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This introduction can only begin to indicate the wealth of wildlife on the Forth but the contact details, references and web links below provide gateways to an array of further information. The length of the Forth provides the topographical variety for diverse habitats, especially for bird life. This is echoed in the number of organisations that exist to conserve, manage and promote local wildlife.

The yachtsman is enormously privileged in having much greater opportunity for a closer look at wildlife than almost anyone else. At anchor, the boat is a floating hide in the midst of an animal theatre and under sail wildlife tolerates a closer approach than is possible under power, especially if crews keep quiet and out of sight behind cockpit dodgers.

The helmsman keeping an all round lookout is usually the first to be aware of animal activity, whether the gannet with its missile like dive, the tern swooping for a fish or the seal or dolphin coming up alongside. Crew can be kept interested by pointing out first sightings.


Wildlife casualties

Intensive use of the Forth for work and leisure does mean wildlife casualties and the yachtsman is well placed to report them. Nylon monofilament, fish hooks, fishing nets propellers and oil spills all take their toll and the SSPCA Animal Helpline 0870 7377722 is the first point of contact for casualty reports. The SSPCA cleans oiled sea birds and provides veterinary treatment. Deepsea World takes seals from the SSPCA post treatment and builds them up in salt water lagoons in preparation for release. In drought conditions sea birds will drink from stagnant freshwater which may result in dead and dying birds on the shore line.

A little intervention can be life saving such as unhooking a seagull caught by the beak as I did one year in Eyemouth harbour, getting thoroughly well pecked for my trouble. I learned that if rescuing any bird it is important to keep it well away from your face as its movements can be so quick. Unless you really know what is going on with an apparently unattended juvenile bird or seal it is best left alone. An anxious parent is probably watching from somewhere.

The battle to stay alive can be a hard one for wildlife. The yachtsman can help and add an amazing dimension to his sailing. Most wildlife just needs a bit of consideration and to be left alone but the injured and elderly can be helped along. At the Upper Forth this winter we have been feeding an old mute swan. He is a ringed bird (JFC) and fast approaching ten years of age, his history having been kindly supplied by the Fife Swan Group. While now in good shape, from his condition on arrival it is doubtful whether he would have survived without supplementary feeding. This wily old bird has been fed by the public so long that although provided with Mazuri waterfowl maintenance ration he prefers bread.


Birdlife and range of habitat

Up towards Stirling one can see more in the nature of freshwater birds such as goosanders and further to seaward their relative the red breasted merganser. The mud flats of the Upper Forth support large numbers of over wintering waders and heron are numerous in the Kincardine/Grangemouth reach. Lying at anchor below Kincardine or off the river Carron much fun can be had watching heron roosting on the beehives of the river Carron training wall or fishing at the water’s edge.

West of South Queensferry, on the Hopetoun estate, the Midhope burn enters the Forth and provides a diversity of wildfowl with welcome freshwater. Further east, the rivers Almond at Cramond, Esk at Musselburgh and the Peffer Burn at Aberlady are similarly attractive.

Throughout the estuary graceful terns fish and towards the mouth the puffin, gannet and the usual companion the fulmar abound. From one end to the other nature’s opportunism is at work, cormorants roosting on the Alloa swing bridge piles and gulls feasting on fish waste and outfalls. The nationally important migrant way station of the Isle of May adds greatly to the diversity of bird life. Here eider nest right up to the edge of the footpaths as if they know the island is theirs. Man made habitat such as the power station ash lagoons of Preston Island and Musselburgh also provide some special bird watching opportunities.

The Forth Islands

The Forth islands offer some of the most spectacular wildlife sights and the jewel in the crown is the Isle of May. To avoid disturbing nesting birds and seal pupping there are restrictions on visiting and the island is closed to day visitors from 1 October to 1 May to protect grey seals. Visiting is possible during the nesting season thanks to well marked paths and it is recommended that intending visitors look at “Birding the Isle of May” – link below to plan visiting, depending on what they want to see.

Elsewhere, landing on Inchmickery is forbidden during May, June and July due to nesting but there are still flightless juveniles around into August so it is best avoided until a bit later. This restriction was originally introduced to protect a tern nesting site but they have not nested here for some years. By the autumn the rains have freshened up the island a bit, something it is in dire need of after the nesting season and given the vegetation a chance to recover. The same goes for Inchkeith.

