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.

Explore Shetland article spread


Storm petrel

  • Where: Breeds on Mousa, an internationally important site for the species, with 6,000 pairs or 2 per cent of the world population (roughly 257,000 pairs).
  • When: Returns to breed in April and leaves between September and November.
  • How: You have to visit Mousa at night – storm petrels won’t return from their fishing trips during the day for fear of predation. Mousa Boat Trips.



Getting there

  • Northlink Ferries operates between Aberdeen and Lerwick. The voyage takes 12-14 hours.  

  • Loganair runs flights on behalf of British Airways. 

  • Atlantic Airways has just started direct flights from Stansted. 

Getting around

  • John Leask & Son is a travel agent and tour operator.

  • Inter-island ferries are operated by Shetland Islands Council and sail frequently. 

  • The Good Shepherd IV does a 2.5 hour ferry service to Fair Isle two or three times a week from Lerwick or Sumburgh. 

  • Flights for Fair Isle depart from Tingwall and take 25 minutes.


  • There are plenty of B&Bs in Shetland. Contact Visit Shetland

  • I stayed in self-catering accommodation with OfficeLodge in Lerwick. 

  • The camping böds network offers budget accommodation. Contact Shetland Amenity Trust (which also runs a ranger service). 

  • Fair Isle Bird Observatory offers full board and a free ranger service. Open from April until the end of October. 

Wildlife information

  • Scottish Natural Heritage runs three reserves – Noss, Hermaness and Keen of Hamar. 

  • The RSPB has four reserves in Shetland – Sumburgh Head, Mousa, Fetlar and Loch of Spiggie.




  • Most seabird species have declined on Shetland in recent years, and scientists are beginning to figure out why. Fair Isle Bird Observatory has been studying the breeding success of seabirds since the 1940s. Since 1986, it has compiled data for the Joint Nature Conservation Council.

  • The main species studied are Arctic and great skuas, Arctic terns, fulmars, gannets, guillemots and black guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins, razorbills and shags.

  • Most of these species are in decline. Arctic terns have fallen from 2,800 pairs in 2001 to about 250 this year. They haven’t fledged any chicks over the past few years. Kittiwakes have dropped from 11,500 pairs in 1999 to 5,000 today.

  • Falling sandeel stocks are the main reason for the declines. In the early 1990s, this was thought to be due to overfishing, according to observatory warden Deryk Shaw, but sandeels have not been taken in Shetland waters in significant numbers since 1991.

  • Most scientists now believe that climate change is hitting sandeels. The influx of pipefish into British waters is another problem, because they are taken as food but appear to offer no nutrition.

  • Some species, such as gannets, which are not dependent on sandeels, are increasing steadily.


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