A Guide to Nature and Wildlife Tourism in Scotland

Red Squirrel, Highland Perthshire | © Courtesy of the Author
Red Squirrel, Highland Perthshire | © Courtesy of the Author
In recent years Scotland has firmly cemented her position as a leading destination for travellers. With initiatives like the North Coast 500 and “best destination” accolades from a wide range of sources: sailors, cinema-fans, and a recent vote as the most beautiful destination in the world, people are increasingly viewing this small nation as a must-visit location. A major reason for this is the incredible scenery, wildlife and nature that call it home. Here we explain how these stunning natural assets have brought in visitors to areas of Scotland that were once considered too remote to be profitable, bringing important economic benefits to one of the most peripheral areas of Europe.

Scotland has always attracted wildlife enthusiasts. Originally these were a dedicated few, willing to put up with long journey times, occasionally obstructive landowners, and fewer subjects to photograph or spot. As gamekeepers waged war against the very species tens of thousands of people now travel to see, and tree cover was removed through overgrazing or to make way for larger grouse moors, Scotland almost lost some of her most iconic creatures. It was through tireless hard work and education that visitors can now see birds such as the osprey — extinct in the UK before returning through natural recolonisation in 1954 and then fiercely protected to prevent criminals stealing the eggs. All this hard work resulted in greater public perception of the benefits of natural habitat and allowing wildlife to live alongside other land use options. It has also brought in generations of tourists who travel to Scotland to experience wild places and the animals and birds that inhabit them.

Pine Marten © Peter GW Jones/Flickr

The famous Royal Society for the Protection of Birds site at Loch Garten, close to Aviemore, has attracted around two and a half million visitors since it opened in 1959, with many people returning year after year. There are no figures that specifically cover tourism attracted to Scotland because of the wildlife, but Loch Garten serves as a good case study. As infrastructure was updated, with road, rail and air links all vastly improved in the last decade of the 20th century, more people began to visit Scotland. Each of these spends money locally, on accommodation, food, and entry to attractions, for example, then there is also the money spent directly on nature tourism.

Capturing the Photographer, Glencoe © John McSporran/Flickr

During the last decade digital photography and editing tools and techniques have become readily available and it has become increasingly possible for everyone to take incredible photographs of landscapes and wildlife. Scotland began to see elevated numbers of visitors whose primary focus was to hunt for wildlife, a trophy hunting of the 21st century; with the goal being to snap a photo of a red squirrel, deer, orca, dolphin, wildcat or any one of the other magnificent creatures found in Scotland. An industry developed around this, with photography tours normally associated with exotic destinations providing employment and benefits to the local economy. In 2010, a landmark study by Scottish Natural Heritage examined the available data and determined nature-tourism to be worth a staggering £1.4 billion ($1.9 billion), a figure that keeps growing year by year. Wildlife watching tours have also boomed, with both land-based safaris and boat trips available across the nation. Accommodation options are regularly marketed and advertised with wildlife viewing in mind and other activities, such as skiing, hiking, cycling, bushcraft courses, or kayaking are booked with the goal of getting close to the natural world.

Stag in Misty Sutherland © Courtesy of the Author

However, with this increase in visitor numbers comes a greater level of responsibility. Wild areas require delicate handling and conservation; for example, many feet can erode pathways, too many loud voices can scare nesting birds, visitors need new accommodation options, too many vehicles on narrow single-track roads can have a negative impact on traffic and farm and estate access. Scotland is lucky that these issues have been identified early enough to be controlled and managed, with several excellent charities, companies and government agencies working together to control any problems arising from increased footfall in wild places.

Red Squirrel, Highland Perthshire © Courtesy of the Author

The future for nature-based tourism in Scotland is strong and bright. The country draws more and more visitors each year, some travelling many thousands of miles, others simply driving north from England or Wales, or catching a ferry across from Northern Ireland. As land use alters in Scotland, with several estates already realising they stand to make a sizeable and sustainable income from attracting visitors armed with a camera, or even just a smartphone, rather than hunters with guns, so too does the opportunity for wildlife to flourish increase. The recent reintroduction of beaver and ruling that the species is now protected by law is a prime example, as are the plans to reintroduce the lynx. As ecosystems become more natural, with balance restored, so too does the potential to attract further numbers of visitors grow, with Scotland’s already stunning scenery becoming even more beautiful, full of birdsong and the wildlife that should be there.

European Lynx © Courtesy of the Author