Natural Shetland

Photo: Brydon Thomason Zoom Photo: Brydon Thomason For the visiting naturalist or wildlife enthusiast Shetland offers truly unparalleled opportunities and experiences. Few places in the British Isles host such a uniquely diverse and truly awe-inspiring offering of natural history; some of the country’s rarest breeding moorland bird species, seabird colonies of major national and international importance, the highest density of otters in Europe, breathtaking displays of wild flowers and, of course, regular summer killer whale sightings. All of these exhilarating spectacles can be encountered and enjoyed in the isles, some with effort, some with patience, some with luck, but rest assured, none will be forgotten!

A guide to the main wildlife highlights

Photo: Brydon Thomason Zoom Photo: Brydon Thomason Breeding birds: Shetland’s geographical location amidst some of the richest fishing grounds in Europe and its spectacular sea cliffs (many of which form ideal ready-made ‘seabird cities’), make it the perfect location for seabirds to breed and raise their chicks. Over one million breeding seabirds set up home here during the short summer season.

Puffins, guillemots (Shetland name – longvie), razorbills (sea craa), fulmars (maalie), kittiwakes (maa), shags (scarf) and black guillemots (tystie) can be found in all the main seabird colonies, including Sumburgh Head where the visitor centre is well worth a visit. However, perhaps the more spectacular sights are at Hermaness and Noss National Nature Reserves, where Shetland’s largest gannet colonies make for a breathtaking experience not to be missed.

Another ‘must see’ seabird is the storm petrel, Britain’s smallest breeding seabird; the late night excursion to the island of Mousa is a truly enchanting and magical experience.

Photo: Brydon Thomason Zoom Photo: Brydon Thomason During the summer months, the rich diversity of habitats such as serpentine heath, blanket bog and rich agricultural lands, support some of the rarest breeding moorland species in the country. On Fetlar, over 90 per cent of the British breeding population of the delightful red-necked phalarope can be seen on the RSPB reserve at Funzie or the nearby feeding loch.

Photo: Brydon Thomason Zoom Photo: Brydon Thomason Other evocative northern specialties such as red-throated diver, whimbrel (tang whaap), great skua (bonxie) and Arctic skua (skooty aalin) are found here in greater numbers than anywhere else in the UK. More commonly, species such as curlew (whaap), golden and ringed plover (plivver), lapwing (peewit), dunlin (plivver’s page), redshank and snipe (snippick/horsgok) are widespread. The symphony of song which sets the moorland alive is testament to the purity of these unspoiled lands.

Cetaceans and sea mammals: Shetland’s rich surrounding waters can be an excellent place for cetacean (whale and dolphin) watching, although it is also far from predictable. The continental shelf, which lies about 30 miles to the west, attracts a wealth of different species like sperm, fin and humpback whales on their migration routes. Occasionally, although few and far between, these giants of the deep stray close enough to our shores to be seen from land. Photo: Brydon Thomason Zoom Photo: Brydon Thomason

Inshore waters, though, do provide much more regular sightings of a few species. The most commonly encountered cetacean is the harbour porpoise (neesik), which may be seen all around the shores and off the inter-island ferries. Minke whale is a regular summer visitor to our waters, especially in late summer although, as with all cetacean watching, choppy seas often hinder viewing conditions. White-beaked, white-sided and Risso’s dolphin are also recorded fairly regularly during summer months.

Photo: Brydon Thomason Zoom Photo: Brydon Thomason There are distinct ‘hotspots’ where sightings are more likely, mainly off prominent headlands where deep waters, strong tides, and rich up-welling occurs: Hermaness, Lambaness, Eshaness, Sumburgh Head, and also the waters between Skerries, Yell and Fetlar.

The greatest prize though is an encounter with killer whales, which are regular visitors, especially during the summer months. A chance sighting on a coastal walk or off one of the ferries is perhaps just as likely as prolonged headland viewing, as they can turn up anywhere.

