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Orkney - Wildlife, Birdwatching Holidays in Orkney Islands

Nowhere else in Britain are there so many sites of ancient human heritage beside such rich areas for plants, seabirds and other wildlife. If you like your coastal primroses with a dash of Viking sea spray and your gulls to soar over Neolithic cairns or you want to think of otters while you sit among standing stones, then the 70-or-so islands of the Orkney group are ideal.


Underwater world

Like all the islands here, mainland Orkney has a wildly wiggling outline. There’s a huge coast, worth exploring almost anywhere for a chance of seeing an otter feeding over seaweed beds just offshore. Protected by Mainland and by several other islands to the south and east, the sheltered waters of Scapa Flow are famous for dives over scuttled German warships. Take a boat trip here to see live video coverage of colourful anemones, fish and other underwater wildlife. Or don a wetsuit to see at first hand.

Swans, pochard and coots

Flocks of mute swans, the sound of lapwing, curlew and redshank calling and the sight of buttercups in peaceful meadows all make a glorious wider setting for Orkney’s most famous chambered cairn and stone circles. The Loch of Harray, which supplies this natural backdrop, sits between Dounby in the north and the stone-age must-visit sites of the Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness and Maes Howe. Use the B9055 from Harray to get views across both this loch and the Loch of Stenness, with a good general viewpoint at the Ring of Brodgar car park. A big coot flock (unusual in the north of Scotland) and thousands of wintering duck, including many pochard, are highlights.

Seabird cliffs

North of Stromness and the superbly preserved Neolithic village at Skara Brae sit several good wildlife sites. Marwick Head, off the B9056, is one of these. You can get some of the best views of breeding seabirds on Orkney here. Thousands of guillemots and kittiwakes pack the sandstone cliff ledges in summer. Clifftop flowers include sea campion, Scots primrose, thrift and spring squill. 

Marshland birds

Inland from Marwick Head, off a small road from the A986 just north of Twatt, you can watch marshland birds from a hide at The Loons. This is a good place for tufted duck, teal and other breeding ducks and waders such as snipe and redshank. Kittiwakes come in from the coast to wash, and in winter, the water is used by migrant whooper swans, greylag geese and some Greenland white-fronted geese

Hen harriers and Orkney voles

Use an old peat-cutter’s track, off the A966 3 miles north of Finstown to reach a hide at Birsay Moors. Look out for hen harriers and day-flying short-eared owls over the heathland, and for biggish holes in the heather that could show where an Orkney vole (a big rodent, much hunted by owls and harriers) has been active. There’s also a chance of seeing red-throated divers and both arctic and great skuas in summer.  

Divers and primroses

For a flavour of wild, island hills and heaths, take a ferry from Tingwall to reach Rousay, highest island in Orkney outside Hoy. There’s an orientation centre above the ferry terminal. Beyond, your rewards will come from the effort you put into hiking over rough ground and along the shore. Listen for golden plover, curlew and red-throated diver over the moors of Trumland, behind the house of the same name not far from the ferry, and look for hen harrier and short-eared owl. The gorgeous little Scots primrose grows in short turf in the Quandale and Brings heathlands in the northwest, where thousands of arctic terns breed close to major cliff colonies of fulmar, kittiwake, guillemot and other seabirds. 

Peregrine, merlin and puffins

The sandstone pillar of the Old Man of Hoy is an icon of Orkney. Take a short route north from Rackwick along a peaty path to overlook the stack and you’ll see moorland birds, seabirds and interesting plants. A long (whole day) route across North Hoy goes between Culags and Ward Hill from near Hoy village to Rackwick. Red grouse, merlin, peregrine and short-eared owl could all reward a hike here. Plenty of fulmars, guillemots and kittiwakes nest at the coast, plus a sprinkling of puffins. Clifftop plants near the Old Man include spring squill and roseroot.  

Arctic terns

Part of the fun of exploring Orkney is that you can use ferries to reach almost every island. A visit to the north islands of the group gives a good reason for mixing-in other transport to add further spice. Take the ferry to Westray, then use a hired bike to reach Noup Head Cliffs, near the lighthouse, to see breeding guillemots and other seabirds and look for Scots primrose in the clifftop maritime heath. From Westray, the world’s shortest scheduled air service flies to Papa Westray. North Hill on ‘Papay’, reachable by travelling north to the end of Papay’s ‘main’ road, has a huge arctic tern colony. The rocky coast at Fowl Craig was one of the last refuges of the now extinct great auk (marked by a smaller-than-life-sized statue above the cliffs).

Seaweed eating sheep

Some of Britain’s weirdest sheep - a breed named after their home island - live on North Ronaldsay. They are confined to the shore for much of the year, where they eat seaweed on the seaward side of an island-encircling stone wall. Use this dyke to get views of sheep and grey seals. Excellent flowers in the island grassland include grass-of-Parnassus and spring squill. The bird observatory on the south-west peninsula has accommodation in a low energy building, much in demand by birders in search of rare spring and autumn migrants.


Red Throated Diver, RSPB images