Nature Reserve -
Land of the Bonxie
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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
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.
HIGH POINTS -
BIRDS WITH BRAIN AND
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
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.
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
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
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
enquiries contact: Scottish Natural Heritage, Ground Floor, Stewart
Building, Alexandra Wharf, Lerwick, Shetland. ZE1 0LL. Telephone (01595)