About mammals in Scotland


Scotland’s Land Mammals

Mammals are one of the secret Kingdoms of Scotland.  Did you see a mammal today? (Other than the rabbit or the grey squirrel – both introduced – or something the cat brought in?) Our largest remaining mammals are all restricted to the sea and our wild land mammals have learned to come out mainly at night. Despite that an abundance of mammals live around us from the miniscule pygmy shrew (weighing about 5 grams – that is about the same as a penny) to the humpback whale (weighing in at 36,000kg – that is more than 2 double decker buses).  Read a little more about them here. 

Mammals under pressure

The main historic threat to our land mammals was hunting, particularly once the firearm and game management came together.   The wild cat and the pine marten were widespread in Britain until about the 19th Century but survived only in the Highlands of Scotland because this was still a relatively wild place.  Legal protection may ensure their precarious survival.  Today the main pressures on land mammals are from habitat change and loss.  The water vole and the red squirrel are also threatened by the impact of introduced species.  Our marine mammals can suffer disturbance, injury and death as a result of human activities. These include entanglement in fishing nets, reductions in fish populations, chemical pollution and underwater noise.

Discovering the Secret Kingdom

Scotland is a superb place to see wild mammals although it takes a little extra effort.  Twenty-three species of whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans) have been recorded in Scottish waters – about seven of these can be seen regularly from a boat or even from our coasts. You can also find seals all around our coasts, and they can sometimes be curious and easy to observe. Otters are harder to spot, but you can see them playing and feeding near the shore, particularly in the western and northern isles.

On land what could be more spectacular that a herd of a several hundred red deer? Try driving up a quiet highland glen on a summer evening or during the day in winter.  To watch other mammals you need to spot the signs and read the wind carefully.  But badgers are quite an easy start: they can be watched in most parts of Scotland.  There are special hides to start you off at Lanark and near Grantown.  On the mountains look out for the almost tame mountain hares – bright white in winter.  Foxes mate in January and can often be seen then or when they are anxious to feed their growing cubs in early spring.  For other mammals, such as the beautiful roe deer, dawn and dusk in summer are your best times when they are out in good light. 

To find out how mammals are protected in Scotland and Scottish waters, go to our species protection  and licensing pages

What should I do if I see a mammal?

Mammals are poorly recorded in much of Scotland so every observation may help.  There are several schemes for recording mammals accessible from the Tracking Mammals Partnership  page including mammals at home, winter mammal survey, mammals on roads and the national bat survey. 

If you encounter any marine mammals, please make sure you follow the Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code. Sightings of live cetaceans can be reported to the Sea Watch Foundation. Any live stranded animals should be reported to the Scottish Society for the Protection of Animals (SSPCA)  . Contact your local SSPCA office or contact the Animal Helpline on 03000 999 999 for details. Any dead cetaceans, seals or otters should be reported to the Scottish Agricultural College  which runs the Scottish Strandings Scheme (01463 243030).

Marine mammals

Scotland is one of the best places in Europe to see marine mammals. Find out more about these spectacular creatures in the pages below

Minke Whale, Balaenoptera acutorostrata

The magnificent minke whale is the commonest of the baleen whales around Scotland, and the one you are most likely to see from headlands and ferries. The best chance of a close view is to take a whale watching trip from an accredited operator, when you might be rewarded with a life changing close encounter with a minke surfacing or spy-hopping near the boat.

Why are minke important?

Minke Whale

Minke are charismatic, intelligent marine mammals, and greatly enrich the marine life of Scottish coasts. Surveys in 1994 and 1995 estimated numbers in the eastern Atlantic at 110,000, with 8,500 in the North Sea, but the International Whaling Commission   believes that minke populations have still not recovered from past whaling. Because of their relatively small size, minke whales were not hunted by Scottish whalers until stocks of all the larger species were depleted. They are still the subject of limited targeted whaling by Norway and Iceland, which may impact on populations around Scotland. Minkes sometimes get entangled in fishing gear, and may be injured by collisions with shipping. PCBs and other pollutants accumulate in their blubber and may impact on their health, and there is concern that they may suffer from noise made by ship traffic, seismic testing for oil and gas, and by the military. In recognition of the importance and vulnerability of the minke and its close relatives, there is a grouped species action plan for all baleen whales in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan  , now taken forward by the Scottish Government under the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy  .

