Shetland: orca island

Shetland is the best place in Britain to see orcas, otters and breeding seabirds. James Fair reports on the islands that some say rival the Galápagos as a wildlife experience.

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“It is impossible to know what Thomas might have gone on to achieve,” wrote J Laughton Johnston in A Naturalist’s Shetland, but the implication hangs in the air. Darwin, as is well known, wasn’t quick off the mark with The Origin of Species (published in 1859), though since ‘Edmonstonism’ doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, perhaps we should be grateful for Thomas’s early demise.

Edmonston did give his name to a rare species of chickweed, which isn’t just endemic to Shetland or Unst, but is only found on two sites in the whole world.

One of them is Keen of Hamar National Nature Reserve, which I visited with ranger Rory Tallack. In this tundra-like landscape, we found northern marsh and frog orchids, purple clumps of spring squill and carnivorous butterworts – but no chickweed. “I found some here last week,” Rory muttered. Carelessly, he appeared to have lost one of the world’s rarest plants.

Puffin power  

A touch disappointed, I decided to move on. I’d really come to Unst to visit Hermaness, the northernmost point in the British Isles. For the first time that week, the sun came out, and for an hour or more, I sat by the edge of the cliff a few feet from Shetland’s ubiquitous puffins, and all was right with the world.

The bonxies (“seagulls evolving into eagles,” as I heard them described) were out in force, looking to dispatch an unwary puffin or two, preferably by drowning them in the sea or a handy burn. Even better, I met up again with Rory, who told me he had found that elusive chickweed after I left Keen of Hamar, which I imagined was quite a relief.

Apart from the orcas – yes, the orcas I didn’t see – there is one other wildlife spectacle that sets Shetland apart from anywhere else I have visited, in the UK at least.

Things that hiccup in the night

On the island of Mousa, between the months of May and September, the drystone walls, the boulder rubble on the beaches and the iron-age, 15-metre high broch (imagine a 2,000-year-old cooling tower and you won’t go far wrong) all resonate to the sound of a low churring accompanied by the occasional – well – hiccup.

Only late at night does the source of the churring reveal itself: tiny birds the size of swallows, fluttering around the broch like moths to a flame. They are storm petrels, returning in the safety of darkness to their mates who have each been sitting on a solitary egg. Like passing the baton in a relay, the nest-sitter is now free to leave, while the forager takes over egg- or later chick-care duties.

Shetland’s orcas may steal the headlines, but it was the storm petrels that stole my heart. I thought of them biding their time, waiting for their partners to return, not knowing if or when they would, all the while turning out their endless magical song.

 

JAMES' TOP SPECIES TO SEE

Common seal

  • Where: Common seals haul out all over Shetland, but Noss Nature Reserve is a top spot. They pup on Mousa.
  • When: The seals give birth in June and July, then moult and haul out for long periods in August (when there can be 500 animals ashore at Mousa). But they can be seen in lower concentrations throughout the year.
  • How: You’ll certainly see them on Dr Jonathan Wills’ Seabirds-and-Seals tour of Noss.

Orca

  • Where: The coast of Shetland (particularly areas frequented by seals), but hotspots are the islands of Papa Stour, Yell, Whalsay, Bluemull and Colgrave Sounds, plus the south-east coast of the mainland from Lerwick to Sumburgh Head.
  • When: Most sightings in Shetland are between May and September.
  • How: Contact Hugh Harrop of Shetland Wildlife

Great skua (bonxie)

  • Where: Hermaness has the highest number of breeding bonxie pairs (700 or 5 per cent of the world population), but you can see them virtually anywhere. I saw a big ‘club’ of 20 non-breeders by the Lochs of Lumbister.
  • When: Breeding birds are present between March and September – they overwinter in the Atlantic.
  • How: Look out for these raptor-like birds in seabird colonies. They nest on grassland and moorland.

Otter

  • Where: Shetland’s voes are a good place to start. Otters like to fish around mussel farms (they don’t take the mussels themselves, but hunt for butterfish, rockling and eel out in the kelp and marine ‘foliage’ that grow around the farms).
  • When: Any time of year.
  • How: For an enhanced otter experience, contact John Campbell and Terry Holmes of Shetland Otters

 

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