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Nature in Shetland

winner of a Shetland Environment Award 2004


Scottish Natural Heritage



Hermaness National Nature Reserve - Land of the Bonxie

Every year a wildlife spectacular is acted out at the most northerly point of Britain. Hermaness National Nature Reserve on Unst is a place of bird cries and sea smells, of myth and mist.

High Life

Hermaness is home to the third largest colony of flying pirates in the world - the bonxies or great skuas. During summer some 25,000 pairs of puffins breed in burrows on the cliff edges while on the moor live rare and elegant red-throated divers. Hermaness can even claim to have been the last stronghold of Shetland's giants! Sadly Herman the giant and his arch rival Saxi from across Burra Firth were lured away by a mermaid, but for its bird life, Hermaness remains a living legend.  

Photo right: cliffs at Hermaness.

The Moors

Here in summer you will be greeted by the bonxie. Due to its rarity this species was once the target of egg collectors and taxidermists. There were only three pairs on Hermaness in 1831. However thanks to the protection of the landowners, the Edmondston family, numbers rose to 80 pairs by the 1920s and today there are 650. At first glance a barren wilderness, the moors are in fact teeming with life. There are areas of blanket bog, a globally threat­ened habitat, which contains over 7,000 years of vegetation history at Hermaness. This part of the reserve is the home of red-throated divers, snipe, dunlin,  golden plover and arctic skua as well as the bonxie.

Photo left: Red-throated diver - these stream-lined birds are often seen flying over the reserve calling. Their cry is said to forecast rain - "we're a' weet, we're a' weet... waur wadder, waur wadder." (we're all wet, worse weather). Hence their Shetland name of Rain Goose.

The Cliff

The cliffs of Hermaness rise to 170 meters at the Neap. But as home to over 100,000 breeding sea birds it is not their height which most impresses the visitor. During summer these cliffs are alive. The raucous cacophony of bird cries and the raw smell of guano (bird droppings) makes this an overwhelming wildlife experience. There are several gannetries where over 12,000 pairs of these beautiful birds have built nests of seaweed cemented together with guano. Today the gannets of Hermaness represent 5% of the Western European population, but they did not breed here until 1917. Why? Reasons for their spread are complex, but may have been due to a relaxation in persecution by man and an increased food supply. Fulmars are also a relatively recent addition to the Hermaness cliffs. They began to breed here in 1897 and today there are over 14,000 pairs. Most numerous of the auks is the puffin, but there are also 20,000 guillemots nesting on the cliffs and 1,000 razorbills in the boulders below. Over a thousand pairs of kittiwakes, 400 pairs of shags, tysties (black guillemots) and gulls make this one of the most diverse colonies in Europe.  

The Plants

Look carefully and Hermaness reveals some attractive plants. There are purple field gentians in the grassland while the moor is a tapestry of heather, crowberry, bog bilberry, mosses and grasses with splashes of colour in the form of orchids and yellow bog asphodel. Only plants which can cope with sea spray grow on the cliff tops, and out of reach of sheep, vegetation is luxurious. Here you will find angelica, Scots lovage, red campion and sea campion. Spring squill creates a blue carpet in May which changes colour in summer as sea pinks (thrift) take over.  

Photo right: Eyebright - this little flower is a headache for botanists. There are currently 8 species and 15 sub-species recognised in Shetland. Even the experts have problems telling them apart!

The Geology

Hermaness is largely made up of a type of rock called gneiss formed 600 million years ago as a result of the action of intense heat and pressure. This process also produced some of the best silicate crystals in Britain, particularly well developed around Tonga although they are hard to see without a trained eye. At Neap and Saito the cliffs are granite.

History of the Reserve

Conservation at Hermaness began in 1831 when the laird, Dr L. Edmondston began to protect the few breeding bonxies. In 1831 the Edmonston family employed a keeper to increase protection of the site, a role taken over by the RSPB who included Hermaness in their watcher scheme from 1907 to 1960. The area was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1955 by the Nature Conservancy and extended in 1958. It is now managed by Scottish Natural Heritage under an, agreement with the Edmondston family of Baltasound and the Northern Lighthouse Board which owns Muckle Flugga and adjacent stacks. As part of the Burrafirth common grazings sheep are grazed on Hermaness throughout the year.



