A Scottish Safari - Spotting Scotland's Big Five

If you're on a culinary tour in the Highlands, a 'Scottish Safari' is will worth incorporating into your itinerary.  You'll not only get a great chance to spot some of the rarest wildlife in the UK - and find out what they like to eat; you'll also get to experience the thrill of the wild landscapes of Scotland.  Here's my account of the time I went looking for Scotland's 'Big Five'.

A Scottish Safari

“Ah,” said Duncan, bending to examine a sticky swirl of animal droppings.  “Pine marten scat.”  He squished off a piece and sniffed it thoughtfully.  “It’s meant to smell of parma violets.  Here,” he held some out on his finger.  “What do you think?”  Thankfully I couldn’t smell much: maybe you need special training - or maybe my nose was just too cold to function. 

I was in the Cairngorms National Park with Duncan Macdonald, a guide with Speyside Wildlife, and we’d been walking for hours, in an icy drizzle, through one of the last remnants of the ancient Caledonian pine forest. It was part of my bid to track Britain’s ‘Big 5’ – otter, badger, pine marten, fox and the elusive Scottish wildcat - the predatory mammals that are our answer to Africa’s ‘Big 5’.   Scotland’s the only place you’ve got a hope of finding them, and since it also boasts creatures like the red squirrel, golden eagle, and mountain hare, it’s the best place in the country for wildlife watching – though you do need a guide.  Not only are our ‘Big 5’ not particularly big, they also tend to be shy.  Wildcats, for instance, are notoriously secretive and while London foxes strut cockily around city gardens, those that live in the wilds of Scotland are altogether more reticent. 

Pine Martens and Peanut Butter

Pine martens are nocturnal and to see them you need to go to a hide with an exterior light.  On my first evening Duncan took a torch and led me, through the darkness, to one on the Rothiemurchus Estate.  He scattered peanuts, sultanas and clots of peanut butter outside to attract them, though as he explained, these were just titbits: “They mostly eat rodents, beetles and eggs, as well as the occasional rabbit.  They’ve got very sharp teeth.” 

They’ve obviously got a sweet tooth too - within ten minutes one was enthusiastically licking a daub of peanut butter from a stone.  With its soft chocolate fur and bushy tail it was larger than I’d expected, like a glossy stoat. Two more soon appeared and began scuffling, then two young badgers lumbered out of the trees and began hoovering up peanuts.  They were so close I could see beads of dew glistening on their fur.  And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, a roe deer slipped cautiously out of the shadows and began to graze. 

Aviemore Woodland Lodges

While it might not be as glamorous as Africa – you pack fleeces, waterproofs and woolly hats rather than shades and shorts – a Scottish safari doesn’t have to mean roughing it.  I stayed in one of Aviemore’s woodland lodges, which together with a 4-star hotel and spa, have made this once tired resort a great highland base. The lodges are Scandinavian in style, with polished wooden floors, squashy sofas and well-equipped kitchens. And thankfully the furnishings have escaped the touch of the tartan fairy.

Comfort’s important, as to really appreciate Scotland’s wildlife you have to get out and walk – and wait.  After spending the next morning getting frozen as we fruitlessly looked for red squirrels, we spent the afternoon getting frozen at Loch Garten, searching for otters. In summer, hundreds of visitors come here to watch the ospreys that nest nearby – but in the autumn it’s quiet.  Our blood chilled slowly as we scanned the water time and again, while the light on the mountains changed from golden to grey and finally to surly black.  We spotted a buzzard - or ‘tourist eagle’ as it’s known locally - but not a hint of an otter.  I made full use of Aviemore’s spa that night, thankful that they’d included ‘massage’ among the treatments on offer.

The Elusive Capercaillie

As in Africa, you need to get up early to see the most elusive animals.  It’s rare even to see a sign of a wildcat, but I did hope to spot a capercaillie - not one of the Big 5, but a bird so scarce in Britain it’s in danger of extinction. On my last morning, we set off soon after light to walk through the ancient Abernethy Forest.  We hadn’t got far when Duncan pointed to a pawprint, clearly pressed into a patch of mud.  “Wildcat,” he said.  “It’s very distinctive, there are no claw marks like you’d get with a dog.”  I felt as excited as if it had been the print of a lion.

We walked on and passed mounds of regurgitated rowan berries, left by queasy pine martens, and heard the strange bubbling call of a black grouse.  Eventually we came across a ribbon of grey dung filled with pine needles. “Capercaillie,” whispered Duncan.  “And it’s fresh.”  We looked around, but could see nothing.  And then, just as I’d given up, there was a clatter of feathers and a large black capercaillie disappeared into the trees.  Who needs Africa?

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