A non-commercial site to collect and disseminate information on the natural history of Shetland.

contact us

About these pages

Nature in Shetland

Recording nature in Shetland since 1996

Winner of a Shetland Environment Award 2004


Scottish Natural Heritage



Keen of Hamar Nature Reserve

A Lunar Landscape

You might feel as though you have landed on the moon when you first arrive at the Keen of Hamar. The barren scene seems bleak and lifeless, but appearances can be deceiving. This is a landscape in motion and nestling in its stony ground are some of the rarest plants in Britain. To the untrained eye there is certainly something special about the place, but for a botanist it is heaven.

A Unique Habitat

Hamar means "rocky outcrop on the hillside". The soil here is among the oldest and poorest in Britain and the scene probably resembles what much of Northern Europe looked like as the ice retreated after the last ice age some 10,000 years ago. The rock type at the Keen of Hamar is serpentine and where it weathers in such a way to produce large numbers of small angular fragments, it is known as `debris'. Serpentine outcrops occur elsewhere in Unst, on the neighbouring island of Fetlar, at the Lizard in Cornwall, on the islands of Rum and Skye, and in small areas of Fife and Aberdeenshire. What is unique about the Keen however is the extent of serpentine debris - one of the largest expanses in Europe.  

Photo right: serpentine outcrops on the Keen of Hamar.

A Mountain near Sea Level

Stone stripes can be found on the bare north facing slopes of the reserve. These are formed through the sorting of stones by size following repeated freezing and thawing of water in the soil. In Britain this process is normally associated with high mountains such as the Cairngorms or Helvellyn in the Lake District. But at the Keen of Hamar, where there is little vegetation to hold the soil together, these stone stripes occur at just 50m above sea level. These stone stripes are currently active and may move downslope by up to a few centimetres each year - a landscape in motion. Experiments have shown that where the ground surface has been disturbed the stripes may reform in a single winter.

Soil Transported by Ice

There are actually two types of `soil' found on the reserve. The visible effect of this is quite dramatic and results in the complex patchwork of vegetated and bare areas we see today. Much of the site comprises bare serpentine debris and this debris is still being produced as the forces of the weather shatter more serpentine bedrock into tiny pieces. This can be seen on the upper slopes of the Keen. Elsewhere, thin, stoneless, sandy soils give rise to well vegetated patches on the lower slopes of the reserve. This heathland is typical of the vegetation found on much of the Sheltand serpentine and is rich in flowers, grasses and sedges. Although this soil was derived from serpentine, it did not originate from the bedrock at the Keen but was transported to the site and deposited there by moving ice more than 10,000 years ago - a drift deposit.  

Some Very Special Flowers

The community of flowers that are specially adapted to life on he debris is one of the most impressive in North West Europe. A number of species with a restricted distribution in Britain grow here including, northern rock cress, Arabis petraea, hoary whitlow grass, Draba incana, Norwegian sandwort, Arenaria norvegica, and rarest of all Edmondston's chickweed, Cerastium nigrescens. This plant was discovered in 1837 - by Thomas Edmondston of Buness, later Professor of Botany at the Anderson University of Glasgow. Other species, notably scurvy grass, Cochlearia offtcinalis, stone bramble, Rubus saxatilis, thrift, Armeria maritima, and sea plantain, Plantago maritima, show distinctive growth forms adapted to the conditions on the Keen of Hamar.

Photographs (left to right, top to bottom): Slender St. John's Wort - Hypericum pulchrum. This bright yellow flower can be found among healthy areas on the reserve. It is the only representative of its family in Shetland.

Kidney Vetch - Anthyllis vulneraria. This species is often found close to the coast. The colour of the flowers is very variable although those found on the Keen are an unusual, lemon-yellow.

Hoary Whitlow Grass - Draba incana. This species likes exposed places where it clings to rocky outcrops, its roots deeply embedded in crevices. Look for the tiny rosette of leaves just around the margins of the green-topped rocky mounds that can be found on the slopes of the Keen.

Frog Orchid - Coeloglossum viride. This inconspicuous green and red orchid is actually quite widespread on the reserve although orchid spotters need to get down on their hands and knees on the areas of short turf to find it.

Research On The Keen

Pegs marking fixed quadrats and transects are a human feature of the reserve! For over 25 years scientists have been attempting to explain why the debris habitat is so inhospitable for plant growth and, why natural processes of succession i.e. the build up of a soil leading eventually to complete vegetation cover have not occurred. Various theories have been put forward including the presence of toxic metals in the debris soil or, a lack of nutrients essential for plant growth. These factors may still be in part responsible, but today a shortage of water in summer is the favoured explanation. It is difficult to imagine that water shortage could ever be a problem in Shetland. However the coarse nature of the debris and the lie of the land means that any rain that falls tends to run off the site. Many of the plants do show adaptations to living in very dry conditions such as fleshy leaves, extreme hairiness and extensive root networks.

Although the site has certainly been grazed by farm animals in the past there is now no grazing, other than by rabbits. A fenced corridor through the middle of the site allows cattle to move between areas of grazing pasture. The effects of the enrichment of the debris by a natural fertiliser, cattle dung, can be seen here. The field adjacent to the reserve entrance also illustrates the sensitive nature of this site. Here the debris was fertilised and reseeded.The reserve declared in 1975, is owned by Scottish Natural Heritage. It is situated east of the A968 north of Baltasound (take the side road to Little Hamar).

Photo left: Edmonstons Chickweed - Ceratium nigrescens. Discovered by local botanist Thomas Edmonston of Buness in 1837, this plant's world distribution is restricted to the serpentine debris on Unst. The large white flowers can be seen from June to August.

Guidance for visitors

In the interests of this special place and your own safety we ask you to:

  • Leave dogs behind as they are likely to disturb the fragile habitat.

  • Not to leave litter. It can kill or maim animals.

  • Not to take plants or animals, only photos.

  • Not to disturb nesting birds.

  • Take care on the cliffs.

  • Norweigan Sandwort is specially protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act and it is an offence to intentionally damage or destroy the plant or to collect its flowers and seeds.

All text and pictures copyright Scottish Natural Heritage SNH 1999

For further enquiries contact: Scottish Natural Heritage, Ground Floor, Stewart Building, Alexandra Wharf, Lerwick, Shetland. ZE1 0LL. Telephone (01595) 693345.



This site is not directly connected to any of the organisations mentioned, so comments  may not necessarily reflect the views of the organisations, clubs or societies  involved. The pages on this website remain the intellectual property of the authors. They may be freely downloaded, quoted or used for any purpose, providing acknowledgement is given to the website and/or the author/s. No liability is accepted for the accuracy of this information. Copyright of all photographs remains with the photographer.