A heron hidden amid reeds by the loch shore
A heron hidden amid reeds
by the loch shore

Loch Gruinart is a sea loch on the north coast of Islay. At the head of the loch is a large area of coastal flats, marsh, and woodland owned by the RSPB as a nature reserve. Though the area is popular with bird-watchers at any time of year, Loch Gruinart is best known for the annual arrival of wintering geese, when barnacle and white-fronted geese arrive in the tens of thousands from Greenland. Over 45% of the world's population of Greenland barnacle geese winter here.

The number of wintering geese is staggering; they cover the flats at the head of the loch like a carpet, and up to 24,000 have been recorded at one time. Photographers and bird-watchers alike come to the loch at dawn to watch thousands of barnacle geese fly off for a day of foraging, and at dusk watch them return to roost on the mudflats. White-tailed and golden eagles soar over the mudflats in winter looking for prey.

The best time to see the geese is in October, when the geese first arrive at Loch Gruinart from Greenland. The geese spend about a week resting on the mudflats after their journey, and there can be as many as 18,000 resting at any one time.

Loch Gruinart is a working farm as well as a nature reserve. There are walking trails through moorland and woodland areas near the loch. Water levels on the flats are manually controlled to create an ideal wetland bird habitat throughout the year. Cattle are kept off the wetlands in spring to avoid damage to nests of wading birds.

The most popular destination for birders is a hide located on the edge of the loch, which provides an excellent place to observe not only birds but other wildlife such as roe and red deer, otters, hares, and even the occasional seal. The hide is reached by a trail through woodland, where bluebells are lush in spring.

There is a visitor centre, open all year, with information on walking trails, special events, and what to look for in terms of seasonal bird and wildlife. There are special guided walks from April to October.

Seasonal Highlights

I mentioned the geese that arrive in Autumn. In spring the reserve is home to wading birds, including lapwing, curlew, snipe, and redshanks. Corncrakes take centre stage in May, and in June hen harriers fly low over the moorland trail and the air is thick with marsh fritillary butterflies. Twenty four species of dragonflies and butterflies make the reserve their home.

I'm not really a bird-watcher, though I enjoy seeing birds in nature. Yet one visit to the bird hide at Loch Gruinart had me hooked, and I returned several times over the course of a week I spent on the island, to sit quietly, camera ready, watching for grey herons, swans, and geese along the shore. Its addictive!

Three miles north of the RSPB visitor centre is the ruined medieval chapel at Kilnave, well worth visiting to see the 8th-century cross that stands in front of the chapel entrance.

Because Islay is an island the 'nearest accommodation' properties listed below may not be on Islay itself but on the Scottish mainland. The best source we have found for accommodation on the island is Isle of Islay.com, a dedicated local website offering a wonderful mix of local information, history, activities, and accommodation information.

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About Loch Gruinart RSPB
Address: Bushmill Cottages, Gruinart, Bridgend, Argyll and Bute, Scotland, PA44 7PP
Attraction Type: Countryside
Location: The RSPB visitor centre is on the B8017, five miles north-west of Bridgend
Website: Loch Gruinart RSPB
Location map
OS: NR275672
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest

Kilnave Chapel and Cross - 2.7 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Kilchoman Crosses and Old Church - 4.4 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Bowmore Round Church - 5.3 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Museum of Islay Life - 5.5 miles (Museum) Heritage Rating

Kilchiaran Chapel and Cup Stone - 6.2 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Kilmeny Old Parish Church - 7.1 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Dun Nosebridge - 7.4 miles (Prehistoric Site) Heritage Rating

Finlaggan Castle - 7.4 miles (Castle) Heritage Rating

Nearest Holiday Cottages to Loch Gruinart RSPB:

Nearby accommodation is calculated 'as the crow flies' from Loch Gruinart RSPB Nature Reserve. 'Nearest' may involve a long drive up and down glens or, if you are near the coast, may include a ferry ride! Please check the property map to make sure the location is right for you.

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