How can you recognise them?

Although the smallest of the baleen whales, the minke is still an impressively big animal: females are up to 8.5m (28ft) long, and males only a little smaller. When a minke surfaces, most often all that is seen is a long, arched back, and a sickle-shaped dorsal fin. Closer to, paler grey markings on its side may show as light chevrons between the blowhole and the dorsal fin, and there is a pale band on each flipper. The blow from a minke’s double blowhole is inconspicuous and rarely more than 2m (6ft) tall. Minke rarely breach clear of the water, but they may ‘spy hop’ – rising partly out of the water vertically to check their surroundings, and they regularly approach boats.

Where do they live?

Minke whales have a virtually worldwide distribution, and can be seen throughout Scottish waters. They feed mainly in shallower water over the continental shelf, rather than out in the open ocean. They regularly appear around sandbanks or where upwellings bring nutrients and fish near the surface, or in the strong currents around headlands and small islands. They will often come close to land, even entering estuaries, bays and inlets.

How do they live?

Minke whales feed on a wide range of mostly smaller fish: sandeels, herring, sprat, haddock, saithe, whiting and small cod, as well as krill and other animals of the plankton. They feed by engulfing prey in their huge open mouths. Longitudinal furrows on their throat allow it to expand enormously to accommodate huge volumes of seawater. When they close their mouths, the seawater is squeezed out through hanging curtains of baleen, the minke’s own fishing net, while the fish are swallowed. Some minkes dive deep and chase fish towards the surface; this often attracts large flocks of seabirds which benefit from the feast, and are often a useful signpost that there are whales around. Minke are most often spotted around Scotland between July and September, but they can be seen at any time between May and October, and a few may stay here year-round.

Dolphins and porpoises

Five species are relatively common and can often be seen either from our shores or from a boat:

  • Harbour porpoise
  • Bottlenose dolphin
  • White-beaked dolphin
  • Common dolphin
  • Risso’s dolphin

Bottlenose dolphins


The Moray Firth supports the only known resident population of bottlenose dolphins in the North Sea. This is a small population of about 120 animals that ranges throughout the Moray Firth and all the way down the east coast at least as far as the Firth of Forth. The Moray Firth Special Area of Conservation was created to protect the bottlenose dolphins that use this important area.


Harbour porpoises are the smallest cetaceans found in Scottish waters. They are also the most abundant cetacean in inshore waters, being found all around our coastline. They tend to be alone or in small groups, although they may form larger groups in areas where there is an abundant food source.


If you are patient and watch carefully from a vantage point, such as a headland, you may catch a glimpse of a harbour porpoise, although in rough water it can be difficult to pick out their small dorsal fins. They are less likely to display than other cetaceans and tend to move quickly away from approaching boats.

See details about how we are protecting our dolphins and porpoises and information about licensing.


Species present in Scotland

Two species, the grey seal Halichoerus grypus and harbour or common seal Phoca vitulina, are present around the coast of Scotland in internationally important numbers



Grey seals breed on wave-exposed rocky coasts, sometimes on sand or shingle beaches at the foot of cliffs, often on relatively remote islands. Large groups of pregnant females return to traditional breeding sites in the autumn at the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Shetland, Orkney a few places on the north and far north-east coast of Scotland and in the Firth of Forth to give birth. The pups are born with white hair that thins steadily over the first three weeks of life. Female harbour seals haul out to give birth at natal breeding sites within their more restricted range in early summer. Pups are born having already shed their white coat in the womb.


Outwith the breeding season they can be found hauled out on the islands or coasts closest to the open sea, perhaps closest to their preferred offshore feeding areas. These areas include the outer fringes of Shetland and Orkney, the west coast of the Out Hebrides, outer islands in the inner Hebrides, outer sandbanks in the Firth of Tay and the Moray Firth.


Harbour seals prefer more sheltered waters and are faithful to a more restricted range routinely travelling 40-50Km from their haul out site to forage for food. The harbour seal strongholds are Shetland, Orkney, the east coast of the Outer Hebrides, most of the Inner Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland (from Skye and Lochcarron down to Arran in the firth of Clyde), the Moray Firth and the Firth of Tay. There are smaller numbers along the north coast, the far north-west coast and in the Firth of Forth.


