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The late Queen Elizabeth II had such a passion for the Cairngorms National Park (where her Scottish residence, Balmoral, can be found) that she led many conservation efforts to protect the area. Not only this, but some of the best conservation programs in the UK happen here, including the reintroduction of the beaver which was absent from the area for more than 4 centuries!
The Cairngorms is located in the northeast of Scotland and is the largest national park in the UK, covering a massive 428 square miles. As you can imagine, this expansive area has many different habitats, meaning that the wildlife here is incredibly diverse.
Cairngorms National Park is actually home to some of the rarest and most iconic creatures in the UK, including the red squirrel, the capercaillie and the Scottish wildcat, of which it’s thought that there are now only 35 purebreds left in the wild.
The area is also famous for its reindeer, which are the only free-range herd in the country, and this serves as one of the major attractions for visitors. What’s more, with some of the most amazing raptors in the United Kingdom, the Cairngorms is a bird watchers paradise. Here, you’ll find the golden eagle, peregrine falcon, and other species like buzzards and ospreys.
One of the best ways to explore this mountainous area is on foot, and there are many hiking trails, including 43 that are considered to be easy, making the park accessible to everyone. Explore the beautiful Ben Macdui, where you’ll find the ptarmigan in this stunning alpine habitat, or perhaps hire a mountain bike to explore the area.
Another thing that attracts people to the Cairngorms, which are thought to have formed more than 400 million years ago, is the culture. The world-famous Highland Games take place here, and there are festivals and events happening year round, so you’ll always experience something unique.
Types of Wildlife to See
The wildlife in the Cairngorms National Park is truly unique and diverse. With some species that are only found here and others that have a very limited range within the UK, it’s a wildlife lover’s haven.
One of the biggest attractions is the red deer, and in autumn, you can observe them during rutting season, where males put on impressive and majestic courtship displays. This is truly one of the most amazing wildlife experiences you’ll ever have.
The red squirrel is native to the UK but has been largely outcompeted by the invasive gray squirrel. However, these cute critters can regularly be spotted in the woodlands around the Cairngorms. In these forests, you may also get the chance to see the pine marten; a weasel species which is incredibly rare, with an estimated 3500 left in the wild.
As I mentioned earlier, the Scottish wildcat can be found here, although with so few remaining in the wild, it is elusive. That said, they are known to breed with domestic cats, so there are potentially a lot of hybrids roaming the remote reaches of the park.
The bird spotting opportunities here are second to none, and one of the most iconic species is the ptarmigan; a mid-sized grouse species that lives high up in the mountains. In winter, its plumage changes to white to help it blend in with its surroundings. The capercaillie is another grouse species found here, and the males form leks in breeding season, putting on displays where they’ll puff out their chests and make various whistling sounds.
Raptors are abundant in the Cairngorms, and this is one of the few places in the UK where you can spot the majestic golden eagle. These are some of the largest birds of prey in the country and can often be seen soaring through the skies in search of food. Ospreys can also be seen here and will nest in the Cairngorms during summer; they’re common around bodies of water.
Perhaps one of the most interesting bird species in the Cairngorms is the Scottish crossbill because it’s not found in any other country of the UK. With a distinct crossed beak used for extracting seeds, these birds can usually be heard singing in the tops of the trees.
The Cairngorms boasts a lot of alpine habitat which is home to many species, including the mountain hare. These hares have a brown coloration that changes to white in winter to help them camouflage.
This national park also has a lot of waterways, including rivers and lochs, where you may spot aquatic mammals like otters. As I mentioned earlier, beavers were released back into the park some years back, so there’s also a chance of spotting one of these beautiful animals. In the rivers, it’s an anglers paradise with various species of fish. However, the area is most famed for its salmon populations.
Best Time to Visit
Between April and June, the wildlife in the Cairngorms takes on a new lease of life and activity is heightened. Many of the birds that left for winter are now returning, making this a great time for bird watchers to visit.
In the woodlands, many species of wildflowers are starting to bloom like the twinflower; one of the most iconic flowers in Scotland.
With the days becoming longer, summer offers the perfect time to explore the Cairngorms. The wildlife really is at its peak at this time of year, and there’s a good chance of spotting many bird species as well as mammals like the iconic red deer.
What’s more, summer also means a healthy insect population, including several butterfly species like the mountain ringlet and the green hairstreak.
Autumn means rutting season for the red deer that call the Cairngorms home, and the males put on some pretty impressive courtship displays. Always observe from a distance in order to ensure your own safety and that of the animals.
