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The Highlands

Inverewe

From sea to sky: the Big 5 at Inverewe

Inverewe has a diverse range of habitats, ranging from the sea, coastline, forest and hill to the sky. We’re thrilled that each of Scotland’s Big 5 has made their home here!

Here’s a wee guide for keen wildlife spotters:

Harbour seal

Inverewe enjoys a glorious location beside the sea in a designated Marine Protected Area. We have a resident harbour seal colony on the estate.

Harbour seal bobbing above the water.
Harbour seal bobbing above the water; photographer: Roger Inglis

Gaelic name: ròn calaidh / ròn cumanta (common seal)

Size: Up to 1.45m from the nose to the tip of the tail flipper (grey seals can be up to 2.5m)

Appearance: Their nostrils are v-shaped on a fairly rounded, dog-like head. Grey seal nostrils are parallel slits which are separated below, and they also have much more elongated heads.

Typical diet: Harbour seals feed locally around haul-out sites, eating a wide variety of prey including sand eels, whitefish, flatfish, herring, sprat, octopus and squid.

Lifecycle: One pup per female is born, normally in June/July. All pups need to be able to swim at the next high tide, which may be only an hour after birth. Most pups are born with an adult coat. They stay with their mums for 3–4 weeks, suckling on fat-rich milk and making vocal, physical and visual contact.

Life expectancy: Harbour seals can live for up to 25 years in the wild.

Where to spot them at Inverewe: The seals live in sheltered waters, mostly inshore. The best way to see the seals and their colony is by boat trip, from Inverewe’s jetty: for further information visit our outdoor adventures highlight

Did you know?

Around 80% of the British population of harbour seals live in Scotland, with the most recent minimum estimate being 20,427. However, their numbers are declining, although with large regional variations.

Otters

Since we’re next to the sea, we also care for nearly 5 miles of beautiful coastline, which is home to otters.

An otter explores the rockpools on the edge of Loch Ewe
An otter explores the rockpools on the edge of Loch Ewe; photographer: Roger Inglis

Gaelic name: Dòbhran (or biast-dhubh – dark beast)

Size: 70cm (body), plus 40–45cm tail

Appearance: Due to being semi-aquatic, otters have adapted to life in water with webbed toes, a rudder-like tail, ears and nostrils that close underwater, a waterproof outer coat and an insulating undercoat.

Typical diet: Eelpout, butterfish, rockling, lumpsucker and crabs

Lifecycle: Their usual litter size is 2–3 cubs which are born at any time of the year (except on Shetland and in parts of NW Scotland, where most births happen in summer). Youngsters are raised entirely by their mother and live with her until they’re around a year old. They learn to swim at around 3 months old.

Life expectancy: They’re fairly short-lived, with 3–4 years being typical for a wild otter.

Where to see them at Inverewe: Coastal otters need access to sources of fresh water, such as burns or pools, to wash salt from their fur. Their holts are well hidden under tree roots, in holes in river banks, under rocks and in peat. A good place to spot them is from the Bird Hide; alternatively the boat trip again, as there’s a lot of otter activity around the peninsula, away from the footpaths. Keep an eye out for dark, musky-smelling droppings called ‘spraints’, which they use to mark their territory. These often contain obvious fish and amphibian bones.

Did you know?

Otters have an estimated population of 8,000 in Scotland.

Red squirrels

Moving inland, we reach Inverewe’s woodland where we’re delighted to have reintroduced the red squirrel.

A red squirrel sits on a log, holding a nut in its mouth.
A hungry red squirrel out foraging; photographer: Roger Inglis

Gaelic name: feòrag ruadh

Size: 18–24cm, with the tail adding another 18cm

Appearance: The red squirrel’s ear tufts are distinctive (grey squirrels don’t have them) but they may be absent in summer.

Typical diet: They eat tree seeds all year round, especially from cones; tree shoots, buds and flowers in summer; fungi, berries, fruits and even birds’ eggs in autumn. Conifer seeds (including from Scots pine cones) are high in energy. They’ll also visit nut feeders in some gardens.

Lifecycle: They have one or two litters a year, typically in February/March and May/June or July. Litter sizes vary from 1–6 ‘kittens’, but typically 3–4. Less than a quarter of juveniles survive their first winter.

Life expectancy: Their average lifespan is 3–4 years in the wild.

Where to spot them at Inverewe: They live in coniferous, broadleaved and mixed woodland. Good places to look for red squirrels are around the Scots pines in the woodland areas of the garden, and the Pinewood Trail on the estate, although they can be quite elusive! Alternatively, look for evidence of cone feeding – squirrelled pine cones are distinctive and look rather like sweetcorn-on-the-cob.

