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The Inspirational Wildlife of Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains
The wildlife of the Cairngorms is so inspiring. I went in search of wildcats and came back having seen snow hares, red deer and a golden eagle. It was such a magical experience I couldn’t wait to get back to my easel and paint the beautiful creatures I had seen! I’ve just finished the red stag sketch below. Scroll down to see what else I have painted since I returned. Scroll down to watch a video of my trip and see me paint a brand new collection.
Wildlife of the Cairngorms: In Search of Mythical Wildcats
After three months cooped up in my studio painting for an exhibition, I yearned for some time out in the wild. Then, just as I was finishing off one of the paintings for the show, I switched on the news and saw three Scottish wildcats on TV. They had been filmed in Scotland’s Cairngorms.
By the following morning I had packed my bags and set off to try to see one for myself. Scottish wildcats are so rare, they are almost mythical. There are just a few hundred left in the wild; far less than the remaining population of tigers. In fact, these creatures are so scarce it is now easier to see a snow leopard in the Himalayas.
Wildlife of the Cairngorms: Spotting Snow Hares
It was dark and raining heavily by the time I arrived in the Highlands. My headlights picked out a mountain hare on the side of the road. Its fur was beginning to turn white as it adopted a camouflage-coat for winter. A short distance further on a red stag crossed the road in front of me. As I slowed down to watch it, five more stags appeared out of the gloom.
A wave of familiarity swept over me. I was in Scotland. Even if I didn’t get to see the wildcats, there would certainly be enough wildlife here to make my trip worthwhile.
I was up early the next morning. With a six mile hike up a mountainside to reach the spot where I suspected the wildcats had been filmed, I wanted to get a good start. I planned to bike the first three miles, which wasn’t going to be easy with a rucksack containing 30kgs of equipment, including trail cameras, tripods and my usual cameras. (See below for my full kit list). And it was still raining heavily.
Wildlife of the Cairngorms: Stumbling over Red Squirrels and Grouse
As I set off, a red squirrel ran across the track in front of me. I was in a pine forest fringed with silver birch. The birch shone an eerie yellow against the dark green of the pines. I pushed on, pedalling higher and higher up the track. A female black grouse broke cover in a whirr of beating wings. Then another two males followed it; their striking black and white plumage catching the dim morning light as they flew.
Once above the tree line, I heard a red grouse calling out. Then I spotted it as it rose into the air and then landed in its typical fluttering flight. The rain stopped momentarily and a shaft of light hit the hillside, illuminating two red deer hinds as they trotted over the brow of the hill. I stopped for lunch at a tin shed shelter used by deer stalkers for fell ponies. The rain turned to snow.
Within minutes a 30 mile-an-hour blizzard was whipping around the shed and I wondered whether it was wise to continue. The next section involved trekking up the mountain across rough terrain without a path. In the end I decided to leave my bike and some equipment in the shed. The wind blew a thick coating of snow over me and settled around my feet as I walked.
Wildlife of the Cairngorms: Arctic Geese and Swans
Up ahead I could see large birds flying in formation. I got out my binoculars for a closer look. They were pink-footed geese; fresh in from the arctic and I watched them circle before dropping down to land behind a ridge ahead of me where, I knew from my map, there was a loch. Then more red grouse caught my eye, and an almost-white mountain hare broke cover; clouds of snow billowing behind it. Then I saw another and another. Two were still brown-grey in colour. I arrived at the loch, exhausted, to see, swimming among the geese I had watched earlier, a flock of 32 whooper swans. They looked striking surrounded by the snow-covered mountains. It was incredible to think these beautfiul birds had flown here all the way from Iceland.
I pressed on to the spot where the wildcats had last been spotted. It was essentially a boulder field and I had to mind my step to avoid falling into the long drops in between the rocks. Once there, I set up my camera traps and cracked open several tins of sardines. With the blizzard raging around me, I drizzled sardine oil from the tins over the rocks to create a scent-line for the wildcats. Then I left a dead rabbit; roadkill I had found on my way up to Scotland.
My hands were numb and I could barely see in the white-out. I suspected that if the wildcats had any sense they would be tucked away in the boulders or on lower, warmer ground by now so I headed back; the blizzard blowing in my face. It was hard to walk with snow and hail bouncing off my cheeks and before long I realised that I had wandered off course and had to check my bearings against the GPS on my phone to readjust my route.