The main anthropogenic threats to seals are from:

  • Excessive pollution, for example pups are particularly vulnerable to physical contamination from oil spills.
  • Toxic chemicals, for example organochlorines or brominated flame retardants can be ingested and accumulate in the blubber.
  • Angling and fish farms, for example shooting at salmon rivers or at fish farms.
  • Entanglement in fishing nets.
  • Marine renewable turbines; the nature and scale of any response of seals to marine turbines, or the impacts of turbines on seals are unknown at present and are being studied at various locations including Orkney and northern Ireland.

The main natural threats are from:

  • Disease, in both 1988 and 2002, harbour seals were affected by phocine distemper virus (PDV), approximately half the seals on the east coast of England, mainly around The Wash died in 1988, mortality was considerably lower in Scotland.
  • Killer whales, in recent years killer whales have been seen more regularly in Shetland and Orkney and have been observed feeding on both harbour and grey seals.
  • Climate change, the most noticeable effect of climate change on seals is likely to be through changes in the distribution and the availability of their prey.



On the 1st February 2011 it became illegal to kill a seal in Scotland except to alleviate suffering without a licence issued by Marine Scotland under Part 6 of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010  .

Under European legislation, both seals species are of “community Interest” meaning they are relatively uncommon across Europe as a whole. Under this legislation, known as the Habitats Directive, Scottish Natural Heritage have identified a number of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for harbour and grey seals. SACs were selected on the basis of the numbers of seals breeding within each area combined with a reasonably even spread of areas around Scotland.

What do seals eat?

Seals eat fish and are often regarded as undesirable competitors by fishermen. In the open sea, seals are only one group of animals that eat fish. The main consumers of fish around Britain are: humans, cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), birds, fish, and seals.

Are seals declining in Scotland?


Recent figures show that harbour seal numbers around Scotland as a whole are declining. The decline was first noticed in the Northern Isles and the east coast and the latest results confirm that the harbour seal populations of Orkney, Shetland and the Firth of Tay continue to decrease. So far the Moray Firth population appears to have stabilised and the west coast of Scotland and the Outer Hebrides population does not appear to to be showing the same dramatic decline as the Northern Isles. The reason for the decline is not yet clear and is quite mysterious since harbour seals have declined and grey seals have not. There have been no obvious signs of disease in the harbour seal population and therefore the decline is thought to be due to a number of factors including climate change (particularly the effect on the seals prey such as sandeels and the competition between species for reduced amounts of prey), predation (for example from killer whales), pollution and shooting. The Sea Mammal Research Unit  at the University of St Andrews are currently undertaking a number of studies to determine the reasons for the decline including a study tracking harbour and grey seals to see if they visit the same offshore feeding grounds.

Land mammals

Our large mammals, the bear, the wolf, the elk and the lynx, were exterminated long ago but Scotland still has a wealth of mammals. As thousands of badger watchers will testify, our largest remaining terrestrial carnivore is a delight to see. Many mammals are protected and Scottish Natural Heritage helps to monitor their populations. If you want to help conserve mammals or just learn more about the mammals around you, you can become a member of the special interest groups like the Bat Conservation Trust, The Mammal Society or Scottish Badgers.

Britain’s biggest carnivore

Britain’s largest remaining carnivore has a fearsome folk reputation (and you should certainly seek help before attempting to approach a hurt badger) but in fact it is a specialist feeder on earthworms.  Each night when they emerge from their burrows (called setts and often impressive excavations) they check the air to work out where in their territory the worms will be emerging from the soil.  In droughts the worms stay underground and the badgers suffer. At such times they turn to other foods – animal and vegetable.   


This love of worms has helped the badger to survive the destruction of most of our woodland. Earthworms are at highest density in ancient woodland but they are remain in lower numbers when the woods are gone and so can support badgers.

Threats to the badger

The supposed ferocity of the badger lead to the sport of badger baiting in which badgers were dug out to have dogs set on them. The abhorrence with which this is regarded has led to strong legal protection  for this species. Badgers and badger setts are protected from any disturbance. Like all species they are affected by development but there are some ways to mitigate the impact. 

Where to enjoy badgers

Badgers are still found throughout Scotland often in surprising numbers.  Look out for the signs when you are walking in the countryside or even in the town.  These include their neat latrine pits, their distinctive paw prints in mud and scuffles where they have snuffled through the grass.  In this way you can work out how they are using your local area. 


