Birds of the Scottish Uplands: A Hostile Mountain Environment Supports a Range of Bird Life

Scotland’s uplands (broadly defined as land above 700m in elevation) are a fragile environment. Boggy, rocky, with little tree cover and exposed to some of the worst excesses of the country’s weather, they nevertheless provide a home for a range of birds. Some are permanent residents, some only summer visitors and some are found nowhere else in Britain.

The Birds of the Scottish Uplands

The uplands in general are fragile. Animal life is sparse and yet the tough and unforgiving environment is home to many birds which are of international importance,either in terms of their limited numbers or because of their special habitat requirements. These birds are under threat from a number of areas, including climate change, afforestation or other land use changes and developments such as wind turbines.

Dotterel, a Rare Breeding Species in the Mountains

One of the most characteristic upland birds is the dotterel. Summer migrants to the UK, dotterel can be seen in spring and autumn in some eastern areas of England on their way to and from their breeding grounds; but between mid-May and August they are found only on the high mountain tops of the Grampian and Cairngorm mountains (the National Nature Reserve of Ben Wyvis is a good place to look).

Dotterel are attractive birds, unusual in that the females are more brightly coloured than the males. Their speckled chestnut and white plumage, together with their relative tameness, made them a target for Victorian collectors, contributing to their decline (the RSPB estimates that there are only around 750 breeding males in Scotland each year). They are now protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, making it an offence to damage or disturb their nests.

Ptarmigan, Thriving on the High Tops

Though the ptarmigan has a wide range throughout Europe it’s found nowhere else in the British Isles apart from the high Scottish mountains. A permanent resident, it is unique among British birds in that it changes its plumage with the seasons, from brown in the summer to white during the winter, so as to make itself less conspicuous. It is adapted to living in cold environments – being noted for its feathery feet.


Despite being restricted to high mountain areas, the ptarmigan is in fact not rare, with an estimated breeding population of around 10,000 pairs. The birds can be seen on many Scottish mountains, with the largest population on the Cairngorm plateau. It is considered to require no special protection at present and may legally be shot, although some agencies have concerns about the species’ future if global warming has an impact upon its sub-alpine habitat.

Snow Buntings: a Breeding Species Under Threat

So few pairs of snow buntings nesting in the United Kingdom (RSPB estimates indicate fewer than 100 pairs) that the precise nesting sites are not publicised. They are, as their name suggests, birds of cold environments and nest on the ground in the Scottish mountains. The migratory birds can, however, be seen in larger numbers at sites in the east and north of the British Isles in spring and autumn on their way to Arctic breeding grounds.

Like dotterel, snow buntings are attractive birds, white underneath with a black back. They are at risk not only from disturbance by walkers and by developments such as skiing areas, but because they are so specific in their habitats they are also under threat from climate change. Figures quoted by the National Trust for Scotland suggest that a relatively small rise in global temperatures could substantially reduce the suitability of their already-limited breeding space.

Other Scottish Upland Birds

The mountains support many other birds, though few are as restricted in their range as those listed above. Ring ouzels, for example, can be seen in numbers in the Scottish uplands but are found on the high ground of the rest of the United Kingdom as well, while golden plovers occupy the higher land to breed and move to the lowlands in winter.

Both of these birds along with others such as the golden eagle, hen harrier and merlin, are at risk from a variety of different factors, including development, disturbance and (particularly in the case of the birds of prey) human persecution. Even where the birds are found elsewhere, the relative inaccessibility of the Scottish uplands is vital to their conservation.