How to enjoy the wonderful wildlife of Islay

The beautiful Hebridean island of Islay is one of the most wildlife-rich places on the west coast of Scotland. Its sandy bays, moorland, machair, bogs, lochs, woodlands, sea cliffs, and shoreline support an incredible array of flora and fauna, from rare butterflies to iconic Scottish creatures such as otters, seals, and eagles. Here’s how to enjoy the wonderful wildlife of Islay.

Discover the Isle of Islay

Enjoy a bird’s eye view

Islay is best known for its birdlife. There’s something for the birdwatcher all year round. In autumn, thousands of white-fronted and barnacle geese arrive on the island from Greenland. It’s a truly spectacular sight. Wading birds take centre-stage in spring when you can see the courtship displays of snipes, lapwings, redshanks, and curlews. In summer, you can hear corncrakes in the evening, or search out treecreepers, willow warblers, hen harriers, and golden eagles. There are two RSPB reserves on Islay, both offering trails, hides, and visitor information.

The Oa RSPB Reserve at the southern end of the island has wild sea cliffs and open moorland, making it the perfect habitat for birds of prey. Look for golden eagles soaring over the cliffs, peregrines hunting, and rare chough feeding by the highland cattle. Off the coast, watch gannets diving for fish while grey seals sunbathe on the rocks below. Loch Gruinart RSPB Reserve at the northern end of the island is the place to watch the wintering geese arrive. There's also an excellent visitor centre.

Take to the sea

With miles of glorious coastline, Islay is a great place to get up close and personal with some amazing sea life. Islay Sea Adventures, Islay’s only Visit Scotland four-star wildlife experience, is a brilliant way to experience the island and its fabulous wildlife from another perspective. Climb aboard the 38ft Revenge charter fishing boat or, for a more adrenalin-fuelled trip, fast RIB, and enjoy a wildlife trip that you won’t forget. It’s a great opportunity to see white-tailed eagles, seals, otters, and more. You can combine your wildlife watching with a spot of fishing. Or how about a wildlife kayaking adventure with Kayak Wild Islay? Explore Islay’s coastline, discover hidden lagoons and see the area’s abundant wildlife with an experienced and knowledgeable guide. You may spot seals, herons, arctic terns, black guillemots, and even the elusive otter as you paddle around the coast of Islay.

Step out

One of the best ways to explore Islay and see its wonderful wildlife is on foot, and there are some brilliant walks for all levels. Both RSPB reserves have excellent trails and offer guided walks from April to October. At The Oa, there’s a cracking coastal trail that takes you up to the American monument for stunning views of the sea cliffs and across to Northern Ireland. Scan the shore and you might spot wild goats munching on seaweed! Or how about combining wildlife, walking, and whisky by following the Three Distilleries Pathway that takes in the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. The path runs for 5.5km and is fully accessible. 

Delve deeper

Make sure you drop into the Islay Natural History Trust Centre in Port Charlotte on Islay. It’s a great place to find out more about the island’s natural wonders, from its underlying geology to the birds, butterflies, wildflowers, seashore life, and mammals that make their homes here. Kids will love all the hands-on activities, including the touch tank where they can get to know some of the local sea creatures. There’s also a large laboratory where children of all ages can learn to use microscopes, make pictures out of seaweed, or even dissect an owl pellet. You can also record any wildlife you’ve spotted on your visit to Islay.

Getting to Islay

Get the CalMac ferry to Islay from Kennacraig on Kintyre, landing at Port Ellen (2 hours 20 minutes) or Port Askaig (from 1 hour 55 minutes).

Recommended Islay Accommodation

There’s a good supply and variety of accommodation on Islay all year round from bed and breakfasts to hotels to self-catering options. Some of our top recommendations would be:

Find out more about things to do and see on Islay & Jura.