A face-to-face encounter with an exotic creature or similarly unique experience with the local wildlife is high on the to-do list of most holidaymakers on their travels. Fortunately for visitors to Scotland, the country offers a fantastic array of attractions which allow you to get up close to all kinds animals while safeguarding their well-being.
Here are some of the most unusual and ethical ways you can connect with Scotland’s native species and other favourite creatures.
Willows Animal Sanctuary
Location: Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire
For 20 years Willows Animal Sanctuary has served as the country’s largest rescue centre for horses, farm and other domesticated creatures. Make friends with some of the 450 creatures in its care, including donkeys, cats, sheep, goats, cows, pigs, llamas, rabbits – and guinea pigs – before enjoying a a cup of coffee or a freshly prepared light lunch in the recently renovated café.
By visiting you not only help support countless creatures in desperate need, but also allow the sanctuary to provide much needed training opportunities for disadvantaged people, as well as animal assisted therapy for mental health sufferers. There’s even a gift shop stocked with local products, all the profits of which goes towards funding the sanctuary.
Argaty Red Kites
Location: Lerrocks Farm, near Stirling
With its russet-coloured feathers, graceful angled wings and unmistakable forked tail, the red kite is one of the most magnificent birds of prey, and watching them in flight is simply exhilarating. Red kites were actually culled to extinction in the late 19th century. Only during the last 30 years have there been efforts to carefully re-introduce them to Scottish habitats. At Argaty Red Kites – a farm just north of Stirling – visit Central Scotland’s only red kite feeding station where you can watch these amazing birds soar, swoop and dive. With the help of the RSPB and Scottish National Heritage, the farm provides a place where visitors can observe this precious population of birds at a safe distance which leaves them undisturbed.
Alladale Wildlife Reserve
Location: near Inverness, Highlands
There are many vast estates which cover the Scottish Highlands, but few let their guests to experience the wildness of the of the place quite like Alladale Wilderness Reserve. Book a stay in one of the reserve’s secluded properties, ranging from a rustic bunkhouse to the grand Victorian manor, and spend a day in the life of a ranger on 4×4 tour of the 23,000 acre reserve during which you’ll gain real insight into the daily management of a wildlife reserve. Watch Highland cattle grazing against the backdrop of Glen Mohr, come tantalisingly close to herds of red deer, see golden eagles soaring high overhead and, from mid-May to late September, watch salmon jump upstream at Glencalvie Falls. You can even arrange a day trip to coast for some dolphin watching followed by a delicious lunch.
The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, Aviemore, Highlands
Location: Aviemore, Highlands
The UK’s only free-ranging herd of reindeer are found in the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland where the sub-Arctic conditions of the region allow the creatures to thrive. The herd currently numbers around 150 deer – all of which are tame – and has lived here in the national park since 1952. These magnificent arctic beasts spend their days roaming and grazing across 10,000 acres – just as nature intended them to. You might think that this makes the herd impossible to find. Fortunately there is a daily guided hill trip run by the Reindeer Company which take visitors to meet the deer. Visitor are invited to touch and help feed the deer their nutrient-rich diet of sedges, lichens, blaeberries and birch. While trips to visit the deer are available throughout the year, the encounter is made all the more magical in winter when the mountains are covered in snow and the animals have grown their thick winter coats.
Discover more things to see and do in Aviemore.
The Penguin Parade at Edinburgh Zoo
The Penguin Parade at Edinburgh Zoo is one of Edinburgh’s most beloved traditions. Every day the zoo’s resident colonies of king, gentoo and rockhoppe penguins leave their enclosure accompanied by their keepers for a short 10-minute stroll around the zoo. The activity is so popular that many visitors and their families time their visit to the zoo especially so that they can be there to watch the penguins on their outing. Just be sure to arrive in plenty of time so that you have a good view of the parade route. Be aware also that the parade only goes ahead if the penguins choose to leave their opened enclosure voluntarily. The keepers will not encourage them with food to go on their walkabout unless they want to.
The Hairy Coo Safari at Rothiemurchus Estate
Location: Aviemore, Highlands
No visit to the Highlands is complete without a sighting of a ‘Heilan Coo’ (Scots for Highland cow). There are many, many places throughout Scotland where you can observe these adorably hairy cattle, but the Rothiemurchus Estate in the Highlands is the only place to offer a dedicated Highland Coo Safari experience. Meet one of the estate’s rangers at the Rothiemurchus Centre before hopping into a 4×4 which will transport you to the field where the coos spend their time. Pose for selfies with these gentle and curious giants as they come right up to the fence. Continue your tour around the rest of the farm to meet more livestock and farm animals while learning about the history of the estate.
Discover more great places to see Highland cows in Scotland.
The Cairngorm Sleddog Centre
Location: Avimore, Highlands
Forget Lapland. Discover the joys of mushing – best described at standing-up tobogganing while towed by a team of huskies – at the Cairngorm Selddog Centre on the outskirts of the Cairngorms National Park. From guided kennel tours to 40-minute trips along remote forest trails to two-day mushing courses and even dog-propelled scooter tours; choose from a range of mushing experiences you can enjoy with or without snow. Just be prepared to get wet, muddy – and have plenty of fun!
The Scottish Deer Centre
Location: Cupar, Fife
The image of a majestic stag is one of the most iconic Scottish sights imaginable. At the Scottish Deer Centre you can get up as close as is possible to these majestic animals. Home to 14 species of deer (red, hog, Chinese water, fallow, sika, muntjac, barasingha, bactrian, axis, white-lipped, reindeer and European elk, to name just a few), you can reach out and stroke the residents while learning all kinds of fascinating trivia from the rangers. The centre is also home to other species which once roamed wild across Scotland, including European brown bears, lynxes and wolves. Spanning 55 acres of countryside, the centre offers a packed programme of daily activities including guided ranger tours, feeding sessions, bird of prey demonstrations, trailer rides, and much more.
These are just some of the unique wildlife experiences you can enjoy in Scotland. Find out more about Scotland’s wildlife and wildlife attractions. You can also learn about working farm holidays and stays in Scotland where you can really get back to nature.