If we want to see rare and unusual animals, many of us consider heading abroad to far-flung shores and more exotic climates. But there are plenty of surprising animals that live here in the UK (or simply pass through) – you just need to know where to find them.
So, if you’re looking to deepen your connection with wildlife, here’s a snapshot of what our tiny island has to offer!
1. Hummingbird hawkmoth
The RSPB writes that, “One of the most remarkable cases of mistaken identity in the animal world in the British Isles involves a large but unassuming moth.” And that moth is the hummingbird hawkmoth! They migrate to the UK from Southern Europe in varying numbers each year and are mostly spotted in gardens.
As the name suggests – and with a wingspan of about two inches – these intriguing insects look similar to hummingbirds. They have a brown body with a black and white tail, greyish-brown forewings, and bright orange hindwings.
Hummingbird moths hover in flight in front of flowers, sipping the nectar with their long proboscis and fluttering their wings so quickly that it makes a ‘hum’ sound.
2. Pine marten
Native to Europe, pine martens are cat-like carnivores with long bodies, short legs, and round ears. In the UK, they’re mostly found in Northern and Central Scotland, where there are 3,000-4,000 of them.
Small mammals (including rabbits, insects, and squirrels) make up at least 40% of a pine marten’s diet. They’ll also eat birds and rely on fruiting trees like rowan, cherry, and hazel.
Shy, curious, and playful in nature, pine martens favour wooded environments where there’s plenty of cover to make dens and breeding nests. They’re mostly nocturnal, though they can also be active during the day – especially in the summer months.
The yellow-tailed scorpion is the UK’s only scorpion and it came here from the Mediterranean by boat 200 years ago. Today, there are isolated populations in Hampshire and Kent, with the most successful population of around 10,000-15,000 thought to live in the Sheerness Docks on the Isle of Sheppey.
Yellow-tailed scorpions often hide in holes and cracks in south-facing walls, and though they carry venom, their sting is mild for humans (a bit like a bee sting).
If you’re not a fan of creepy crawlies, you might be pleased to hear that yellow-tailed scorpions don’t move around much – instead, they wait for prey (insects and spiders) to come close enough so they can grab them. Because they have a slow metabolism, they only need to eat four to five times a year.
4. Killer whale
Sightings of orcas in the UK are rare because there are only eight (four males and four females). However, their black and white markings and sheer size (they can be up to 10 metres in length and weigh up to 10,000kg), mean that there’s no mistaking an orca when you spot one!
Orcas are highly intelligent. They have the second largest brain of any animal and spend their time hunting fish, squid, and seals, and socialising.
Though orcas have been spotted all over UK waters, most sightings have been reported in Northern Scotland – particularly the Shetland and Orkney Islands.
5. Scottish wildcat
The Scottish wildcat is Britain’s last native cat species. It’s closely related to the domestic tabby cat and looks similar, but is larger and heavier, with a black-banded bushy tail.
Scottish wildcats also have bigger brains and more powerful jaws than domestic cats, making them cunning hunters – as well as a thicker coat to protect them from the harsh Scottish winters.
Today, these striking cats are found mainly in the Scottish Highlands and are most active at dawn and dusk.
The numbers of true Scottish wildcats are extremely low with some estimates of only around 35 purebred wildcats or less left in the wild. Conservation groups are working hard to support wildcats through captive breeding and by neutering domestic cats in key wildcat areas.
6. Hoopoe bird
Up to 100 hoopoe birds can arrive on the south coast of England in spring, when they’re blown off course on their way to and from southern Spain and Africa.
Known for their distinctive crown of feathers, hoopoes are medium-sized exotic birds with pinkish-brown bodies and striking black and white wings. They make a soft ‘hoo-hoo-hoo’ sound when they sing – and they hunt for food (which consists of spiders, insects, frogs, and plant matter) alone.
Hoopoes typically make nests in vertical surfaces with cavities, such as cliffs, trees, or walls.
7. Stick insect
Stick insects originate from New Zealand. But over the last 100 years, three species have successfully established themselves in Cornwall, Devon, and the Isles of Scilly and are often found in people’s gardens.
As the name suggests, stick insects look like walking sticks that are green or brown in colour, which helps them blend in with the surrounding foliage. Some even mimic their background by swaying in the breeze.
These fascinating creatures are vegetarians; eating pretty much any part of a plant that looks attractive. It’s also believed that UK stick insects are all female – and they don’t need a mate to reproduce, as they’re capable of laying fertile eggs on their own.
The best time to spot a stick insect is in September because they increase in size from spring to early autumn, shedding their old skin as they go.
8. Sand lizard
The sand lizard is one of the UK’s rarest reptiles – and also the only lizard species in the UK to lay eggs.
Sand lizards have a larger and stockier appearance than common lizards and can grow up to 20cm long. They’re typically sandy-brown in colour, with rows of dark blotches down their back, and males also have striking green flanks.
These shy reptiles are found in sand dunes and heathland habitats – mainly in Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey, and coastal dune systems in Merseyside and the Isle of Coll in Scotland. They feed on spiders, slugs, insects, fruit, and flower heads.
There are over 40 species of shark living in UK waters; from the Porbeagle (which is often mistaken for the great white shark) to the basking shark (which is the largest shark in UK waters and the second largest shark species in the world).