Craigleith and Fidra once hosted thriving puffin colonies but these populations have crashed due to the invasive garden escape tree mallow, Lavatera arborea. Dense stands of his plant overgrow the turf where the puffins burrow, denying them nest sites. An experimental eradication campaign is in progress on Craigleith and one is asked to leave alone. Well intentioned attempts to clear tree mallow can actually spread it. However the organisers welcome offers of assistance with their programme – links below.

The gannets on the Bass Rock need no introduction and can be seen close-up via the Scottish Sea Bird Centre Web Cams.


Fish and shellfish

More mundane perhaps but the harvest of the Forth is still full of surprises and an early morning visit to the fish market at Pittenweem or Eyemouth provides a good introduction to the fish and crustacean shellfish in local waters. It can be a tasty experience if you are able to buy prawns (Nephrops) straight off the boat. The Forth once had a huge native oyster fishery but they are now thought to be extinct due to over fishing and pollution. Mussels are common and a staple for the eider which swallow them whole, their stomach acid dealing with the shell.



Seals are very numerous on the Forth but it takes a bit of practice to discriminate between common and grey seal. They are frequently to be seen hauled out on the channel marker catamaran floats, rocks and sand bars. They may look cuddly but are voracious predators with a good set of teeth so although they are easily stalked it is wiser to keep ones distance. When hauled out and dozing one can have a good look at them with higher power binoculars or birding telescope. They are very inquisitive animals and will readily haul out into a yacht’s inflatable or even a hard dingy, especially when an anchorage is quiet at night. Some are very persistent in these attempts and it can be necessary to run the boat’s engine to make enough noise to chase them away. The Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews has had seal tracking studies going for many years.



Leatherback turtles which feed on jelly fish are an occasional visitor to the Forth and the Marine Conservation Society is very keen to have records of sightings.


Whales and dolphins

Dolphins and small cetaceans are increasingly common from the bridges seawards. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has more information including recording schemes. Whales have been stranded well up the Forth, such as the sperm whale that died at Bo’ness in 1997. Anyone tempted to remove body parts such as bones and teeth from dead whales and dolphins should be aware that these mammals can harbour pathogens that are just at home in human beings.


Winter time

When the boat is laid up, wildlife watching can continue from hides all round the Forth. Out of season, over wintering waterfowl on nature reserves such as Aberlady face less disturbance from visitors so watching them becomes easier. The yachtsman used to working the tides is already attuned to this game, timing watching so that a rising tide drives birds towards the observer. He may also be used to getting up early and using his eyes in low light and will generally have the dawn flight to himself. The impecunious sailor with boat on a drying mooring is likely to have the best of the show as birds habituated to the presence of a boat come right up to it. With an overnight on the mooring one can conveniently view the arrivals, however early or late. Wildfowling books describe all this beautifully, harking back to the days of The Riddle when dogs and guns were a routine accompaniment to coastal cruising.


Animal helpline

SSPCA - Scottish Society for the prevention of Cruelty to Animals 0870 7377722


The Forth Naturalist and Historian, published annually by the University of Stirling – contains the Forth Area Bird Report

Fife Bird Report, published annually by the Fife Bird Club

Scottish Executive “Identification of British Seals” advisory sheet

One Man’s Island, Paintings and sketches from the Isle of May, Keith Brockie

The Isle of May, WJ Eggling

The Story of the May Island, published by Largo Field Studies Society, Upper Largo, Fife

Isle of May National Nature Reserve, SNH

The Wildfowler in Scotland, John Millais

The Longshoreman – A life at the water’s edge, Richard Shelton

The Bedside Wildfowler, Colin Willock


“Birding at Musselburgh”, I.J. Andrews

“Birding the Isle of May”, Daren Hemsley

Deepsea World, Fife

East Lothian Countryside Ranger Services,1094,943,00.html

Fife Ranger Service

Forth Seabird Group

Lothians and Fife Swan Group

Marine Conservation Society

RSPB www. rspb scotland

SSPCA Middlebank Wildlife Centre

Scottish Natural Heritage

Scottish Ornithologists Club

Scottish Wildlife Trust View for Montrose basin

Sea Mammal Research Unit, University of St Andrews

Scottish Seabird Centre, North Berwick

Tree mallow

Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society

Paul Shave

yacht Blue Spindrift

15 March 2007