The Highland Wildlife Park

Within the Scottish Highlands lies the Cairngorm National Park (covering a large chunk of the region) and within this park lies another park- the Highland Wildlife Park. Tucked away in the Highland hills, sitting amongst a backdrop of spectacular mountains, the wildlife park is today the jewel in the highland crown.

A Brief History

The Highland Zoo was founded in 1972 by London-born highlander Neil Macpherson. The ex militant spent time in Austria during his national service and gained a great love for mountains- leading him to the highland Munro’s when he returned.

Along with partners Ken Hughes and John Bingham, he would establish a land agency company In Inverness. This required him to visit many estates around the highlands, and during these travels he had come across many wildlife. Feeling incredibly lucky to see these animals (that most people don’t see), he and his wife June began plotting what would become the Highland wildlife park, supported by the Highlands & Islands Development Board.

The park was a huge success in its first decade or so, largely to due to the publicity of Felicity the Puma. Puma’s were formally native to Scotland, and the one brought to the park escaped. It was killed by a nearby farmer who then claimed that this was proof Pumas were still in the country, with the Highland Wildlife Park initially keeping quiet about it (most likely fearing repercussions). Rather than the negative affects anticipated, it was actually a significant boost to tourism to the park- leading many to suggest it was all a publicity stunt.

This early success began to tumble following the creation of the A9, as the new motorway would bring an end to the importance of the previous route through Kincraig (which was the main route to much of the Highlands). The Highland council repeatedly rejected any appeals for signs to be placed on the A9, which is very bizarre- but so was alot of things in the the 70s it seems). Anyway, this left the young park difficult to locate, with visitor numbers subsequently dropping dramatically. They did eventually get signs and better advertisements, by the way, and the visitor hits increased. The park was purchased by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) in 1986, who also operate Edinburgh zoo.

The Park, now effectively under national ownership, stagnated for much of the late 20th & early 21st century and required significant work on the grounds. This included an expansion and the introduction of a learning centre and carpark, aswell as improved enclosures for the animals. This on top of the introduction of a new main reserve featuring extended drive through areas. Despite this, the stagnation continued.

To counter this RZSS put a plan in place to introduce wild animals from different countries. All the animals were previously native to Scotland* (at some point and time)-Red Deer were dominant initially, while wolves, lynx’s, wildcats and our old clown pal, the Arctic Fox, were soon introduced to the park. However this was ended in 2007 when the RZSS began putting their plan into practice by bringing international wild animals in- with the Japanese Macaque being one of the parks first international guests. Today, the park is dominated by wild animals from different countries in different continents, being home to more than 300 animals. The visitor numbers are now more than 200,000 per year (this being more than double the numbers in 2006, when it was Scotland* animals only).


Wolves

There was many wolves in Scotland, for centuries- long before Scotland was Scotland. They were considered trouble and a huge problem. In the 14th century, small safe houses were erected at points on highways in the highlands for protection and safety. They were also notorious for digging up graves, leading to the introduction of wolf-proof coffins in the 16th century. They were famously hunted by the Royal Families- King James VI considered them such a threat that he made it mandatory that the wolves were to be hunted atleast 4 times per year, while Mary Queen of Scots regularly hunted wolves on her visits to Perthshire.

Sir Ewan Cameron is the man held credited with killing the last wolf in Scotland, in 1680 at Killiecrankie Forrest. However there have been sightings of wolves in the late 19th century- but no concrete evidence of wolves in Scotland have been provided since Killiecrankie. As for their reintroduction, the reason for their persecution still stand as cause for concern today. The demonic reputation that the wolf has gained over the years has also been damaging for the pro-wolves party, with them being known as fierce, aggressive and dangerous. In fact though the wolf is a very shy animal, and will be no less dangerous than dogs. The claim that wolfs used to attack humans in the country is falsified, and is most likely due to humans hunting them- as this is the only time they will tend to attack humans. While the possibility of these old stories of wolves being made up by the crown, who loved to pursue them, is very high.