None of the sharks found in UK waters are dangerous to humans and there have been no unprovoked shark bites since records began.
For years, there has been much speculation over whether white sharks exist in UK waters, yet there isn’t enough evidence to confirm this. However, according to Shark Trust, “British waters do provide good conditions for white sharks, so it’s not impossible!”
10. Red squirrels
Red squirrels are native to the UK and have lived here for roughly 10,000 years – though numbers are declining and they’re now limited to certain areas of the UK, including Anglesey and parts of Northern England and Scotland.
Grey squirrels, which we tend to be most familiar with, have slowly replaced red squirrels across most of England and Wales, which is problematic, as the two can’t coexist together long-term.
Only around 160,000 red squirrels remain in the UK and conservation groups are doing what they can to save them. This includes running education and awareness projects, controlling grey squirrel populations in areas where red squirrels are most scarce, and managing habits to make sure that they can accommodate red squirrels.
11. Golden eagle
Golden eagles are majestic, powerful, and agile birds of prey – not to mention huge! They live in the wild, open moorlands, glens, and mountains of Scotland (with a few also living in the North of England).
The golden eagle has a wingspan of over 2.25m (7ft) and can weigh up to 7kg, making it the UK’s largest bird of prey. Golden eagles will usually eat birds and medium-sized mammals (such as rabbits and hares), either taken alive or as carrion.
There are currently more than 500 pairs of golden eagles in the UK, which passes the threshold at which a bird’s long-term future is considered viable.
Many people associate dolphins with warm, tropical climates, but there are also dolphins living wild in the UK.
Our bottlenose dolphins can reach up to four metres in length and are some of the largest in the world. The RSPB suggests that this could be due to the fact that they need more blubber to insulate themselves from the cold water temperatures.
We also have Risso’s dolphins, which have badly scarred skin due to having regular fights with one another – as well as white-beaked dolphins, Atlantic-white-sided dolphins, striped dolphins, and common dolphins.
North Scotland (Moray Firth) and West Wales (Cardigan Bay) are the most common places to see bottlenose dolphins, while the Isle of Man is a hot spot for blunt-headed Risso’s dolphins, and the Farne Islands and Southwest England (Lyme Bay) are popular with white-beaked dolphins.
Australian wallabies (smaller versions of kangaroos) have lived wild in the UK since they were deliberately introduced to Loch Lomond in Scotland by Lady Arran Colquhoun in the 1920s.
Today, the exact population numbers are unknown but there are around 1740 on the Isle of Man (descended from a pair that escaped a wildlife park) and some remaining in Scotland too. There was a colony in the Peak District but this is thought to be extinct, as there have been no reported sightings since 2000.
Wallabies are often small-medium in size – though they can grow up to six feet tall – and tend to like wild, wooded habitats where they feed on plants and grasses. They vary in temperament with some being relaxed and friendly, and others being jumpy and skittish.
14. Humpback whale
More and more humpback whales are being seen in UK seas every year. Some of the more common sightings have been off the Hebrides and Shetland Islands, as well as in the northern area of the North Sea.
Humpback whales have unusual bumpy heads, pleated throats, and a ‘downwards smile’. They’re also dark on top with a light underbelly. All this, coupled with their incredible size (up to 18 metres long!) makes them instantly recognisable.
These beautiful creatures are known as ‘baleen whales’, which means that they take in water, filter it to keep hold of any food like krill and small fish, and push the rest of the water out through two blowholes. Humpback whales also don’t have teeth, just ‘baleen plates’, which resemble the teeth on a comb.
15. Wild boar
Wild boar were hunted to extinction in the 17th century in the UK, but have since started breeding again – and today, numbers are continuing to rise.
There are currently an estimated 2,600 living wild in Britain with the largest population living in the Forest of Dean, and others living in parts of South East and South West England, and South East Wales and North West Scotland.
Native to the UK, wild boars are large, heavy animals that typically weigh 60kg-100kg (though some males have been known to weigh over 200kg!). Adult wild boars are a brown-grey colour and have a layer of tough, bristly hair on top, and softer hair under their bellies. Piglets, on the other hand, tend to be a gingery-brown colour with stripes to camouflage them from predators.
Wild boar have a pretty varied diet and will eat everything from green plants, nuts, and seeds, to small mammals, carrion, and birds’ eggs. Normally, they’ll run from people but can become aggressive if they feel threatened.
16. Slow worm
Many people mistake slow worms for tiny snakes because they look so similar, but they’re actually legless lizards! Harmless to people, they can be seen throughout all of Britain, but aren’t present in Ireland. They’re most common in Wales and South West England.
Slow worms enjoy humid, shady conditions so they’re often found in grasslands, gardens (especially compost heaps), meadows, heathland, and woodland edges. In winter, they burrow underground or into crevices (for example in a rotting tree stump) to shelter from the cold. And in summer, they can be found basking in the sun.
These interesting creatures eat slugs, spiders, snakes, earthworms, and a variety of other invertebrates. They’re currently threatened by habitat loss but are protected by law in Britain – making it an offence to kill, injure, or sell them.
We hope that this list of weird and wonderful animals in the UK has shown you a different side to British wildlife, or at the very least, taught you something new about some of these wonderful creatures.
If you love nature and are looking for more ways to get close to it, you might want to check out our article; 32 ways to connect with nature and get inspired.