Responsible wildlife tourism in Scotland

Knowing which wildlife you're likely to see in Scotland is just as important as understanding the local issues facing the animals, people and natural habitats of the Highlands and the islands. From estate management and hunting traditions to employment for people living in rural areas and the bittersweet impact of tourism; responsible wildlife tourism in Scotland should be at the heart of every vacation. Here's where you find out why:

Wildlife & environment

Wildlife watching responsibly, both on the mainland and around the islands and coastlines of Scotland, will allow you to see animals in their wildest and most natural of settings. Undertaking a tour on land with a qualified nature guide or a sailing safari with a captain, crew and onboard animal expert, also provides employment for local people. The further from the tourist hotspots you can get, the more chances youíll have of seeing animals in untouched natural environments. Youíll also be able to stay with hosts and meet local people who rarely benefit from Scotland's summer crowds.

As with many rural regions in the UK, and beyond, the relationship between Scotlandís traditional country values and animal loving visitors never runs completely true. Offering sustainable wildlife watching tours as profitable alternatives to traditional hunting vacations, we think, will go some way to convincing country estate owners and the Scottish government that things have to change.

Below are some more responsible tourism issues facing Scotlandís wildlife and environment, people and culture, as well as a few suggestions on what you can do to help turn the tide.

Grouse shooting, hare culling & muir burning

The Glorious Twelfth (12 August) signals the start of grouse shooting season in Scotland. Red grouse, in particular, can be shot six days a week (no shooting on Sunday) until 10 December. Scottish country estate owners, gamekeepers and hoteliers cite shooting season as a huge boost to Scotlandís rural economy, with visitors coming from far and wide to shoot grouse in spectacular surroundings. Conservationists consider grouse hunting to be a barbaric, archaic and elitist activity, with other animals also affected through negligence, noise and the killing of natural predators.

Badgers, foxes and stoats all consider grouse to be fair game which, in turn, puts them in the cross hairs and snares of gamekeepers looking to keep grouse stocks plentiful for their guests. Other animals, such as otters, have also become caught in illegal traps and carcass-filled stink pits.

Did you know? Stink pits are legal in Scotland and involve game keepers leaving the dead bodies of deer, birds, fish, domestic cats and livestock in a pit to decompose. The stink attracts animals that may be on the hunt for red grouse. Foxes, for instance. These then become trapped in snares surrounding the pit and subsequently left to die from starvation.
Intensive grouse moor management is having a disproportionate impact on our important upland ecosystems and specially protected birds.
Ė Duncan Orr-Ewing, RSPB Scotland
Birds of prey are protected in Scotland; however, itís no coincidence that numbers of buzzards, golden eagles, falcons and hawks are significantly lower in areas that are managed for grouse shooting. Read more about RSPB Scotland's calls for tougher regulation on grouse moors.

Another unfortunate offshoot of estate management by gamekeepers is the cull of Scotlandís mountain hares. The official season for shooting brown and mountain hares in Scotland runs from August to February. Thousands of hares are killed in an attempt to keep the heather-covered moorland only for the more profitable prey: the red grouse.

Due to the lack of larger predators Ė thanks to gamekeepers killing them all Ė hares thrive in Scotland and large-scale culls are not only keeping down numbers and threatening their conservation status but theyíre largely seen as 'sport' as opposed to any form of sustainable wildlife management. The Scottish government has also come under pressure to regulate hare shooting, as itís been left to gamekeepers to police, and some tend to shoot more than they need to.

Heather burning (muir burning) is another task undertaken on country estates. Heather is a natural cover for grouse and an important source of food. Burning the older heather at the end of the season, when itís dry, tough and less nutritious, encourages fresh and tender plants to grow back. This provides a replenished source of food for grouse. But at what cost? Heather burning not only causes havoc to minibeasts living close to the ground, but it also exposes the underlying peat which emits carbon dioxide Ė one of the key causes of climate change.

An alternative to grouse shooting is to use the moorland for other purposes that will also support local communities living in rural areas of Scotland. Wildlife watching, hiking and wellbeing vacations are examples of financially viable alternative industry thatís sustainable both for the environment and local people. Not only will tourists be encouraged to visit Scotland outside the busier summer season, but theyíll also benefit from finding the Highlands in all their autumnal glory without the constant cacophony of gunshots in the distance.