Today their is much calls for reintroduction, with the farmers being the cheerleaders. Wolves in the highlands would control the red deer population- with wolves being one of their primary predators. This is the predominant reason, with the deer also ruining natural forest regrowth with their grazing issues. The wolves would keep the deer on the move though, which would allow these forests a chance to regrow. Regardless of whether we agree to reintroduce them- they might not want to come back! I don’t think anybody has considered that.

A brief look at the European Grey Wolves, here at the Highland Wildlife Park. Not always Grey in colour, the wild wolf is about the same size as a big dog. Their diet consists of small mammals such as deer, and furthering my points above (of the concern of reintroduction) they are also widely known to feast on various types of domesticated breeds of livestock. Unlike many of the canine family they are not particularly solitary animals and are famous for their living and hunting in large packs. They can be found in the mountains of Eastern Europe and Western Russia, with scattered packs found in central Europe aswell.


Amur Tiger

Native predominantly to Russia, with some scattered in northern china, the Amur Tigers are the largest cats in the world. Their tail alone is around 1 metres long. They all seem to look the same, but they are all incredibly unique- their famous stripes represent a unique pattern- a pattern that you will not find on another tiger. In orders words, no two tigers have the same stripes, like our own fingerprints.

This may not be required nowadays though, as their is only an estimated 750 of them left in the wild. However this is great progress, with the famous subspecies surviving predictions of extinction in the 1940s- when there was only just 40 left in the wild. They were on the brink following being relentlessly hunted. The old soviets considered themselves as this animals main predator, with the hunting of the animal subsequently becoming very popular. The prospect of killing a tiger being considered an act of courage in the nations, aswell as the animals false reputation for killing humans, are other factors for their poaching. This was all ended in 1947 when the soviet government banned the hunting of the Amur Tigers.

Back to the fur, and as you might have imagined, (with them living in Russia) it is very thick, dense, and like the Arctic Fox is equipped to provide insulation. In terms of themselves as the predator, they will hunt deers, wild pigs, and other smaller mammals, while they often enjoy a salmon from time to time. They are not the best swimmers (like most cats) but they are adapted to moving in rivers due to them being a feature of their habitat. Salmon travel in very very large numbers so wouldn’t be hard for the tigers to catch.

The males are very solitary animals, except during the breeding season (December & January). The females, also solitary animals, can provide a litter of upto 4 cubs. This will be following the seemingly average gestation period of 90days in the animal kingdom. A male and a female are homed here at the Highland Wildlife Park- Dominika (female) and Marty.

Marty

Snow Leopards

China, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan- these are amongst 12 nations whose land Snow Leopards also call home. They can be largely found spread across central and southeast Asia with 8,000 being the number thrown around. This is a steady number with a further 800+ living in zoos around the world, though they are still considered endangered. They tend to operate in alpine territory- rocky snowy mountains in particular, and their features have adapted to this- with their white and grey spotted thick fur bringing disguise for them to hide in this environment.

They look alot like tigers, but one feature distinguishes them from their stripped cousins- the roar. Snow Leopards make a squeaky, hissing-like noise – a noise that will no doubt be made a mockery of by the tigers. Elsewhere in their features and their paws are specially adapted aswell. They become similar to what can only be called snowshoes, which prevents them from sinking into the snow aswell as providing additional weight support for their small legs and large* body (primarily helping to spread the weight).

They are very similar to tigers in most other areas- mark their territory with a scratch, independent and solitary, hunt deer and other small mammals. They do have a slight advantage over the other big cats though- there ability at climbing rocks. They use this widely as part of their hunting techniques, often attacking from above after stalking their prey on steep slopes. They will then drag their prey into their pre-made snow tunnels to stop other predators stealing the food, and this food will last them upto a week (depending on the type of kill).

A male snow leopard named Chan, and the female Animesh. Both are 6 years old and came from zoos in Winchester (England, 2015) and Krefeld (Germany, 2016). These Snow Leopards could live upto 20 years here, but would only survive upto 12 years in the wild.

