Dangerous animals in Scotland

Written by Chris Thornton | 11th of March 2024
Most dangerous animals in Scotland.

Scotland is a very safe place to live. We have no natural disasters, no freak weather events, and no wars within thousands of miles of our wee northern country. What about animals? Are there dangerous animals in Scotland that pose a risk to you on your visit? The answer is not really... but common sense prevails for the animals that can hurt you.

Read on to find out more about being safe in Scotland and the abundance of wildlife it offers.

Domestic animals

Although domesticated animals are far tamer than wild animals, some of them still pose a risk to humans.

Cows

Believe it or not, the most injuries (and deaths!) caused by animals in Scotland are by cows. Your first thought would be for a large, aggressive bull chasing you through fields, but the female cows are the main culprits for injuries and deaths.

Cows during the breeding season are very protective of their calves and will not appreciate your presence near them. People walking their dogs can seem like predators to cows, and they will fiercely defend their young by trampling, butting or even kicking, any of which could easily cause a fatality to a human. Cows can also crowd humans walking in their field just out of sheer curiosity and cause unintentional harm.

The Scottish Outdoor Access code states that it is not illegal to walk in fields "where there are horses, cattle and other farm animals". Although it's not illegal, it's common sense to keep a safe distance from large animals, so it's worth finding another path instead of cutting through a field, especially if you have your dog with you. You can be fined too for "worrying" farm animals - animal welfare is important in Scotland.

The ever-popular Highland cow in Scotland should be treated with the same respect as other cows despite their cute and docile appearance, especially when calves are involved. You can still get your selfie from a distance!

Are there dangerous animals in Scotland?
A popular sight in Scotland, Highland cows can be very protective of calves.

Dogs

As with most developed countries globally, dogs are a very popular animal to keep as a pet. Larger breeds such as rottweilers, German shepherds and Staffordshire bull terriers are common, and although you can't treat all dogs of these breeds as dangerous, it's best to err on the side of caution and don't assume that all dogs are friendly. Even the wee Jack Russell can have a bad temperament and features at the top of police dog bite reports.

Pitt bull terriers are banned in Scotland but can be found in circulation illegally.

Dangerous wild animals

There are only a few dangerous wild animals in the wild that could feasibly harm you.

The Adder

This beautiful snake with zig-zag markings along its back is the only venomous snake in Scotland. Although that sounds scary, adder bite venom can cause various unpleasant side effects (difficulty breathing, and potential death in severe cases); they are very rare animals and will avoid humans. A dangerous wild animal, but I have never seen one in all my years in Scotland.

Please read my guide: Does Scotland have venomous snakes?

Common adder, International wildlife charity protect such species. Venomous snakes.
The beautiful adder, Scotland's only venomous snake.

Ticks

I hate ticks. These horrid little creatures burrow into your skin and suck your blood until they are red, bloated and drop off. They are particularly bad for dogs when out on walks; ticks often hide under their ears and within the fur, making them hard to find and ultimately remove. Find out more on my dedicated ticks guide.

Lyme disease

If that wasn't bad enough, ticks also cause "Lyme disease" a horrible affliction. This is a bacterial infection that is spread from animals such as deer and mice. The tick will bite the wild animal, then later bite you when they come into contact with exposed skin, transmitting the Lyme disease infection.

Common symptoms include:

A circular rash that looks like a bullseye can appear anywhere on your body.

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Brain fog

  • Muscle aches

  • Migraine

  • Fever

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Flu-like symptoms

It is imperative to be treated for Lyme disease with antibiotics if you have been bitten by a tick or suspect if you have been bitten, especially if you have the rash and any of the symptoms above. If left untreated, you can be left with permanent damage that many sufferers find hard to recover from for the rest of their lives.

It's tempting to explore Scotland's forests, glens and coastline in your shorts, but I would recommend wearing trousers in areas of long grass where bare skin could contact ticks. You can find ticks everywhere, even in well-kept residential areas.

tick removal card is worth purchasing for your bag, which makes removal a lot easier if one does embed itself in your skin. Not all ticks carry the infection, so try not to panic if you do find one.

A horrible tick. Dangerous animals in their natural habitat.
The tick, my worst nightmare!

Red Deer

Like the cow, deer are another animal you would not expect to be dangerous, but again they are fiercely protective of young and will become aggressive if threatened. There have been instances where walkers have had to climb trees after being chased by groups of deer protecting their fawns.

