with plenty of time before the dawn ‘kick-off’ time to avoid disturbance.

PTARMIGAN

Lagopus muta

Only found on Scotland highest mountains ranges, ptarmigan love the Arctic-like environment found at altitude. Though possessing attractive black, grey and brown markings during the warmer months, ptarmigan are most well-known for their almost all-white winter plumage - which makes them perfectly adapted to their rather chilly neighbourhood.

During periods of particularly bad weather, they use their impressive digging skills to excavate a ‘snow hole’ in the existing powder that helps to protect thems from the worst of the harsh wind. Their feathered feet, which act like little snow shoes and help them walk atop the snow, are another notable adaption. Be sure to keep an eye out for them during winter mountain hikes.

RED DEER

Cervus elaphus

Perhaps Scotland’s most iconic residents, red deer are Britain’s largest deer and have long held regal associations. To this day, 12-point stags are still known as ‘royal’ and Sir Edwin Landseer’s painting Monarch of the Glen (c.1851) certainly helped to further elevate the animal’s status. The painting was widely celebrated in Landseer’s time and, due to the image’s subsequent adoption by Scottish brands throughout the 20th century, the red deer stag went on to became one of the country’s most recognised emblems. Indeed, the red deer is perhaps even on a par with the Scottish thistle in terms of iconic status.

Though preferring woodland environments, red deer have adapted well to open moor and both their numbers and range are expanding. Today, red deer have a complex relationship with the environment as their over grazing of hillsides puts them in conflict with other animals and the forestry industry. Conversely, estates generate significant incomes from their red deer populations through sale of venison and charging high fees for stalking.

Between September and November each year, stags compete for the attention of females during a period known as the ‘rut’. Roaring, shadowing and fighting is par for the course, with serious injury not uncommon. Wildlife watchers beware!

EUROPEAN ROBIN

Erithacus rubecula

Arguably Britain’s favourite bird, the robin’s famous red breast marks it as one of wintertime’s most iconic characters. Males and females look identical, but young birds lack the red colouring. Singing a distinctive song all year round, robins thrive on a diet of invertebrates, fruit and seeds, and are incredibly numerous across the whole of the United Kingdom.

Though cute in appearance, they are in fact very territorial and can be extremely aggressive toward intruders. While not strictly a seasonal visitor, more do arrive from Europe in winter which perhaps accounts for their association with Christmas. Another theory is that young robins born in spring come into their colouring in winter, increasing the overall number of red-breasted robins.

MOUNTAIN HARE

Lepus timidus

Native to the Highlands of Scotland, the mountain hare is sadly becoming rarer by the year. Numbers are estimated to be just 1% of those recorded in the 1950s, with both controversial culling by grouseshooting estates and loss of moorland to conifer forestry blamed for their decline.

Feeding on heather and moorland plants, their core population is still located in the Scottish Highlands. Coloured grey-brown during the warmer months, mountain hares turn pure white (except for their black ear tips) during winter, rendering them almost invisible against the snowy hillside.

RED SQUIRREL

Sciurus vulgaris

A staggering 75% of the UK’s red squirrels are resident in Scotland, but a steep decline across the entire British Isles has seen numbers of this much-loved ruddy resident fall to as low as 120,000. Factors such as habitat loss and the catastrophic effect of squirrelpox, a virus introduced to the British Isles by the invasive grey squirrel, have been made worse by the steady increase in competition with greys for food and living space.

Though they can be seen in all kinds of woodland, even gardens, they are most at home in coniferous woods of Dumfries & Galloway, Aberdeenshire and Highland Perthshire. They eat nuts, young shoots, funghi and seeds from pine cones. The sight of chewed cores strewn across the forest floor is a sure sign that these hungry creatures are nearby.

They sleep in untidy treetop nests (dreys), which are distinctive and helpful for identifying the location and density of the local population. They can easily be distinguished by their striking colour, tufty ears, and smaller size relative to greys. Though red squirrels can be seen all year round, winter can be a great time to spot them due to reduced foliage and their brightly coloured fur standing out against the dark colours of the winter landscape.

 

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