Scotland’s National Nature Reserves (NNRS) are the perfect places to clear away the cobwebs and walk-off that extra turkey, or nut roast, this Christmas say Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). SNH welcomed more than 650,000 visitors to its NNRs last year and 10 of the most popular are highlighted below.
With an extra few days off work for many of us, the festive season is a great time to get out and explore your local NNR, and although it might be a little colder it is often the most attractive time of year. Whether you want to look for wildlife, meet with friends or family for a walk, or simply enjoy some peace and quiet, NNRs offer a range of experiences.
SNH Reserves Manager, Ian Sargent, said: “Scotland’s 43 NNRs are truly inspiring places where you can experience the incredible sights and sounds of our natural world throughout the year. SNH manages NNRs right across Scotland, from Hemaness up in Shetland, down to Caerlaverock less than half an hour away from Dumfries.
“Last year we welcomed around 650,000 visitors to our NNRs. Our reserves highlight the best of Scotland’s nature, from mountain tops to beaches and as well as not costing a penny to visit and enjoy, they’re open to everyone every day, including Christmas and New Year.”
There are naturally more NNRs to choose from if you live in the Highlands but most of us live with about an hour of at least one reserve says Ian, who as Reserves Manager for SNH, knows them better than most. Ian makes 10 suggestions below, all of which feature dedicated footpaths ranging from short flat trails, to steep mountainous routes, and one of which shouldn’t be too far away from you.
- Blawhorn Moss (30mins east of Glasgow)
Blawhorn Moss is a rare example of the raised and blanket bogs that once covered much of central Scotland. As you walk around this reserve you’ll be able to feel 8,000 years of history locked into the bog’s peat layers. A short circular boardwalk takes you from the carpark to the heart of the reserve where you can get up close to some fascinating habitats without getting your feet wet. The surface of the bog is very wet at this time of year and if it’s cold enough, the whole bog will freeze over and sparkle, creating a magical frosted scene. If it snows, the open views of the heaths are stunning, making it easier to spot the occasional bird or roe deer.
- Loch Leven (1hr north of Edinburgh)
Loch Leven is the ideal home for many bird species and at this time of year is one of the best places in Europe to see wildfowl. You can also see thousands of geese take to the skies at dawn and return at dusk – quite a sight. The reserve features 21km of trails around the loch ideal for both walkers and cyclists.
- Flanders Moss (20mins north west of Stirling)
Flanders Moss is one of the largest remaining intact raised bogs in Britain. Take a moment to savour this wild and ancient landscape which has hardly changed for thousands of years. On a clear winters’ day you can enjoy the awe-inspiring solitude of the reserve from the viewing tower. There is often a scenic backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Listen out for wintering geese flying over at dusk to roost at Lake of Menteith.
- Muir of Dinnet (1 hour west of Aberdeen)
Muir of Dinnet lies within the Cairngorms National Park and features wetlands, woods and moors. It is a great place for wildlife and has a wealth of connections to Scotland’s past. The Vat Gorge, where the Burn O’ Vat flows, was gouged out by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago. Today you can make your way into the Vat through a narrow crack in the rock. Stand in this atmospheric cavern, and listen to the strange echoes of water that seems to pour out of the rocks. As you stroll through the woodland keep an eye out for wintering birds on Loch Kinord.
- Tentsmuir (20 mins south of Dundee)
Whether you want to explore the paths and trails, take a leisurely walk along the beach or look out for rarities in one of the bird hides, Tentsmuir has it all. The reserve takes in a range of coastal habitats, from moving sands to dune heathland and you’re likely to see seals on the shore and a myriad of birds feeding on the rich mix of food hiding in the mudflats. Away from the coast you can discover the hidden gem of Morton Loch and search for birds, such as the shy teal dabbling at the water’s edge – you might even see an otter.
- Ben Wyvis (40mins north west of Inverness)
Ben Wyvis dominates the skyline of Inverness and the Black Isle and offers some excellent winter walking for the experienced hiker. A popular and relatively easy 6.5km climb to the summit, this mountain should still be treated with respect – especially in winter which brings a dusting of snow to the high peaks. On a clear day you will feel like you’re on top of the world as the view from the top is outstanding. You may even be lucky enough to spot a golden eagle, or a ptarmigan in its white winter plumage. If heading to the top, please check the weather forecast and wrap up warm.
- Craigellachie, Aviemore (45mins south of Inverness)
Only a few minutes from Aviemore, the birch woods of Craigellachie NNR sit just above the A9. The reserve has several footpaths that meander through the woodlands and past lochs, perfect for a leisurely after-lunch stroll. There is also a longer route leading to a viewpoint where you can enjoy superb views of the snow-capped Cairngorm Mountains. The crags (or steep cliff faces) which give the reserve its name are home to peregrine falcons, which can reach incredible speeds of up to 240mph when it dives, and is thought to be the world’s fastest bird. You might also hear the high-pitched mewing sound of common buzzards and spot them gliding high above the woods.
- Loch Fleet, near Golspie (1 hr north of Inverness)
Loch Fleet is a large tidal estuary which, in winter, is home to thousands of waders, waterfowl and seals. The birds and seals are best viewed from the road on the south side and at Littleferry. Take a walk through the sand dunes and, if you’re quiet and in the right place at the right time, you could also be lucky enough to see an otter. On a windy winters day Balblair Woods offers a sheltered place to walk past the towering pines and out to the bird hide.
- Beinn Eighe & Loch Maree Islands, near Kinlochewe (1hr 10min west of Inverness)
Beinn Eighe is the UK’s oldest NNR, designated in 1951. The reserve covers a huge 48sq km, stretching from loch-side to mountain top, offering a variety of trails including sheltered woodland walks as well as exposed mountain routes. The woodland here is ancient Caledonian pine forest, with very old ‘granny pines’ found on the lower slopes. More fragments can be found on the 60 plus islands scattered across Loch Maree. These island fragments are the nearest thing to natural woodland left in the UK. The reserve features several low-level woodland trails suitable for the whole family, and a more challenging mountain trail for experienced hikers. Keep an eye out for deer on the ground and white-tailed sea eagles and golden eagles soaring high above the mountain.
- Creag Meagaidh, near Laggan (1hr 30mins south west of Inverness)
Creag Meagaidh NNR is the complete mountain experience. From its wild mountain plateau to woodland that is slowly returning to life, Creag Meagaidh feels like the Highlands compressed into one reserve. The dramatic scenery here includes Munro summits, an exposed whaleback ridge and ice-carved gullies. Look out for black grouse, golden eagles and red deer. Foxes, pine martens, badgers and otters are all found here too. Whether you want serious hillwalking, ice-climbing, low-level walks, birdwatching or botany, there really is something here for everyone.
If walking in the mountains in winter it is vitally important to be prepared, with appropriate equipment (weather proof clothing, crampons, navigation etc) and to stay within your limits. For more info on staying safe visit the Walkighlands winter safety page.