In the autumn, deer rutting season begins (September to November). Male deer (Stags) will be full of testosterone and show a series of behaviours to attract mates and show dominance over other males. You should never approach a stag during rutting season (or ever really); their antlers have the capacity to wound or kill humans easily.

Something else to consider is deer running out into the road while driving in Scotland. Deer can cause serious road accidents and unexpectedly run out into oncoming traffic from nearby fields or forests. There can be as many as 50,000 road accidents involving stray deer each year in the UK. Something to keep in mind on that Scottish road trip you have planned.

Wild boar

Wild boar used to be a native species in Scotland but were hunted to extinction around the 13th century. Despite this, wild boars have escaped into the wild from farms and hunting estates in recent years. This has led to two boar populations in Scotland, one in Dumfries & Galloway and the other in the Great Glen in the Scottish Highlands. There could be as many as 5000 wild boars in Scotland today.

Farmers have suffered, losing expensive livestock to hungry boars and receiving no help or compensation. One male boar was found to be 22 stone (308 lbs / 139 kg), an enormously powerful animal.

Wild boar will rarely attack humans, but again during the breeding season, they should be avoided. Wounded animals should also be left well alone; their tusks can gore humans badly.

Badger

These beautiful shy, timid animals are the largest land predator in Scotland, but they do their best to stay away from humans. Dead badgers are, unfortunately, a common sight on Scotland's roads.

It's unlikely you will encounter a badger on your travels in Scotland, but if you find an injured or confused badger, please do not approach it. Badgers have one the strongest bites in the world and can generate 108 BFQ (bite force quotient). To compare, the American black bear has a BQF of 78... a badger could give you an awful bite.  Like badgers, pine martens in Scotland have a nasty bite but are very unlikely to attack humans.

Jellyfish

In the seas of Scotland or washed up on the beach, jellyfish are common. Not all species have stinging tentacles, but some do, such as the lion's mane (Cyanea capillata) and the mauve stinger jellyfish (Pelagia noctiluca). The photograph below was taken at Macduff Aquarium; these are non-stinging "moon jellies", a common jellyfish in the North Sea. Portuguese Man o’ War is also not unheard of in some areas.

It can be hard to identify jellyfish, but best to keep your distance from these interesting animals, dead or alive.

Moon jellies found in the north sea.
Moon jelly from the Moray firth.

Weever fish

As well as jellyfish, weever fish can be common in Scotland's waters, and their sharp needle-like spines can cause significant pain... especially if stood on without adequate footwear. The spines contain venom, which can cause intense pain and swelling for days or even weeks. These fish can hide in soft sand and muddy shallows, so be aware when you go for that pleasant stroll on the beach with no shoes on.

Hot water is the best treatment for a sting; as hot as you can tolerate it without being scalded. This helps break down the poison and increases blood flow to kickstart the healing process. Seek further medical advice for very bad stings.

Killer whale / Orca

Yes, these magnificent beasts are becoming more common in Scotland, likely due to the tempting seal and dolphin populations seen on the vast coast around our wee country. I live on the Moray coast, and there have been many sightings of orcas and the chunky meat remnants of the poor seals they have feasted on. They are most commonly seen around the Shetland and Orkney Islands.

Although there has been no documented case of killer whales killing humans in the wild, I still wouldn't chance swimming with them... so if you are diving off the Scottish coast recent sightings are something to keep in mind.

Orcas swimming in the north sea off Scotland.
The apex predator of the seas around Scotland.
 
Pod of Dolphins at Chanonry Point.
Dolphins are also a common sight around Scotland.

Seals

Not really a risk to humans on land as they are so slow and cumbersome, but again will protect their young aggressively if approached. In water, seals seem quite interested in divers, but care should be taken even if they seem quite friendly.

Portgordon seal.
A seal happily chilling on the rocks in Portgordon, Moray.

Seabird colonies

Gulls, in particular, can become very aggressive towards humans in defence of their nests. Gulls have moved from coastal zones in favour of town centres, where food can be easily snatched or scavenged from humans. This has led to gulls nesting on rooftops and dive-bombing people who they perceive as a threat to their nest/young.

If you buy chips or other fast food and sit outside at the beach, town centres or another area with gulls, keep in mind they might try and steal your food and potentially cause pecking injuries.

Bees & Wasps

Scotland is a haven for bees, and I particularly love the humble bumble bee and enjoy watching them go about their daily business. Bees do have the potential to sting, but I've never been stung by one in Scotland; they seem very docile unless provoked. Despite this, people do die every year from stings, mainly due to allergies and severe anaphylactic shock.