Best of all you may see one of their setts which typically have many large holes with large mounds of excavated spoil outside.  Badgers can be watched here quite legally as long as you take care not to disturb them: be sure to sit downwind and very quietly.  In summer in Scotland they normally emerge in full sunlight so arrive early.  There are public hides at New Lanark and near Aviemore to get you started and the Scottish Wildlife Trust organise public badger watches in the centre of Edinburgh. 

Red squirrel

Is there a mammal more beautiful than the red squirrel?  Despite their popularity, Scotland’s red squirrels are one of our most threatened species.  Without urgent help they could become extinct in Scotland before the century ends.

The problem

Red squirrel

Red squirrels rely on woodland.  They feed, nest and breed in trees and need good amounts of well-managed woodland to survive.  Loss of woodland in the past has undoubtedly caused difficulties but woodland owners and managers now recognise the challenges facing squirrels and are taking action to help them.

The biggest problem for red squirrels is the introduced grey squirrel.  These animals were brought over from North America in the late 19th and early 20th century by people who thought they would make an attractive addition to our parks.  Unfortunately grey squirrels love our countryside and survive well, out-competing the smaller, more specialised red squirrel across much of its range.  Once found across Britain, red squirrels have been lost from most of England and Wales.  Scotland now has the largest proportion of red squirrels, with an estimated 121,000 of the 160,000 British population living in our woodlands, parks and gardens.

Red squirrel

Grey squirrels also brought disease with them.  Over generations, they have become immune to many of their viruses and diseases but our red squirrels are not.  The biggest problem is squirrelpox virus which is fatal to red squirrels.  It is currently found only in South Scotland but, if this disease is allowed to spread, the rest of the Scottish population could be at risk.  This is possibly the single greatest risk to the future of red squirrels in Scotland.

What are we doing?

Red squirrels were one of the first species identified as needing urgent action and a Species Action Plan was published under the Biodiversity Action Plan in 1995. In 2007, Scottish Natural Heritage included it on the Species Action Framework which provides a variety of practical actions to help the species survive.

Legally, red squirrels and their dreys are fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981   and Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004  .  However, statutory protection is not enough to save squirrels without local and public support and we are working with both the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels   project and Red Squirrels in South Scotland  project to provide management guidance to woodland owners as well as reducing the threat from grey squirrels and the diseases they carry. Red Squirrels of the Highlands are also working hard to make sure that red squirrels continue to have a sustainable home in the main area of the country without grey squirrels.

Red squirrel

Forestry Commission Scotland has identified a number of red squirrel strongholds   which will be managed in the future to support red squirrels, even if grey squirrels spread.  Scottish Natural Heritage is also identifying key locations for grey squirrel control which will, with a little effort, reduce the pressure from dispersing grey squirrels.  These project will be combined in 2010 to a single policy on Government action to conserve red squirrels.

What can you do?

You can help red squirrels by letting us know where you see them   or by join a local group to help with survey, education or promote awareness for the animals in your area.

Other small mammals

Small scale predators

There are five species of insectivore in Scotland: hedgehogs, moles and common, pygmy and water shrews.

Shrews live their short, busy lives in the fast lane. Their very high metabolic rate means that they need to eat 80-90% of their body weight (in the form of hundreds of small invertebrates) every day, and nearly twice this when feeding young. If deprived of food for more than a few hours they will die. They are territorial and frequently aggressive to one another. Dead shrews can sometimes be found lying out in the open. This is perhaps surprising given their size and vulnerability to a predators, but explanation lies in the scent glands located along their flanks which produce a distasteful musky odour. Despite being unrelated to mice, they were sometimes referred to as ‘thraw mice’ in folklore and were formerly subjected to persecution owing to the belief that if one was allowed to run round the feet or hands the limbs would lose their power for ever afterwards. It was even thought that they could cause death to cattle! Such superstitions may have arisen from their distasteful properties. Shrews are actually beneficial to humans because they consume so many leatherjackets, caterpillars and plants bugs.

Moles and hedgehogs occur over most of mainland Scotland and a few islands including Skye and Mull. Hedgehogs were introduced to the Western Isles (South Uist) in the 1970s and now number over 7,000. Their predation of the eggs of ground-nesting birds, particularly in the machair areas of the Uists has resulted in the establishment of the Uist Wader Project.

