Arriving on Shetland

Like many visitors our first encounter of Shetland was a misty morning coming into Lerwick on the overnight ferry from Aberdeen.  The arctic terns (tirricks to give them their Shetland name) wheeling about and a passing arctic skua a welcoming sight. Two more ferries lie ahead to take us to our volunteering home for the next two weeks on Fetlar….

Arriving on the boat


The range of birds that make Fetlar their home is truly special.  Snipe pose on fenceposts along the roadside while red-throated divers pass by overhead.  Our volunteering focussed on helping with surveys of that most special of breeding birds, red-necked phalaropes.  Aided by training with the Shetland reserves team, Tom, Beth and Kevin, we were soon up to the tops of our wellingtons in superb mires, glimpsing phalaropes among the diverse bogbean, pondweed, cinquefoil and horsetail-rich pools, along with fellow volunteer Alastair.   The sheer numbers of dunlin, snipe and curlew is astounding, joined now and then by golden plover, whimbrel and very noisy oystercatchers.  The commitment and enthusiasm of the RSPB team for creating the very best wetland conditions, through a combination of water level management, grazing and vegetation cutting is inspiring to see.   With tirricks commuting to moorland nests with small fish, and fulmar, tysties and puffins all around the rocky coasts, while gannets plunge close offshore it all adds up to something magical.   Sadly, the ravages of bird flu on the bonxie population are obvious on the moorland. While the RSPB team, clad in full PPE, have removed bodies from moorland pools and reserve areas, there are still many corpses across the open moorland, and while some adults have survived, there are virtually no chicks for the second year.  Thankfully there had been no sign of bird flu in the arctic skua population.  A final treat on Fetlar was two otters by the ferry terminal.

Snipe on a post 

Unst and Herma Ness

At a glance the staggeringly dramatic sea stacks of Herma Ness at the northermost point of the British Isles on the island of Unst, look to be covered with gannets, but a closer look reveals a grim tally of dead birds strewn across the nesting areas.  While some areas have been virtually abandoned, at least some parts of the colony have fared better and have many chicks.  Time will tell what the long-term impact will be, and we can only hope the worst is past, but it makes you realise how vulnerable these colonial species can be.

Peatland on Yell

A visit to look at RSPB’s peatland restoration work at our Lumbister reserve on Yell was brilliant.  The contrast between the areas where restoration has been carried out by blocking drains and re-profiling erosion gullies, and the areas still to be completed was remarkable – from bare eroding peat to pools, re-vegetation and sphagnum recovery. 

Looking at pools on Lumbister 

Mainland  - Loch Spiggie, Sumburgh Head and west Mainland

To add some diversity to our volunteering, we helped pull up invasive monkey flower, a domineering garden escape that shades out native flora, at Loch Spiggie reserve (watched on by whooper swans and their chicks), met the close-up puffins at Sumburgh Head, and carried out some standard 1km bonxie plot counts in a coastal moorland area.

And before we knew it our volunteering stint was over, but a fantastic time in a wonderful place. Big thanks to all the Shetland reserves team for looking after us so well and making us so welcome. 

Whooper Swan Family 

Thanks Dave & Jacky O'Hara