Life on the Islands: Hebridean Wildlife Uncovered
Posted on Nov 08, 2013 by Cory Jones
The islands of the Hebrides are rightly seen to some of the best places in Europe to watch wildlife. The Inner Hebrides lie closer to mainland Scotland and include Islay, Jura, Skye, Mull and the Small Isles. The Outer Hebrides are a chain of more than 100 islands located further off the west coast of mainland Scotland. Some of the main islands include Barra, Harris, Lewis, North Uist, South Uist, and St Kilda.
Learn more about The Outer Hebrides
The adventure begins for most visitors on their ferry journey from the mainland to the Islands. Watching out for gannets (St Kilda is home to the world’s largest breeding colony of gannets), dolphins, porpoises and Minkie Whales. The areas around the Hebrides are the best for whale watching in the whole of Europe and the islands are home to their own unique pod of Orcas (Killer Whales) and in the summer between (May – September) Basking Sharks are a common sight.
Make sure you grab a seat at the ferries forward viewing deck to have the best chance of seeing Hebridean wildlife in the water. On my last ferry trip back from Lewis with a Wilderness Scotland Hebridean Trail group, we spotted a number of dolphins and both great and pomerine skuas from the boat deck, plus good numbers of puffins and Tysties (black guillemots).
All of the islands mountains are home to high densities of Golden Eagles and rugged coastlines to white tailed eagles (sea eagles). Golden Eagles survived with less persecution than the birds on mainland Scotland and more recently number have increased. On Harris, where there are about 20 pairs of golden eagles (highest breeding density in Europe) there is now even an eagle observatory The North Harris Eagle Observatory provides one of the best opportunities in Scotland for viewing this iconic species and is managed by the North Harris Trust.
The white tailed eagle, often known as the ‘flying barn door’, is a huge bird with broad wings over 8 feet wide. This is the UK’s biggest raptor, which became extinct in Scotland in 1918. Since their reintroduction on Rhum (one of the Small Isles) in 1975, numbers have increased with released and homebred birds now distributed across the Hebrides with great success. The Scottish breeding population is about 60 pairs. Mull is now the strong-hold of the white tailed eagle with 13 breeding pairs, although they can be spotted across the Hebrides. The Forestry Commission runs a white tailed eagle viewing hide at Glen Seilisdeir on Mull Harris is also a great place to spot Hen Harriers.
Wetlands of the Hebrides are very important for a range of internationally endangered birds. Summer migrants like the corncrake and red-necked phalarope breed on the Outer Isles along with good numbers of red-throated and black-throated divers. They take advantage more traditional agricultural methods and quiet places to cling on where as in many place on the UK mainland intensive agriculture, habitat fragmentation and development have reduced their numbers.
The islands of Islay and Jura are internationally renowned for over fifty thousand wild geese that visit each winter from October to April. The short winter days mean viewing morning and evening roosting movements of geese is relatively easy and for those long evenings there are eight active whiskey distilleries on the island to sample from!
A high density of small freshwater lochs and a rich marine coastline mean the island support a good number of otters. I have been to Mull a number of times and never failed to see otters!
You can never guarantee you will spot one of these playful characters but the Hebrides will give you a good chance. Again on my last Hebridean Trail we spotted a pair of otters playing and grooming in a roadside freshwater loch on Lewis. There have unfortunately been a number of otters killed on the roads and ‘otter crossing’ signs have been introduced where otters cross roads commonly.
The Outer Isles of Barra, Benbecula and the Uists have beautiful long sandy beaches. These are enjoyed greatly by holidaymakers but for botanists they help create a unique ecosystem, Machair grasslands. The Gaelic word ‘machair’ means an extensive, low-lying fertile plain and it is associated with calcareous sand (mainly made of shells) which has been blown inland from beaches and mobile dunes.
For thousands of years, machair has had a close relationship with local crofters who manage the land. This has involved a mix of seasonal cattle grazing, fertilizers from seaweed and low-input cropping of potatoes, oats and rye. This traditional management sustains superb displays of summer flowers across wide expanses. These grasslands support a range of important insect species which in turn support nesting birds.
Two nationally scarce birds, the corncrake (which is globally threatened) and corn bunting are present in machair. Machair is a living, cultural landscape which today relies on sympathetic management by crofters.
If you have never been to the islands of Scotland’s west coast then they are beautiful but they are a wildlife haven too. They should definitely be on your ‘bucket list’.
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