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Shetland's Wildlife

A gannet in flight is a magnificent sightShetland is world famous as a place to see wildlife. While its small size and comparative isolation in the North Atlantic means that it does not have the enormous diversity of animal and plant life found in larger areas in more central locations, what it loses in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. Many species are rare and exotic and one is endemic – unique to Shetland, and even to Unst!

In particular, the Islands’ location between temperate Europe and the Arctic Circle, and between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, means that the sea is a major influence.  

The North Atlantic Drift brings relatively warm waters sweeping past the Shetland Islands from the south before merging with colder Arctic currents and sweeping towards Greenland. These currents are rich in plankton which pass the islands in a constant stream, supporting a great range of marine wildlife in the process.

No point in Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea so it is only natural that most of the Islands’ wildlife is either dependent on it or greatly influenced by it: whether it be the mammals and fish that swim in it, the birds and mammals that feed off it, or the plants that live in the salt-laden air. Even the moorland plants and “inland” fauna must adapt to the great winds, rain and fog that blow in off the Atlantic Ocean.

  • Whales of all shapes and sizes may be seen around the coast (over 18 species of cetaceans have been identified in Shetland waters), as can seals (grey and common), and otters – though in all cases it is a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
  • Muckle Flugga Charters take you to the birds, and sometimes whales, of Muckle FluggaSeabird abound – everything from gannets and fulmar petrels to skuas (bonxies), divers and the iconic little puffins. Shetland is also famed as a place for twitchers to see rare an exotic vagrants – birds resting on migration and/or birds blown off-course by the wind. 
  • Plants must put up with the soil conditions, climate, weather, salt and the depredation of hungry sheep and have learned to adapt accordingly, generally being small and ground-hugging. For example, trees are a great rarity in Shetland and yet tiny dwarf willow grows in relative abundance, though too small to see unless one walks over them.

Inevitably, as with all populated areas of the world, Man has had an impact on Shetland’s flora and fauna. However, unlike most of Europe, Man’s influence in Shetland has been, and is, comparatively benign.

  • Mammals – no land mammals are indigenous, all – including otters and Shetland ponies – having been introduced from over the sea by Man.
  • Shetland's East Mainland coastShetland is sparsely populated, somewhere around 34% of the Islands’ 22,000 people living in Lerwick and roughly 50% living within 10 miles of it. The remainder live on scattered fishing villages and crofting townships, generally around the coast, so most of Shetland is deserted for most of the time – good for wildlife.
  • Similarly, archaeological remains litter the landscape precisely because Man’s activities, particularly agricultural, have always been of low intensity: no deep ploughing here. Instead, people have constantly worked the more fertile areas of land over thousands of years, adding well rotted organic matter as often as they could and never overusing agricultural chemicals – good for plants and insects and the fauna that lives on them.
  • Shetlanders today take a deep interest in caring for and protecting their environment to ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy its many wonders.  

To find out more about Shetland’s wildlife see:

Wildlife In Unst

To learn about the flora and fauna of Britains most northerly island, visit our wildlife of Unst page - we are sure you will be impressed by the huge range of species you can see when you holiday at Saxa Vord.