Shetland's wonderful nature reserves

by Steve Mathieson

Heading to Noss Nature Reserve. Photo: Steve Birrell Zoom Heading to Noss Nature Reserve. Photo: Steve Birrell Shetland is renowned for the richness and diversity of its wildlife and natural habitat, having a number of nature reserves all with their own, unique characteristics. 

In the north of Unst is Hermaness National Nature Reserve (NNR), managed by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). During summer the cliffs here, which rise to 170 metres, are home to over 100,000 breeding seabirds including puffins, gannets, fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes and shags. The moorland has great skuas, arctic skuas, whimbrels, red-throated divers and golden plovers. A wide variety of plants grow here including orchids, lovage, campion and sea pinks. 

Southeast of Hermaness is Keen of Hamar NNR. This has some of Britain’s rarest plants, including Edmonston’s chickweed which is found nowhere else. Some specially adapted flowers include Norwegian sandwort, hoary whitlow grass and northern rock cress, living in one of the largest areas of serpentine rock debris in Europe. 

Edmondston's Chickweed at Keen of Hamar. Photo: Peter Parker. Zoom Edmondston's Chickweed at Keen of Hamar. Photo: Peter Parker. On Fetlar you find the summer home of the majority of the UK’s population of red-necked phalaropes, best seen from the RSPB hide at the Mires of Funzie and at the Loch of Funzie. Red-throated divers, whimbrel, golden plovers and skuas also breed here, with otters and seals seen around the shoreline and a great variety of flowering plants including some rare sedges. 

You reach Noss NNR either by ferry from Lerwick to Bressay then the SNH wardens’ (summer only) inflatable dinghy, or by boat trip from Lerwick. Noss (the Old Norse for “nose”) slopes steeply upwards from west to east, with the cliffs at the Noup reaching 181 metres. Here is 150 million years of erosion on the old red sandstone, with softer and harder layers eroding at different rates and forming ledges for “seabird city”. The thousands of seabirds include the seventh-largest gannetry in the UK. 

Orca bull in Mousa Sound. Photo: Brydon Thomason Zoom Orca bull in Mousa Sound. Photo: Brydon Thomason Travelling south, the RSPB reserve of Mousa is reached by ferry from Sandsayre near Sandwick. The main attraction, apart from the Iron Age broch itself, is the colony of storm petrels that nest within its walls, as well as under rocks on the beach and in the drystone dykes, the best time to see them being at night.

Loch of Spiggie RSPB reserve in the south Mainland is a breeding area in summer for many birds including teal, tufted ducks, lapwings, oystercatchers, snipe, redshanks and curlew. It is also a vital autumn and winter destination for whooper swans and other species such as pochards, goldeneyes, wigeons, long-tailed ducks and greylag geese. 

Puffin at Sumburgh Head. Photo: Kim Rendall, Zoom Puffin at Sumburgh Head. Photo: Kim Rendall, Sumburgh Head RSPB reserve is at the tip of the south Mainland. Here you can watch the lovable puffins at close quarters, plus guillemots, razorbills, shags, kittiwakes and fulmars. Orcas and other cetaceans are spotted from the cliffs and the reserve shares the cliff-top with the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse and Visitor Centre. 

Fair Isle is 24 miles south of Sumburgh and reached by ferry from Grutness, plane from Tingwall or from Orkney. Seabirds found here include puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and arctic terns. There is an SNH Ranger based at the Bird Observatory during the summer who can help you make the most of your stay. Fair Isle is famous for being a stopover for migrant birds and 345 species have been sighted, a record for the UK. There are also 240 species of flowering plants.