The red stag rut is a highlight of the wildlife of the Cairngorms
Then I heard a stag roaring. It was the rutting season. As I walked over the brow of the hill I spotted a group of 30 hinds with a stag standing guard over them. A group of hopeful males hung around the fringes of the harem, waiting for a chance to move in on one of the hinds. The winds dropped momentarily and the last rays of sun lit up the deer just as they trotted over the horizon. But then the storm returned with a vengeance, turning the sky a forbidding dark grey. It was time for me to get off the mountain.
I retrieved my bike and free-wheeled the three and a half miles back. Even though I could no longer feel my fingers, I enjoyed speeding down the mountain, the wind whipping against my face and the wildlife I had just seen playing through my mind. Suddenly a roe deer burst cover and leapt onto the track just 10 metres in front of me. Its winter coat shone a burnt-umber against the white of the snow, reminding me that the day wasn’t over yet and there was still plenty more wildlife to enjoy.
My plan was to leave my camera traps out for a few days in the hope that they might capture the movements of the wildcats while I explored the Cairngorms. Scroll down to watch a short video of what I saw.
I spent a day at Glenshee following a herd of more than 100 red deer with my telescope. One stag was busy trying to keep control of his hinds as around 15 rivals waited in the wings, ready to seize their chance to mate with one of the females. Scroll down to see a short video of these beautiful beasts.
The best wildlife of the Cairngorms: Spotting a Golden Eagle
The following day I was scanning a mountain across the valley with my binoculars when a shape drew my attention. It was a large bird silhouetted against the white. To get a sense of scale, I re-focused on a herd of deer further down the mountain. Then the bird took flight; its huge wings opening wide as it launched.
It was a golden eagle. I watched it soar majestically across the snow-covered scenery. Suddenly it was mobbed by ravens. They swooped down on the eagle, honking loudly. Ravens are huge birds, roughly the size of a buzzard, but they were dwarfed against the wingspan of this giant. The eagle ignored them and climbed higher, swirling on air thermals and quartering the ground beneath it as it hunted. I watched through my binoculars until it finally vanished from view.
On the final day I returned to the boulder field to retrieve my camera traps, which was no easy task. It took me 10 hours to get back up to the spot and back again, trudging through deep snow drifts. When I got there I discovered the cameras were buried beneath two feet of snow and had been since I left them there. They had recorded nothing but the snow that covered them.
I was away five days in total and never did catch up with the wildcats, but I came home with so many memories and so much inspiration for new paintings. See the new swans and the snow hare acrylic below. The Scottish Highlands are so rugged and its wildlife is so hardy that each day was filled with incredible encounters.
Click on the image below to watch a short film of my experience in the Cairngorms.
Where to enjoy the wildlife of the Cairngorms
To enjoy the best wildlife that the Cairngorms can offer I stayed at Braemar in the heart of the Cairngorm National Park . My accommodation, in Braemar Cabins, was right in the centre of the town and offered an excellent refuge at the end of the day. From there it was possible to drive to the ski lift at Glenshee, from where I set off to see the red deer herds.
For more information on Braemar see: www.braemarscotland.co.uk. And for more on the Cairngorms visit www.visitcairngorms.com. Click here to learn more about the Scottish Highlands
I wrapped up warm to watch the wildlife of the Cairngorms
It can get bitterly cold in the Scottish Highlands. I wasn’t expecting snow when I visited but I took my warmest clothing anyhow, because in Scotland you never really know what to expect. As it turned out I was met with a bitterly cold blizzard. Thankfully I was prepared and had my hats, gloves and my warmest boots, made by Baffin and also worn by the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes! But my choice of camouflage jackets, from Country Innovation and Laksen were designed to blend in with the mountain terrain in autumn and looked a little out of place in the snow! I should have taken my white ski suit with me!
My kit list to film & photograph the wildlife of the Cairngorms:
I like to take as much equipment as I can, you never know what you are going to need until you are there. Carrying it all up a mountain can be difficult though and sometimes I have to leave some of my stuff behind. Here’s what I packed for this trip:
Telescope System & Binoculars:
GoPro Hero 6
Trail Cameras: x3 Browning 2018 Recon Force Advantage
Gitzo GT3540LS Tripod
GoPro Karma Drone
More paintings inspired by Scotland’s wildlife:
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