Moles are at their most abundant in deciduous woodland with its abundant invertebrate life although you will see few molehills because the tunnel systems are less often damaged and can be handed down from generation to generation.  Fortunately for moles they are able to adapt to agricultural land where their hills are more frequent.  In Scotland they also occur at low density in coniferous forests, moorland and sand dune systems. 



Rodents are generally perceived as agricultural and domestic pests but include threatened species such as the red squirrel and water vole and island specialists like the St. Kilda mouse, Orkney vole. Abundant species  such as the field vole and the wood mouse play a critical role in the food chain.  Their numbers in some cases regulate populations of our larger predators. Rats are a conservation threat on some off-shore islands where they can seriously affect our internationally significant seabird colonies

Other carnivores


Of all the carnivores, the fox is arguably the most adaptable and can be found in almost every habitat in Scotland. Foxes are mainly active at night but can be seen in daytime where they are not disturbed, in the mid-winter mating period (when foxes are also most vocal) and in the desperate time when they are feeding young cubs. 


The basic family unit is a pair but groups of up to six individuals (an adult male and several vixens) may share a territory. This territorial behaviour stabilises the population density by setting a limit on the number of animals in an area. As with other territorial mammals, fox densities are usually higher in the lowlands due to the greater amount of potential prey. Fox dens (‘earths’) may be actively excavated where the soil type allows, or created from enlarged rabbit warrens. Unlike badgers, bedding is not brought into the den and the cubs are born on bare ground but food is brought back so fur and feathers around the hole indicate foxes are at home and not badgers. 

Stoats and weasels

Both the weasel (Mustela nivalis) and the stoat (M. erminea) are widespread and abundant. In Scotland the stoat is the more abundant but both are more numerous than any other Scottish carnivore. Both are routinely controlled by gamekeepers but appear able to maintain healthy populations and have increased since the mid 1990s.

Mustela nivalis

Their size difference affects the range of prey species they can take. Both species habitually enter the tunnels of their prey: weasels are especially well suited to following field and bank voles along their runs and burrows, including tunnels formed beneath snow, whereas stoats are restricted to wider burrows, such as those of rabbits, rats and water voles. Rabbits form the bulk of the stoat’s diet and the local distribution and population density of stoats are closely related to those of rabbits. Stoats occasionally den in buildings, although this behaviour seems to be much less common than amongst pine martens.

Polecats and ferrets

The polecat (Mustela putorius) was persecuted to extinction in Scotland by the early 20th Century but subsequent (unofficial) reintroductions have resulted in population becoming established in Argyll and possibly Perthshire. The Argyll population and another in Cumbria provide hope that this species could recolonise the west and south-west of Scotland.

Mustela putorius

The closely-related feral ferret (M. furo) has been bred in a variety of colours and can interbreed with polecats. Those with polecat-type markings, known as ‘polecat-ferrets’, can be easily confused with true polecats. As ferrets are widely kept in captivity, escaped animals occur almost anywhere, making it difficult to verify the existence of truly feral (self-sustaining wild) populations. Despite the high number of ferrets lost to the wild each year, feral populations are not obvious on the mainland except in Speyside and Sutherland. But they thrive on offshore islands with numerous rabbits and few other carnivores and are already established on Shetland, the Uists, Benbecula, Bute, and Islay. 

American mink

 The American mink (Neovison vison) became established in the wild in the 1950’s as a result of numerous escapes and releases from fur farms. It has now spread throughout most of the country except, as yet, Caithness and most of Sutherland. Colonisation in Scotland has taken longer than elsewhere in Britain and has occurred in the context of a strong, and increasing, otter population. While the overall trend in mink numbers appears to be upward, there is some evidence that the species may be declining in some areas.

Neovison vison

Mink are usually associated with aquatic habitats, including coastal areas where the species is particularly abundant. They are present on the Western Isles – where the Hebridean Mink Project is aiming to eradicate them to protect the internationally important populations of ground-nesting birds.

Mink are extremely adaptable opportunist predators and can exploit a wide range of mammals, birds and fish. There is strong evidence that mink are implicated in the drastic decline of water voles in the UK. Mink predation on eggs and chicks at seabird colonies on the west coast and the Western Isles has resulted in widespread breeding failures and a decline in breeding numbers. Mink may also account for a large proportion of salmonid mortality in some river systems.

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