Dane Stewart from our Scotland wildlife vacation specialists, Tistel Wildlife Guiding, expresses his expert opinion on the need for greater regulations on grouse shooting: ďThe problem is, because itís legal and it is really regulated by the people who profit from the shooting, they are in no real rush to change anything. Even though they and the government say itís subject to government oversight itís really not, and there is very little public scrutiny on this matter. I think the Scottish government does a lot if things well, but conservation on land for grouse shooting is not one of them.Ē
What you can do to help
Visit Scotland in the autumn with the sole intention of watching wildlife rather than killing it. Do your research before you go so that youíre armed with the facts. RSPB Scotland and charitable organisations such as One Kind have plenty of information on why they believe mountain hare culling and grouse shooting require far greater regulations and intervention from the Scottish government.

Stay with local hosts and join a local guide who will be happy to show you the forests and the heather in all its natural glory. Many people living in rural locations understand the need to regulate and manage moorlands and wild animal populations. They also understand the need for employment and the boost to the economy that hunters bring. Just make sure youíre aware of both sides of the argument before you join in the debate. Itís not always as cut and dried as you might think. We need to talk about whatís going on and how sustainable tourism alternatives can provide a win/win solution for rural communities, visitors, wildlife and the environment.

People & culture

Once upon a time, any kind of overcrowding on the Isle of Skye (people or otherwise) would have meant a drove of blackface sheep were seen strolling along the shores of Loch Harport, blocking the road to The Old Inn in Carbost. These days, however, the allure of island idylls and a convenient bridge to the mainland mean Skye, the largest island in the Inner Hebrides, has succumbed, somewhat, to slightly too many tourists.

During July and August every year, coaches crammed with day-trippers criss-cross the Skye Bridge in search of sweet Scottish salvation.

Goodness knows how much time they get to spend sightseeing at each location, but perhaps a selfie at the fairy pools at Glenbrittle or a wee tramp around the car park close to the Man of Storr is enough for some folk before returning from whence they came in search of Nessie.

Rubbish can also be an issue in Scotland, and not just on the islands. Popular tourist areas often feature inadequate bins overflowing with crisp and sweet wrappers, plastic bottles and food waste. Imagine what happens when the wind gets up and all the refuse scatters around the surrounding countryside. An area that was once renowned for its natural beauty and wild nature will become more akin to a rubbish dump where indestructible plastic is left for animals to eat, digest and, well, you know the rest of the story.
What you can do to help
A far better way to see Skye, and any number of Scotlandís smaller islands, is to either travel by public transport Ė ferry or bus Ė or to arrive on a small sailing boat far from the usual points of entry. Not only does a small ship lessen the impact of congestion on tiny rural roads, but youíll also sail on Loch Scavaig, below the Black Cuillin mountains, and see the seals at Sgeir Doigich, before anchoring overnight on Loch Harport, long after the coaches have returned to Inverness.

Better yet, you can take a wildlife safari cruise all the way out to the Outer Hebrides. Your presence will be most welcome by the lesser-visited communities living far from the mainland. Youíll also be able to observe animals in their natural environment without worrying about crowds scaring them off. Alternatively, you can stay on the mainland and head to the Highlands for a camping safari with a nature guide. Overtourism hasnít happened in the Cairngorms yet, and camping out invites opportunities to see red squirrels, roe deer and mountain hares or even otters on the edge of a loch.

Also, donít put your rubbish into an already overflowing bin. Do your bit and take it back home with you. And make sure you bring a reusable water bottle too. Most of the freshwater spring water is absolutely glorious. By filling up for free youíll be doing your bit for the environment as well as getting a taste of Scotland thatís every bit as memorable as catching your first sight of an animal in the wild.

Dane Stewart from our Scotland wildlife vacation specialists, Tistel Wildlife Guiding, tells us why crowds and wildlife watching donít mix: ďI wouldn't say overcrowding is as big as an issue on the mainland as the islands, and thankfully I tend to go to parts where people don't go. When you do see people looking at wildlife they tend to be on a coach trip, so if you stop to look at, say, red deer you may then get a load of people joining you and I think it lessens the experience of being in nature.Ē
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Nevit Dilmen] [Grouse: Alastair Rae] [Mountain hare: John Johnston] [Sailing to skye: brian gillman]