Shetland is world famous for its wildlife, and has been accorded a number of national and international designations as a result. The diverse range of plant and animal life can be directly linked to the huge variety of rocks beneath us, which influence just what can grow and survive in this challenging climate.
Shetland is perhaps best known for its birds. Over one million inhabit the cliffs and moorland, with 70 different species breeding in the isles and over 430 migratory species recorded.
Most of the seabirds nest on the spectacular sea cliffs, such as those at Noss where erosion of the Old Red Sandstone cliffs has created stone ledges that make ideal nesting sites for a large Gannet population. Others nest in burrows underground, such as the Puffins for which the isles are so famous.
The moorland, which covers much of Shetland, provides breeding grounds for Great and Arctic Skuas, Snipe, Whimbrel, Dunlin, Golden Plover, and Red-throated Divers. Due to a lack of intensive farming in many areas, Lapwing, Redshank, Curlew and Skylark also thrive here.
Several endemic species have evolved in Shetland, despite the fact it has only been separated from the rest of the UK for around 12,000 years when glacial ice retreated. These include two island races of Wren, several races of Field Mouse and a subspecies of bumblebee.
Situated close to the European Continental Shelf, Shetland’s nutrient rich waters support a wealth of marine wildlife. The isles are the best place in the UK to see Otters. Porpoise and Common and Grey Seals are regularly seen and, during the summer, dolphins and Killer and Minke Whales visit the shores. Humpback Whales have also recently reappeared in Shetland’s waters.
Shetland’s moorland is predominantly blanket bog, a globally rare habitat. Where drainage is better, a drier heathland is found, while the serpentine rocks of Unst and Fetlar support a unique herb-rich heathland.
At the Keen of Hamar on Unst, the serpentine debris has changed little since the ice receded 12,000 years ago. This environment supports a community of rare Arctic plants as well as Edmondston’s Chickweed, the best known of the 23 species of plant unique to Shetland.
At 450 metres Shetland’s highest point, Ronas Hill, has a climate as extreme as any Scottish mountain. The resultant periglacial landscape supports a number of rare Arctic-Alpine plants, some of which are found nowhere else in Shetland.