Wasps, on the other hand, do tend to be significantly more aggressive and bigger than bees. My wife has been stung multiple times by wasps, completely unprovoked.

If you see a hive or nest, just keep a good distance from it, and if bees or wasps fly near you, just walk away, don't flap or panic, as it will be more likely for you to seem aggressive and be stung.

Thankfully we don't have hornets in Scotland; wood wasps are commonly incorrectly identified as hornets.

Hairy caterpillars

Oak processionary moths (OPM) in their caterpillar stage are toxic to humans and have been found as far north as Inverness. They were accidentally introduced to the UK in 2006 in some imported oak trees from Holland.

The fine hairs of these caterpillars contain "thamentopoein" which can cause vomiting, skin rashes, dizziness and fever, as well as trigger asthma attacks.

Bats

I often sit outside my house in Moray and watch bats feeding on insects in the twilight hours. They are amazing creatures, and I am in awe of their ability to "see" and hunt with such poor eyesight.

Bats do not attack humans, but some do carry rabies, a deadly viral disease that affects the central nervous system in most mammals. Bat enthusiast David McRae died from rabies in 2002 after being bitten by a bat and was the first person to die from rabies since 1902. It's unlikely you will even see a bat as they are nocturnal creatures.

If you see an injured bat, just leave it alone, just in case. Instead, you can contact the SSPCA 03000 999 999 if you wish to report an animal in distress.

The highland midge

A small biting insect, think mosquito but smaller. Not really "dangerous" per se, but an extreme annoyance in the summer months, particularly in West Scotland. You can't catch any horrible diseases from a midge, but you can have painful, itchy bite marks that can spoil your holiday. Purchase some midge repellent to keep them at bay.

Please read my midge survival guide for more information.

Dangerous wild animals licence

Keeping large dangerous animals is relatively popular in Scotland, with as many as 500 animals being held in captivity. The "Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976" allows anyone in the UK to own dangerous animals in Scotland, provided they apply for a special license from their local authority.

Deadly creatures such as rattlesnakes, death adders, vipers, crocodiles and alligators are all personal pets of Scottish owners. Cat species - servals, caravals and savannahs are also popular. In my home village, someone keeps large lynxes in a large caged area. Many of these dangerous species are rescue animals.

In the 1980s, a couple from Auchterarder kept a 30-stone grizzly bear as a pet in their home.

FAQs on dangerous animals in Scotland

Here are some frequently asked questions about dangerous animals in Scotland. Elk are also extinct.

Are there bears and wolves in Scotland?

No, there are no wild bears, wolves or any other large carnivorous predator in Scotland.

There are no bears in Scotland.
Bears are no longer found in the wild in Scotland.

Are there sharks in Scotland?

There is nothing big enough for you to worry about; definitely no great whites or hammerhead sharks. The basking shark is a common sight, but they do not eat people. Orcas can be fairly common but there have been no instances of human attacks.

What is the deadliest animal in Scotland?

The domestic cow is responsible for most deaths per year in Scotland.

What should I do if an animal in Scotland injures me?

For a life-threatening injury, always call 999 and request an ambulance to be sent to your location. For minor injuries, you can call 111 for the NHS24 helpline; they will advise the best course of action and may even book you in for a hospital appointment if needed.

Is there anything else that can harm me in Scotland?

It's worth keeping an eye open for the giant hogweed plant; this is obviously not an animal, but the sap from this plant can cause severe skin burns and potential blindness if it gets in your eyes. Dogs are particularly susceptible to injuries from this plant, with many reports in the local news.

Giant hogweed in Scotland. Natural environment.
Do not go near this plant.

Key information on dangerous animals in Scotland

  • Cows are responsible for the most deaths in Scotland each year.

  • Red deer can be very aggressive during mating season.

  • Scotland only has one venomous snake - the adder - which is very rare.

  • Wild boars, although fairly rare, can cause nasty injuries with their horns.

  • Bees and wasps can deliver painful stings.

  • Be aware of ticks attaching themselves to your bare skin, particularly your legs and arms. Some carry Lime disease, which is very unpleasant.

  • Species like the Lion's Mane Jellyfish can deliver painful stings.

  • Weever fish can hide below the sand on many of Scotland's beaches, and their spines are extremely painful if stepped on. Consider wearing protective footwear at the beach.

Conclusion

I hope this short guide has been helpful to you in planning your visit to Scotland. Scotland is a walk in the park compared to some countries with wild bears, wolves, tigers, lions and hippos! Still, it's worth keeping safe and being mindful of the wildlife you may encounter in Scotland.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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