Shetland - Wildlife, Birdwatching Holidays in the Shetland Islands
Think of Shetland as Seabird Central. For sheer variety and number of seabirds Shetland is arguably the best place in Europe. Add the possibility of whale watching offshore, widespread otters and a culture that leans as much to Norway as it does to Scotland and you’ve the makings of a memorable island trip.
- Shags, puffins and gannets
- Whales and seabirds
- Wildfowl loch
- Storm petrels
- Red-necked phalarope
- Gannets and whimbrels
- Fair Isle
- Heavy metal plants
- Otters and divers
- Isle of Foula
You can approach the awesome cliffs of Noss in two ways. One is to take a wildlife tour boat from Lerwick harbour to see the honeycombed rock formations - stuffed with kittiwakes, gannets and other seabirds. The other is go by ferry from Lerwick to Bressay, cross the latter, and then get a small boat (late May to August) to Noss. Duck if you’re dive-bombed by great skuas and arctic skuas on the way up a slope of sedge-rich heathland to the cliffs. Puffins around the clifftops tend to be fairly tame, while the sights, sounds and smells of the gannetry are tremendous.
First touchdown on mainland Shetland for air travellers is Sumburgh. From here, it’s only a few miles south to the most accessible seabird colony in the island group, at Sumburgh Head. Puffins breed here, plus guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, shags and fulmars. The headland is a great vantage from which to look out for orcas, dolphins, grey seals and even hump-backed whales in summer.
Immediately south-west of Scousburgh, the Loch of Spiggie (a former sea inlet) is one of Shetland’s best places for watching wildfowl. Hundreds of whooper swans, plus several species of duck, use the loch in winter. Watch from the roads that flank the loch. In summer, hear the calls of breeding snipe, curlew and oystercatcher and watch seabirds such as arctic terns, kittiwakes and great skuas (‘bonxies’ in Shetland dialect) having freshwater baths.
A night visit to the island of Mousa, opposite Sandwick, is one of Britain’s most unusual wildlife watching experiences. Sit at midnight beside the world’s finest surviving broch (an Iron Age fortified round tower) while broch-breeding storm petrels fly in from the sea, their bat-like shapes silhouetted in the peachy half-light of the Shetland ‘Simmer Dim’. The churring calls of these swallow-sized seabirds blend with the bickering of arctic terns and gulls beyond.
Famous some decades ago for the snowy owls that once bred here, Fetlar is now better known as the most likely place in Scotland to see red-necked phalarope. Watch these dapper little waders from a hide at the Mires of Funzie. Walk the island’s grassy heaths north of the road to see and hear a brilliant mix of breeding waders, including whimbrel and golden plover, plus arctic skuas and bonxies (great skuas). If you’re staying overnight, the peninsula of Lamb Hoga holds nocturnally visiting storm petrels and Manx shearwaters (flocks of Manxies gather in the waters of the Wick of Tresta on summer evenings), plus puffin and other seabirds along the cliffs. Get background on Fetlar heritage (human and natural) at the interpretive centre by the Beach of Houbie.
The island of Unst is ultimate Scotland: as far north as it’s possible to go. Hermaness, at the north-west edge, overlooks the final land of all at Muckle Flugga and Out Stack. Walk a way-marked route from a parking area near the Muckle Flugga lighthouse shore-base to make a circular route to the cliffs and back. Watch out for whimbrels and dive-bombing bonxies (great skuas) in one of the world’s biggest colonies on the moors. Puffins along the cliff edge are fairly tame. Thousands of gannets, plus guillemots and other seabirds breed on the dizzying cliff ledges.
Home to one of Britain’s best-known bird observatories and world-famous for its pullovers, Fair Isle is a great place to stay for a few days. Access is by mail-boat from the south Shetland mainland or by plane from Tingwall. A stone wall - the Hill Dyke (worth a close look in spring and autumn in case of a perched rare migrant bird) - divides the northern, heathery part of the island from the fertile, southern part. Enjoy plants such as orchids and spring squill and take time to amble along the cliffs to see huge seabird colonies. Breeding puffins, fulmars and guillemots all number in the tens of thousands.
The Keen of Hamar, accessible from a minor road off the A968 east of Baltasound on Unst, is one of Scotland’s strangest locations for special flora. The serpentine rock here is stuffed with heavy metals that can kill many plants. Those that cope with the chemical challenge and the dryness of the hill (a moonscape of stony barrens) include: moss campion, Norwegian sandwort and Shetland (or Edmonston’s) mouse-ear. This white-petalled chickweed, discovered in 1837 by a local botanist, Thomas Edmonston, (when he was eleven!) grows nowhere else in the world but Unst.
The call of the red-throated diver - or ‘rain goose’ as it’s known here - is one of the most evocative sounds of the Shetland summer. You’ll have a good chance of an earful of rain goose on Yell, largest of the North Isles of the group, where a thriving diver population breeds in peaty pools and feeds at sea. Go to Lumbister for divers and a chance of seeing moorland waders, including whimbrel and arctic skuas and bonxies (great skuas). Keep a good eye on the Yell coast - it’s excellent for otters.
Westernmost of all the Shetland isles, and very remote, Foula is a world apart, reachable by ferry from or a flight from Tingwall. The cliffs are huge - on a par with St Kilda - and border around half the island. Cliff-breeding seabirds include guillemot, razorbill, puffin and shag, with both storm and Leach’s petrels on scree slopes and thousands of bonxies (great skuas) on the inland moors. Guided walks from community rangers available in summer.