NATIONAL parks in Scotland are expecting a busy weekend as thousands of Scots head to the hills in search of the great outdoors.
Despite colder than average temperatures, the Easter holiday is when the Scottish countryside is “open for business” – with many rural attractions having their busiest days of the year.
This year VisitScotland and Scottish Natural Heritage are putting the emphasis on wildlife and encouraging people to seek out our five best loved native species – the deer, the otter, the red squirrel, the golden eagle and the harbour seal.
Big 5 campaign manager Marion Mulholland said the timing was designed to coincide with the Easter weekend: “It is when the countryside really opens for business.”
The organisation has launched a free app which gives tips on where to find Scotland’s best-loved creatures and how to identify them. And it is encouraging wildlife watchers to share their experiences on social media.
According to a poll carried out by Scottish Natural Heritage, the red deer is the animal visitors most like to see when they visit the countryside, with 73 per cent saying it was their best-loved native species. Deer are most commonly seen in autumn but they are also spotted in spring as they come down the hills in search of food.
Mulholland says: “The best way to see deer is on an open hill through binoculars. They can be quite well camouflaged but sometimes you get a flash of their white tails.” Deer can be seen across the Highlands, in the Cairngorms National Park and in Galloway, as well as in huge numbers on the island of Rum, the national deer sanctuary owned by SNH.
If you are looking for red squirrels, Holland recommends you head to the woods and scan the forest floor for half-nibbled pine cones.
“Scots pines trees are good. You might see a glimpse of their little furry tails scrambling up the trunks.” Red squirrels can be found on Arran, in Abernethy Forest in the Highlands, in Tentsmuir in Fife and in wooded areas of Dumfries and Galloway.
Otters are notoriously shy, but according to SNH research they have been spotted in every ten- kilometre square of Scotland.
Mulholland says: “Otters have even been spotted in the rivers in the centre of Glasgow. You might look out for spraint – otter poo – which may have little fish bones sticking out of it.”
While there are only 8,000 otters in Scotland there are 29,000 harbour seals around the coast – which makes them one of the easiest creatures to spot in the wild. Scotland has 80 per cent of the UK population of seals, which eat five kg of fish a day and can hold their breath under water for 35 minutes by slowing down their heartbeat.
Mullholland says: “When you see them they are usually lying on rocks like big blobs. But they live a double life. When they are under the water they swim and dive.”
One of the rarest creatures is the golden eagle, of which there are 440 pairs across Scotland, mostly in the Highlands and Islands. Easter is the start of the breeding season.
You are most likely to spot one high in the air, when they can be identified by their size of up to two metres and by the finger shapes at the tips of their wing. Mike Cantlay, chairman of VisitScotland, said: “The Year of Natural Scotland is all about getting people out and about in our wonderful country.
“Whether it be experiencing the crystal clear waters of the Outer Hebrides or walking in the Cheviots in the Borders, the possibilities are almost limitless.
“When you factor in the stunning wildlife, it is no wonder that our natural environment is the number one reason why people want to visit here.”