It is little wonder that the great skua is commonly known by its Shetland name. Shetland is the main stronghold of the species, holding over half of the World population. They feed on sandeels, fishing waste from trawlers and increasingly, other seabirds - especially kittiwakes and puffins. They are best known however as pirates of the bird world, ambushing other seabirds and forcing them to drop their latest meal. Bonxies breed from May to August dispersing south in the winter some going as far as West Africa.

Photo right: Bonxie (Great Skua).


One of Shetland's largest colonies of Tammie Nories (local name for puffin) is at Hermaness. They breed from mid April to early August spending the winter at sea when their splendid parrot like beaks lose their colour. Puffins usually return to the same burrow each year. They can dig these with their powerful legs and beaks, but more often take up residence in old rabbit burrows. Chicks don't emerge from the burrow until they are ready for a life on the ocean, often waddling rather than flying to the sea. They emerge during darkness to avoid predators. Puffins can live to a ripe old age, upwards of 30 years.


Maalies, as they are known in Shetland, breed from May to September, but can be seen on the cliffs of Hermaness throughout the year. Fulmars are particularly remarkable for their defence method. They spit a foul smelling oil which destroys the water-proofing qualities of feathers. Chicks can spit very soon after hatching. Until the second half of the last century Britain's only breeding fulmars were on St Kilda where they were hunted as food and for their oil and feathers. The oil was used for lighting and medicinal purposes. Fulmars spread south to Shetland from the Faroes or Iceland in 1878 when they  nested on Foula. They are one of the longest-lived birds, some surviving beyond forty.


Known locally as solan geese, gannets are Britain's biggest seabird, having a wingspan of up to six feet. Widespread hunting by man reduced the North Atlantic population to about 100,000 by the end of last century, but following the introduction of protection laws about 100 years ago they spread to Shetland. It is spectacular to watch gannets feeding offshore, diving from heights of up to 100ft. Their skulls are strengthened to withstand the impact as they hit the water. They breed from April to September and winter in the North Atlantic, some moving as far south as West Africa.


Photo right: Gannets nesting on Hermaness.

Additional Information

  • Hermaness is a beautiful, but fragile place. Although SNH encourages access to its reserves, please tread carefully.

  • Access is unrestricted courtesy of the owner, although visitors are asked to keep out of sensitive areas to avoid disturbing breeding birds.

  • Visitors are advised to follow the route marked on the map. Walking time is about 3-4 hours.

  • A summer warden is based at the shore station. He/she carries out research work and may be available to answer visitors' questions. A flat at the shore station has been converted by SNH into a visitor centre.

  • The weather at Hermaness is very changeable. Fog, rain and high winds can occur at very  short notice. Sturdy footwear and  warm clothing is recommended throughout the year. Carry water­ proof clothing even if it is warm and dry. Remember that it can be dangerous to wear waterproof trousers near the cliff edge and on steep sea-ward facing slopes because if you slip you will slide more easily.

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

  • To take care at the cliff especially when wet, windy and in poor visibility.

  • To leave dogs behind as they are likely to disturb nesting birds and sheep.

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

  • Not to take plants or animals, only photos.

  • Not to disturb nesting birds, particularly Arctic skuas.

  • Not to enter the area marked as sensitive as you will disturb breeding birds.

Hide photography is not permitted in case of disturbance. Due to their rarity, it is an offence to willfully disturb red-throated divers.

Camping is not allowed on the reserve.

We hope you will agree that these restrictions are justified in such a wonderful place for wildlife.

Skuas breed all over the moor. They are proud parents and to defend their chicks they will dive-bomb anyone" who strays into their territories. Even on the paths you are likely to come in for some attention. However a direct hit is very rarely made. You can deter them by holding a stick above your head or simply waving your arms.

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.



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