Did you know?

Red squirrels are one of the most threatened mammals in the UK, following widespread declines since the mid-20th century. They’re under threat from competition with grey squirrels, death from squirrelpox virus and fragmentation of woods. There are an estimated 120,000 animals (75% of UK population) in Scotland.

Red deer

On the surrounding hills live red deer, Britain’s largest land mammal. 

A red deer stag sits amongst the heather.
An iconic Highland view of the majestic red deer stag; photographer: Roger Inglis

Gaelic name: fiadh ruadh

Size: Red deer are the fourth-largest deer in the world. Stags are larger than hinds (standing between 107–122cm at the shoulder), and those living in woodlands are larger than those that live on the open hill.

Appearance: Only stags grow antlers and these can be over 1 metre in length, with 4–5 tines (points) on each antler. They shed them each spring and they start to re-grow immediately. The nourishing velvet skin that covers new antlers is rubbed off in the late summer and early autumn. The number of tines is not a guide to a stag’s age, although mature stags tend to have thicker antlers than younger ones.

Typical diet: They eat grasses, dwarf shrubs including blaeberry and heather (important in times of winter snow), and trees.

Lifecycle: Calves (born with a spotted coat) are born as singles (twins are rare) typically in late May/June. Female calves tend to stay with their maternal group well into adulthood but stags disperse when they are 2–3 years old. They come together during the mating season or ‘rut’ in late September and October. Stags roar and fight with locked antlers in their battle to win the rights to mate with a harem of hinds. Nearly 1 in 4 stags are injured in some way, with a high likelihood of antler damage occurring during clashes.

Life expectancy: Rarely beyond 15 years but exceptionally up to 20 years in the wild.

Where to spot them at Inverewe: Keep an eye out for them along the Kernsary path. You can also see evidence of them passing through the forest along the Pinewood Trail or Link path. They use different areas of rough grazing at different times of year, seeking more sheltered areas in the winter. Hinds concentrate on relatively grass-rich habitats; stags usually graze on poorer, heather-dominated areas.

Did you know?

The overall population of red deer is around 360,000 in Scotland – sufficiently numerous to lead to conflicts with woodland expansion and conservation interests in some places.

Golden eagle

And finally we look up to the skies, where we may get a glimpse of the majestic golden eagle.

A golden eagle sitting on snowy ground
The majestic golden eagle, king among birds; photographer: Roger Inglis

Gaelic names: Iolair bhuidhe (yellow eagle)

Size: They have a body length of 75–88cm but a wingspan of 204–220cm

Appearance: Adult golden eagles are mostly dark brown (camouflage against the Scottish hills). The feathers on their upper side are generally paler and can appear lightly mottled, especially around the back of the head and on the wing coverts. It’s the pale yellowish or tawny feathers of the head that give the golden eagle its name.

Juveniles have plainer looking plumage than the adults with a darker golden head. When seen from below, most juveniles have large white areas on the outer and inner parts of each wing and a largely white tail (which also looks white from above).

Eagles are twice the size of common buzzards with which they’re most commonly confused. Golden (and sea) eagles have much broader wings, with fingery feathers at the tips. Compare the two models of a buzzard and eagle on the ceiling of the Bird Hide!

Typical diet: Rabbits, hares and grouse as well as carrion (mostly sheep and deer).

Lifecycle: Nest building is most frequent in February and March, and eggs are laid in March and April. The main hatch is in the first half of May. Their typical clutch is 2 eggs. The first-hatched chick may kill the younger chick if there’s insufficient food available. The young are fed in the nest through summer, with most fledging in late July. Fledged young stay in their parents’ territory for several months before leaving between October and December, after which they range widely. Spectacular, undulating display flights are quite common throughout the winter until early spring. Eagles are often easier to see outwith the main breeding season (March–August) but immature birds can be seen all year round and are often more visible than adults, having been chased from occupied breeding territories.

Life expectancy: The record for a wild golden eagle is 32 years (a ringed Swedish bird). Adult life expectancy in non-persecuted populations is probably 20–30 years.

Where to spot them at Inverewe: They can often been seen flying over the estate in good weather. In Britain, their habitat is now confined almost exclusively to the Scottish Highlands and islands, within a range of upland landscapes. They don’t like being wet and will often fly around to dry off after wet days or in between showers on showery days.

Did you know?

We think there are around 400 pairs of golden eagles in Scotland. Land use change continues to affect the population by loss of habitat, and in some areas reduction of prey species. Persecution has also been identified as an issue. There’s evidence that increasingly wet springs are starting to affect productivity.