Both grey and common seals (selkies) inhabit our shores and are a common sight throughout the isles, whether loafing about, hauled out basking in the sunshine, or inquisitively watching from the water as you take a coastal walk. Greys are the biggest, with a larger, more angular head shape, often described as ‘roman nosed’ in appearance; the cuter looking face belongs to the common seal.

Photo: Brydon Thomason Zoom Photo: Brydon Thomason Land mammals: One of Shetland’s most popular wildlife attractions, and one that the islands are renowned for, is the Eurasian otter (draatsie). The islands boast the highest density in Europe of these captivating and secretive mammals. In contrast to their rather nocturnal behaviour in other areas, in Shetland they are active during daylight hours, and are much more at home along the seashore. Typically they favour low tide to feed and can be encountered throughout most of the islands although they have a distinct preference for more sheltered, tidal and usually uninhabited stretches of coast. Few experiences can compare to an exhilarating encounter with a mother and cubs at play.

Shetland has no native land mammals, with the only possible, but unlikely, exception of otter. Man is thought to have introduced all species at one time or another. Rabbit (kjunnin) is, of course, by far the most numerous and is found on all islands. Mountain hare is widespread throughout the Mainland but not found on any of the islands, as are the much scarcer stoat and polecat/ferret. Hedgehog, house mouse and long-tailed field mouse are also common. Rats are found in some areas. Photo: Brydon Thomason Zoom Photo: Brydon Thomason

Botany: The majority of Shetland’s habitat is made up of moorland and blanket bog and, though this has a poor nutrient content, those who persevere in this terrain may be greatly rewarded. Common butterwort, round leaved sundew, bogbean and cuckoo flower are just a few of the easy-to-spot beauties.

If you take a closer look, gems such as greater sundew and bog orchid are there to be found. Shetland is also home to some national and international rarities, such as northern rockcress, early marsh orchid and Arctic sandwort, which can be found on the Keen of Hamar National Nature Reserve in Unst. The reserve’s real gem though is mouse-ear, or Edmonston’s chickweed, which is found nowhere else in the world.

Photo: Brydon Thomason Zoom Photo: Brydon Thomason Popular sites to search for flora are the serpentine hills and pastures around Unst and Fetlar. Also a must for the keen botanist are the rugged and wild granite hills of Northmavine, in particular Ronas Hill where rare Arctic alpines such as lady’s mantle, purple saxifrage and trailing azalea can be found. Many of the species mentioned above, along with a host of other stunning flowers and herbs from the orchid, violet, and campion families can be seen here.

Coastal wind- and sea-swept turf is brought to life in spring and into summer, first with spring squill, followed by carpets of sea pink and also red campion and bird’s-foot trefoil, which is also found brightening up the roadside verges. Much of the traditional crofting and agricultural meadows and pastures are transformed into prolific summer tapestries, where species such as orchids, marsh marigold and ragged robin abound. Meadow sweet, yellow flag and angelica are typical of the species found in the marshy and wetter areas.

Brydon Thomason is a native Shetland naturalist who runs the 5-star wildlife tour company ‘Shetland Nature’.

Top ten target species (in no particular order):

  1. Puffin (local name: tammy norie). Sumburgh Head, Noss, Hermaness.
  2. Otter (local name: dratsi). Most active at low tide.
  3. Gannet (local name: solan gös). Noss, Hermaness.
  4. Killer whale (no local name). Follow local social networks and grapevine.
  5. Red-necked phalarope (local name: mires duke). Loch of Funzie, Fetlar.
  6. Common seal (local name: selkie). Along all seashores.
  7. Storm petrel (local name: alamootie or dirri doo). Evening Mousa trip.
  8. Edmonston’s Chickweed (no local name). Keen of Hamar, Unst, only.
  9. Grey seal (local name: haaf fish or selkie). Along all seashores.
  10. Red-throated diver (local name: rain gös). Lochans and in bays on sea.

The Shetland Times Bookshop has a great range of publications of interest to nature lovers.