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Nature in Shetland

winner of a Shetland Environment Award 2004


Scottish Natural Heritage



Noss National Nature Reserve - Built for Birds


The Noss National Nature Reserve is one of over 50  reserves in Scotland owned or managed by Scottish Natural Heritage. Noss comes from the Norse word for "nose", an appropriate name for this sharply pointed island. From its highest point, the 181 metre Noup, on a clear day you can see the farthest parts of Shetland. Stained white and heaving with activity, the towering cliffs of the Noup are plastered with birds. The natural skyscraper houses a fascinating variety of seabirds from puffins and fulmars at the top to guillemots and razorbills in the basement.

Seabird City

The most numerous birds on the cliffs today are the 45,000 smartly  dressed black and white guillemots but 8,600 pairs of large and noisy gannets are far more noticeable. A hundred years ago the cliffs would have looked very different as gannets and fulmars, of which there are now 5,000 pairs, did not breed here until the turn of the century. By contrast the kittiwake population has fallen from 10,000 to around 2,000 pairs today. Razorbills, puffins, herring gulls, shags and black guillemots all nest on the cliffs too. There is also a colony of great black-backed gulls on Cradle Holm, a high rock stack where once Shetlanders risked life and limb for extra sheep grazing and bird eggs.  

Photo right: Puffins along the cliff near the Noup.

The "cradle" was a box which ran on ropes between Noss and the holm carrying sheep or egg hunters. The cliff-nesting birds are relatively safe from human disturbance now. Today's threats are more complex ranging from marine pollution to shortage of food. One danger for many birds comes from the sky. The bonxie and the arctic skua attack other birds and steal their latest catch. Bonxies arrived on the island in 1914 and there are now about 400 pairs breeding on the moor. The population of their smaller, longer tailed cousin, the arctic skua (skootie aalin) has however decreased, from 44 pairs in 1974 to just 15 in 1993 to just one or two pairs today.

Picture left: Cradle Holm in 1785. Rocks have since collapsed into the sea blocking the channel.

Garden on the Cliffs

Much of the island is covered in moorland dominated by heather, crowberry and grasses. Odd splashes of colour occur in the form of lousewort, heath spotted orchid and tormentil, while in June cotton grass creates a white mist. Spring squill and thrift paint the cliff tops blue and then pink during the summer, but it is on the cliffs themselves, out of reach of the sheep, that the richest vegetation can be found. Here the white flowers of sea campion, scurvy grass and Scots lovage, the deep pink of red campion, the yellows of roseroot and birdsfoot trefoil and blue of sheep's bit scabious combine to produce a display as fine as any garden rockery.

Photo left: Lousewort (Sookie Flooer in Shetland) - this plant is semi-parasitic. Although it can grow by itself it often taps its roots into the root system of nearby grasses enabling it to get extra nutrition.

Geology for Birds

The rocks that form Noss were originally laid down in a desert during the Old Red Sandstone period 400 million years ago. Near the ferry landing are sandstones that have been shattered and jumbled by hot gases from an ancient volcanic vent. The horizontally bedded sandstone of the cliffs have weathered to become parallel ledges, seemingly designed for birds to set up home. Here they are ideally placed close to rich fishing grounds.  

Ponies and People

The earliest signs of Humans on Noss is a Bronze Age burnt mound at Helia Cluve, some 4,000 years old. The remains of a medieval chapel and burial ground outside the farmhouse at Gungstie are more obvious. The population soared to 24 in the 19th century, but by 1939 the last permanent resident had left. Hametoun, also known as Gungstie, which now houses the SNH visitor centre and toilet, dates from the 17th century. Behind is the 19th century pony pund, built to house mares when the Marquis of Londonderry leased the island to breed pit ponies. The animals, which were bred with "as much weight as possible and as near the ground as can be got" were destined for a hard and dark  life in the mines of Northern England. A display in the pony pund.

History of the Reserve

The 313 hectare island was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1955 under an agreement between SNH's predecessor body, the Nature Conservancy and Garth Estate which owns the island. Today the island is home to 350 Shetland ewes. During the lambing season the sheep are brought inside the Hill Dyke away from potential conflict with the bonxie. The island is a fine example of how a working farm and wildlife can co-exist.

How to get there

To reach Noss you must first cross the island of Bressay to which there is a regular ferry service from Lerwick. It is three miles across Bressay to the Noss car park. A short walk along a quite steep, rutted track takes you to the ferry point. The small inflatable boat to Noss is operated by Scottish Natural Heritage. A small charge is  made for the return journey.

Sensible footwear should be worn to negotiate the slippery rocks on both sides of the Noss sound. Warm, waterproof clothing should also be worn, or carried, as the weather on Noss can be very changeable. A walk to the top of Noup can be fairly strenuous, although you get to the main bird viewpoints before this. Allow four hours to walk right around the island. Two wardens are based at the visitor centre on Noss throughout the summer. One is often available to answer any questions you may have. It is also possible to arrange guided tours with groups. If you think you need help getting into or out of the ferry please contact the SNH office as far in advance as possible.

Noss has a special Open Day in July when there are various extra activities and entertainments arranged. Sorry, but dogs, other than Guide Dogs, cannot be transported in the Noss ferry.

In the interests of this special place and your own safety we ask you act responsibly when walking around the island by keeping to the coastal route, leaving any gates as you find them,  not leaving litter behind and not picking plants. Follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code

Skuas breed on the moor. They are proud parents and to defend their chicks they will divebomb anyone who strays into their  territories. However a direct hit is very, rarely made. You can deter them by holding a stick above your head or simply waving your arms.

The Noss ferry runs during the summer (May-end Aug) except Mondays and Thursdays. In serious weather conditions a red flag on a pole is flown on Noss if the island has to be closed. To avoid disappointment you are advised to phone the Noss Ferry Line 0800 107 7818 before you set out for Noss.

Commercial boat trips around Noss are also available, leaving from Lerwick. Contact the Tourist Office (01595 693434)

All text and pictures copyright Scottish Natural Heritage SNH 1999, 2005

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

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