If Shetland is special then Unst is arguably the jewel in its crown. Each wildlife species has its own niche, or habitat, and Unst has an extraordinarily wide range of habitats for wildlife to exploit – and exploit it they do. Unst's web of life is truly fascinating.
When looking for mammals most visitors to Shetland come to see whales, dolphins, seals and otters.
Whales and dolphins are much more common in British waters than many people believe and Unst is an excellent place to see them – particularly from Hermaness and Lamba Ness in the summer. The most common species around Unst are Harbour Porpoises, Killer Whales, and White-beaked and Risso's Dolphins, but White-Sided Dolphins, and Minke Whales were also sighted in 2006. However, the ocean is big and whales are wild animals so seeing them can never be guaranteed – a whale sighting is a lucky bonus for any holiday.
Grey and Common Seals both live around Unst, the common coming close in shore and the greys living on the rockier and more turbulent North Coast, and especially around Hermaness where they give birth to their pups in the sea caves in autumn. Greys have elongated noses and are heavily built, particularly the males which are 210 cm long (6 ft 11 inches) and weigh 230 kg (507 lb). Common seals are smaller – the males are between 140 cm and 190 cm long (4 ft 7 ins. to 6 ft 2 ins.), and weigh 55 kg to 170 kg (121 lbs to 375 lbs). Common seals have softer, more dog-like heads.
Introduced to Shetland by Man – presumably for their pelts – otters may be seen all round Unst’s coast, and particularly in bays with streams flowing into them, eg at Baltasound, Uyeasound and Haroldswick, or at the Belmont ferry terminal. Watching otters fishing or at play is a wonderful experience – though here again, it is all a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
The varied habitats on Unst suit a wide variety of birds:
Unst’s mighty sea cliffs are a natural home for cliff-nesting seabirds, with over 120,000 birds breeding on the 170 metre high cliffs of the Hermaness National Nature Reserve alone. A trip to this Reserve and to the visitor centre at the old lighthouse shore station at Burra Firth is a must.
- Gannets are common with around 16,000 pairs and 3,000 immature birds – 5% of the Western European population. They can be seen mainly from April to September, on the cliffs or fishing offshore, a spectacular sight as they crash dive into the sea from around 100 feet in pursuit of mackerel and other fish, their wings folded and beak first.
- Fulmar Petrels breed on the cliffs from May to September and can be seen flying, or rather gliding stiff-winged, off shore. Fulmars first appeared in Shetland in 1878 and today 5,000 pairs breed at Hermaness alone. They eat crustaceans and fish – and waste from trawlers.
- Kittiwakes, Shags, Black Guillemots and Gulls also breed on the cliffs, adding to the noise, smell and general excitement.
- Puffins are everyone’s favourite and are also the most plentiful, with 25,000 pairs at Hermaness. They can be seen at their cliff-top nest sites (in burrows) from mid April to early August. Outwith this time they live far out to sea and cannot be seen. Indeed puffins only touch land to breed. Puffins feed on small fish, the classic photograph that everyone wants to take being of a puffin standing with several sand eels hanging from its beak.
Although wild and open, Unst’s moorland is the breeding ground for some fascinating birds:
- Great Skuas or Bonxies are the pirates of the bird world, forcing other sea birds to drop or regurgitate their food so that they can steal it. However, they also kill and eat adult puffins and kittiwakes as well as the chicks and the eggs of other birds. They are fearless when it comes to humans, dive-bombing those walking through their breeding areas on the moor above the cliffs. Bonxies are one of Unst’s great success stories. In 1831 Hermaness had 3 pairs. By 1920, thanks to the protection of the local landowners, there were 80 pairs. Today there are 650 pairs and Hermaness has the 3rd largest colony in the world.
- Red Throated Divers also breed on the lochs and pools of the moors and can be seen on fresh water lochs or on the coast, often off beaches. They make a high-pitched, wailing “Ya-roo, ya-roo, ya-roo” call in the breeding season. Shetland supports 40% of Britain’s total population and Shetlanders know them as “rain geese”.