At this time of year, birds are beginning to migrate, so there will be a lot of activity in the skies. The stunning golden eagle is often spotted in autumn.
What’s more, with the changing colors of fall, this is a wonderful time to see the landscape in a whole new way.
Between December and February there’s a good chance that much of the landscape will be covered in snow. Species like mountain hares (that now have their white coats) and ptarmigans can frequently be spotted.
While many birds have migrated, plenty remain, so bird watchers are still in for a treat and may spot waxwings, snow buntings, and the white-tailed eagle.
Other Times to Visit
No matter what time of year you visit the Cairngorms, there will always be an abundance of wildlife. Things like pine martens, red squirrels, and deer can always be spotted, and the ever-changing birdlife is always a treat.
Being a mountainous region, the weather in the Cairngorms can be unpredictable, which means it’s important to take appropriate clothing and gear.
Make sure to book accommodation and activities well in advance, especially during the peak season, as things can get very busy.
What to Explore?
Lochs & Waterways
- Loch Garten: If you’re keen to spot ospreys then Loch Garten provides the perfect opportunity especially since its home to the RSPB Osprey Center, where you can watch these birds as they nest. There are plenty of hiking trails where you’ll encounter other rare wildlife, such as the red squirrel.
- Loch Vaa: While this is a smaller loch, it’s home to many bird species, so excellent for wildlife photography and bird watchers. Don’t forget your binoculars!
- Munro bagging: In Scotland, a mountain over 3,000 feet is called a Munro, and if you’re able to climb to the top, you’ll be rewarded with many wildlife species.
- Cairngorm Mountain: For wildlife encounters with snow buntings and ptarmigans, the Cairngorm Mountain is the perfect spot. There’s a funicular railway that takes you to the top if you don’t want to walk where you’ll be able to take in the amazing views.
- Rothiemurchus Estate: Famous for its ancient Caledonian pine forest, this estate is ideal for spotting woodland creatures like the capercaillie and the red squirrel. There’s also a lot of bird spotting opportunities, especially around Loch an Eilein.
- Mar Lodge Estate: Another estate with plentiful woodlands, Mar Lodge offers the chance to get up close and personal with red deer and a whole host of bird species. You can also take a walk along the river Dee, where you may spot an otter or two.
- Glenlivet Estate: For those keen to spot the golden eagle, the Glenlivet estate offers a good chance. You’ll also find other wildlife like mountain hares and there’s even a discovery center which is a great educational resource.
- Cairngorms Dark Sky Park: Being in such a remote location, there’s no pollution, which makes for one of the best stargazing experiences in the UK. However, this park also has some interesting wildlife and is ideal for exploring the nocturnal creatures of the Cairngorms.
- Glenmore Forest Park: Here, you’ll find an abundance of birds, including the osprey, which can often be seen around Loch Morlich. This park is also ideal for deep spotting, and the elusive pine marten also calls this area home.
- Villages: Don’t forget to check out the villages that surround the national park, all of which are charming and have their own uniqueness to offer. These include Aviemore, Braemar, and Ballater.
- Speyside Wildlife Hide: Located in Kingussie, this hide offers guided experiences which give you the chance to see wildlife up close.
- Caledonian Wildlife: This is an opportunity to take a guided tour, which is ideal for enthusiasts or families with children who want to learn more about this unique ecosystem.
How to Get There
- The closest train station to the Cairngorms is Aviemore, which can be accessed via many services running from all of the major Scottish cities.
- If you’re traveling by plane, then you’ll want to land at Inverness airport.
- The Aviemore Adventurer bus service runs from Aviemore into the mountain park and operates 7 days a week.
- Other bus services are available, but be sure to check the timetables.
- The main route to the Cairngorms National Park takes you along the A9, which enters the park from both the south and the north.
- Traveling by car offers the best flexibility, but I would recommend first heading to one of the Scottish cities as a base. You could choose from Glasgow, Inverness, or Edinburgh.
- There are lots of car parks within the area but the main ones for Cairngorm Mountain charge £3 although it is free over winter.
- Some of the wildlife adventures may require an off-road vehicle, so be sure to check this before you travel and ensure you hire a vehicle where necessary.
Walking & Cycling
- There are numerous walking and cycling trails in the Cairngorms that are a great way to spot wildlife.
- With several guided tours on offer, this gives you the chance to walk through the park at the same time as learning more about the wildlife and conservation of the area.
Where to Stay
If you plan to have an extended stay to fully explore the Cairngorms, then the following locations make the best bases: