Loch Ness is the largest body of water in the British Isles. Most famous for its monstrous inhabitant ‘Nessie’ it’s become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Highlands. Most visitors come for the loch, the monster, and the castles. However, the surrounding woodlands, hills, and moorlands are home to some spectacular wildlife. Highlights include birds such as ospreys, Slavonian grebes, golden and white-tailed eagles. As well as a range of mammals including pine marten, red deer, badgers, wild boar, red squirrels, and even the possibility of Scottish wildcat.
This special part of the Highlands is also home to the AECOM / Lifescape Project / Emilia & Roger Leese rewilding experiment – the ‘Natural Capital Laboratory‘. As well as a fantastic rewilding project run by Trees for Life who have been working since the 1980s to restore the ancient Caledonian forests that once covered the region. If that’s not enough, another visionary rewilding project has been set up at the Bunloit Estate, and it’s a short hop from here to the Moray Firth where you can see bottlenose dolphins and minke whales!
Average rating: 4.6 (very good)
Average cost: like everywhere in Scotland it’s free to wild camp and most of the wildlife can be found by walking around yourself. Costs are likely to depend on where you stay and what you eat. Most people need a car to get around which can cost around $25 a day.
Best time to visit: the Scottish Highlands are spectacular at any time of year. The (notoriously bad) weather is best from May to September although the warmer months are also the most midge heavy. If you want good weather and no midges go for May or September.
How to get there: the easiest way to get to Loch Ness is from Inverness – around 30 mins drive. You can get a bus from Inverness or even cycle to the Loch (see here for details) although it’s usually easier to go via car. Especially if you’re looking to get away from the Loch and explore the surrounding area in search of wildlife.
Typical activities: animal watching, bird watching, camping, hiking, walking
Number of reports: 14
Last update: 2022
WILDLIFE IN Loch Ness
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the top ten most popular species that can be seen here are:
#1 Golden eagle – 21% OF wildside users (3/14) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Golden eagle populations are on the rise in the Loch Ness area – thanks in part to the work of sporting estates and public sector bodies through the Highland golden eagle project. The project has been so successful that some of the Loch Ness estates are now starting to help golden eagles re-establish themselves in the south of Scotland.
We’ve seen them when walking through the high peat bogs on the hilltops around Ardochy. And we also found evidence of them on the laboratory site using eDNA analysis! If you go looking there are some good tips for eagle watching in Scotland here. There are reports of eagle sightings on some of the cruises on Loch Ness. You could also check out the Trees for Life rewilding project at Dundreggan which has just had their first successful breeding eagles for 40 years! Alternatively, head to the nearby Findhorn Valley for a great spot to see these amazing birds.
#2 Pine marten – 14% OF wildside users (2/14) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Loch Ness area supports a good population of these incredible creatures – although they are difficult to see! At the laboratory site we have lots of camera trap videos of pine martens. But we’ve only seen two in real life – both times running across the road. Some of the best spots to look for them are B&B gardens which leave food out for birds and squirrels. It’s not uncommon for hungry pine martens to arrive looking for peanuts. According to reports on TripAdvisor the Craik Na Dav B&B is a great spot to see them thanks to a resident pine marten called Peanut that regularly visits the garden. Each room has a window facing the feeders and the owners will even knock on your door to give you pine marten alerts!
#3 Red squirrel – 36% OF wildside users (5/14) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Loch Ness is also an important place for red squirrels. And like pine martens, one of the best places to see them is in the gardens of local B&Bs. Craik Na Dav B&B again seems to be a popular place to spot these adorable creatures. While most people go the area in the summer months, it is the autumn time when squirrels are most active and your chances of sightings are highest.
At the laboratory, we’ve been monitoring the red squirrel population by counting the number of pine cones eaten. It seems there’s a population of between 5-9 individuals using the site. The camera traps are full of videos of them scurrying about looking for food – and we’ve even seen them from the windows of the cabin. They’ve also been spotted at the Trees for Life Dundreggan estate north of the loch. You can learn more about the pioneering red squirrel work by Trees for Life here. Alternatively, check out the red squirrel walk at the Falls of Foyers for a great spot to look out for them.
#4 European Badger – 0% OF wildside users (0/14) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
There are plenty of badgers in and around the Loch Ness area – although being nocturnal creatures they are pretty difficult to see! We get plenty of them stumbling across the camera traps at the laboratory site but haven’t actually seen any in the flesh. There are some reports on TripAdvisor suggesting that the Serendipity B&B is a good place to look out for badgers. Be warned – you might have to be patient and happy to sit outside in the dark if you want a chance of seeing any!
#5 White-tailed eagle – 14% OF wildside users (2/14) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK in 1918 due to hunting and habitat loss. In 1975 they were reintroduced to the Isle of Rum in Scotland. Since then they have spread throughout the Highlands. Chances of seeing one in the Loch Ness area are low – although there have been sightings reported on cruises around the loch. As well as on the nearby Loch Mhor. We’ve also seen a couple flying over the laboratory site. They are more likely to be seen perching, on the ground, or flying low down than golden eagles. For more info there’s a fascinating article about the lives of white-tailed eagles in East Scotland here.
#6 Osprey – 0% of WildSide users (0/14) reported sightings
Alongside eagles, you can also see one of the UK’s other raptor stars at Loch Ness – the osprey. These specialist fish-eating birds can be seen diving feet first into the lochs in search of prey. You can occasionally catch them on boat tours of Loch Ness. Although given the size of the loch it’s a bit of a long shot. A better bet is to head to the RSPB Ruthven reserve to the south of the Loch which offers a good chance to see these spectacular birds. They nest from April to September so head there during this time if you want to see one.
#7 Red deer – 50% OF wildside users (7/14) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Red deer are a common sight in the Loch Ness area year-round. They spend the summer up in the hills before moving lower down in the winter where food is more readily available. This means you often have a chance to see them up close – especially in Winter. It’s not unusual in the remoter areas, such as south of the Loch, to find red deer in gardens munching on shrubs and buses! One of the challenges at the laboratory is to keep hungry deer away from the trees we’re planting. Keep a lookout when you’re walking, cycling, or driving and you’ll have a good chance of spotting one. Note, the lack of reports on TripAdvisor is due to people not specifying the type of deer they have seen. Not a lack of deer!
#8 Slavonian grebe – 7% of WildSide users (1/14) reported sightings
The Slavonian (or horned) grebe is one of the UK’s rarest and most beautiful birds. And the Loch Ness are is the best place in the UK to see them. With a population of around 30 grebes, Loch Ruthven is the most important breeding site in the UK for this rare bird. Thanks to the efforts of the RSPB, chances of spotting one are pretty high if you visit the reserve. Although you won’t have much luck anywhere else. The best time to see them is in Spring when they are showing off their golden courtship feathers and ruby red eyes as they look for a mate. Note, there is no TripAdvisor page for the reserve but it’s well worth a visit!
#9 Wild boar – 0% of WildSide users (0/14) reported sightings
Wild boar were once common throughout Scotland but were hunted to extinction around 300 years ago. After an accidental release from a farm in the area, there is now an established population of feral boar living around the Loch Ness area – and locals have even spotted them in their gardens! Despite their large size and fearsome reputation, wild boar are actually pretty difficult to find. Good places to look include the Dundreggan and Bunloit Estates. They are secretive animals, coming out at dusk and feeding throughout the night. So head out early morning or late afternoon. Look for their footprints, poo, scratch marks on trees, and areas of soil that have been recently dug up. It’s also worth getting off the main paths and into the trees away from cyclists and other walkers.
#10 Wildcat – 0% OF WILDSIDE USERS (0/14) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Scottish wildcat – or Highland Tiger – is the UK’s only remaining wild cat. Once widespread across the UK, they are now restricted to northern Scotland. This is due to a combination of habitat loss, hunting, and interbreeding with domestic cats. It’s estimated that there may only be around 30 to 430 individuals left – making them one of the rarest cats in the world. While there may be wildcats in the Loch Ness area – there are priority areas to the north and east of the Loch – any population is likely to be extremely small. There are some nice tips on how to look out for wildcats here. But sadly, your chances of seeing one in the wild are about the same as seeing Nessie.
In addition to the top ten, Loch Ness is also home to a range of other species including: oystercatcher (14% of WildSide users reported sightings), red kite (21%), sika deer (36%), and barn owl (7%).
Photo Credit: Christopher Coupland Photography