- Whimbrels, known in Shetland as "peerie whaaps" or little curlews, are similar to curlews but about 30% smaller. They breed in the sub-arctic, migrating to Africa in winter. Shetland has between 90% and 95% of the British breeding population.
As the northernmost island in Shetland, and given its prominent position in the North Atlantic, it is little wonder that Unst is the first landfall for many exotic birds heading south on migration and for many others blown off course by northern winds – birds from Central Asia, Siberia, Eastern Europe, Southern Europe and even North American have all been recorded.
It is a fascinating fact that less than 50 species breed on Unst but more than 300 have been recorded.
Unst’s records for 2007 include: Little Crake, White-Billed Diver, Bufflehead, Common Crane, Little Egret, Baird’s Sandpiper, Buff-Breasted Sandpiper, White-Rumped Sandpiper, Gyrfalcon, Calandra Lark, Short-Toed Lark, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Melodious Warbler, Dusky Warbler, Yellow-Browed Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Grey Phalarope, Rose-Coloured Starling, Sooty Shearwater, Great Shearwater, American Golden Plover and Arctic Redpoll.
See the Nature In Shetland website for full details of the latest sightings – and for the sighting archives for the past few years.
Unst’s varied geology, latitude, climate, soil types and agricultural land uses have all impacted on its flora, creating the rich array of flowering plants that we have today.
In common with most (90%) of Shetland, much of Unst is covered in moorland – a peaty layer on which coarse grasses, sedges like cotton grass (bog cotton), heather, orchids and bog asphodel grow. There are also areas of blanket bog: rain-fed peatlands containing the pools on which the red-throated divers breed. Peat is partially decayed plant material, mainly moss, that has accumulated over the past 7,000 years or so and it is an important traditional source of fuel in Unst as with the rest of the Highlands & Islands.
Keen of Hamar National Nature Reserve
Unst is most famous botanically for the Keen of Hamar National Nature Reserve. The Keen is a hill that rises steadily from the road near Hagdale before plummeting into the sea in the massive cliffs that fringe its east side. From afar it appears to be a brown, rocky, barren wilderness. However, on closer inspection – ideally on hands and knees – it turns out to be a botanists’ heaven!
Composed of serpentine originating deep beneath the oceans and rarely found on land, the rock has gradually been worn down over the past 400 million years to produce the debris covered hillside that we have today – a soil that experts say is “amongst the oldest and poorest in Britain”.
Nestling amongst the debris are a host of tiny plants that have adapted perfectly to the poor soils and harsh climate in which they find themselves. Scurvy grass, thrift, sea plantain and stone bramble are all smaller than elsewhere and they have a purplish tinge, probably from the soil. Indeed, so unique is the environment and so isolated is its location that one plant is found here and nowhere else in the world – Edmondston’s chickweed. Northern rock cress and Norwegian sandwort are other rarities.
At the foot of the hill, and in patches all over it, are sandy soils derived from glacial deposits in which heather and grasses grow, as do some more rarities like moonwort, orchids (frog and fragrant), mountain everlasting and fairy flax.
Meadows and Marshes
Meadows and marshes can also be found in pockets and many are managed by crofters which means that they have been cropped and grazed sustainably for countless generations. Both contain profusions of wild flowers – as the meadows and marshes of old once did throughout mainland Britain.
Guided wildlife tours take place throughout the season on Unst:
Shetland naturalist, Brydon Thomason of Shetland Nature, takes parties to Fetlar on Wednesday's and to Hermaness and the Keen of Hamar National Nature Reserves on Saturdays. See his website for details:
Shetland Nature Holidays & Tours.
Edmond Nicolson operates Muckle Flugga Charters out of Burrafirth on Unst and makes daily trips to Muckle Flugga, weather permitting. Also sea angling and diving trips. See his website for details: Muckle Flugga Charters.
The North Shetland Ranger, Rory Tallack, leads guided walks on Hermaness and the Keen of Hamar throughout the summer. Contact Saxa Vord for details: 01957 711711