Chan & Animesh (photo courtesy of Highland Wildlife Park)

The Lynx

The Caledonia Lynx went extinct during the medieval period around 1,200 years ago. Bones of a Lynx were initially found near Sutherland that dated back 1,800 years- but historians believe it survived for much longer than that. There isn’t much information as to why they disappeared, though it is likely to be natural. They traditionally have always been in small numbers, so have subsequently been vulnerable to disease or natural disasters. The mass deforestation of Scotland since the medieval period may also be a reason for their extinction. Their fur would likely have also seen them being persecuted by humans. Nevertheless, they have today been pushed to the forefront of Scotland’s wildlife reintroduction plans.

Plans have been drawn up in 2019 by Lynx Trust UK for 6 Eurasian Lynx to be introduced at the Queen Elizabeth Forest park in Aberfoyle. Much like the Wolf, controlling deer numbers is the part they are wanted to play in the Scottish ecosystem- aswell as boosting tourism. Although they are known to largely eat on very small mammals, sheep have been regularly targeted by the Lynx in the past, leading to a rebellion amongst Scottish farmers about their reintroduction. However, advancements have clearly been made with Lloyd’s Bank confirming last year that they would offer insurance to farmers and their animals in the event of a lynx attack.

As for the Lynx itself, The body of the lynx is covered in beautiful fur- which changes from brown during the summer to grey during the winter months. They have immense hearing and very sharp vision, making them notable predators. Though they largely only eat small mammals such as mice, squirrels, and particularly rabbits. The Lynx is not a fast runner however, and relies on its stalking skills to capture its prey. Much like the housecat it meows, purrs and hisses- though in much more noisy fashion. They are very timid animals too. So the title of ‘Big Cats’ is very fitting for the Lynx.


Polar Bear

The largest carnivore land-animal. First and foremost the fur of a Polar Bear is not actually white, it is clear. Lying on a thick layer of black skin, the fur of the polar bear will slightly change depending on both its environment and diet. A polar bear in zoos, for example, (like here in the Highlands) may often turn a slight grey colour due to the lack of the natural snowy surroundings. While some polar bears may appear slightly yellow in colour- these are the ones who have ate too many seals, with the seal oil being responsible for these changes. It is also the seals that make up the majority of their diet aswell. With seals being large animals themselves, its no surprise then that the Polar Bear can weight upto 110 stone.

The Polar Bear is a solitary animal, though unlike other members of the Bear family they do not hibernate during the winter. Living mainly on Ice, they are surprisingly excellent swimmers- and have been seen hundreds of miles from any land before. As for the Ice it is needed primarily for food- as the ice is used to hunt the seal and Polar Bears subsequently wouldn’t survive without ice, so they say. You would think they could adapt to the land should there be no ice- but these kind of adaptions take time. For example, the Polar Bear evolved from the Brown Bear over a period of 30,000 to 40,000 years. So the possibility of the 20,000 around today surviving for long enough to go through that evolution process is incredibly small.

Here at the park there is 4 polar bears. Two males, Walker and Arktos, along with a female (Victoria) and a young bear named Hamish. Hamish was the first polar bear to be born in the UK in more than 25 years. The litters of these bears tend to be a single cub, and three females can only produce litters 5 times maximum in their lifespan (which is 20-30 years). Much like they would be in the wild,m they are separated here- with the two males being in a enclosure close to the entrance, and the female and Hamish at the opposite end of the park. Males are much larger than females so Hamish will soon be (if he isn’t already) bigger than his mother Victoria- with father Walker in a separate enclosure.

Hamish the Polar Bear (photo courtesy of Highland Wildlife Park)

Japanese Macaque

https://inhistoricscotland.org/monkey-business/


Scottish Wildcat

https://inhistoricscotland.org/the-scottish-wildcat/


Honourable Mentions

The Red Panda


The Turkmenian Markhor


The Great Grey Owl


The Wolverine

(Image courtesy of The Scotsman)

The Vicuna


Bactrian Camel


25 Photos of the Highland Wildlife Park


As mentioned RZSS have owned the park since 1986, and are the founders and owners of Edinburgh Zoo aswell. You can buy a membership with them, which gives you unlimited access to both parks all year round and is only around £60 or so per year- really excellent value for money, bang for the buck (as they say). I would highly recommend it.

Posted in: Animals, Places

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