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The Shetlands are a group of islands in the far northern reaches of the UK between Orkney and Norway. This is the most northerly point in the UK and, owing to its remote location, receives fewer than 100,000 visitors each year.
Still, this unique location is well worth checking out because of its breathtaking landscapes and amazing wildlife. It’s situated around 110 miles from mainland Scotland but is still part of this country. Yet, you may feel like you’re on another planet thanks to the dramatic landscapes made up of rugged cliffs alongside beautiful beaches as well as moorlands and peaceful lochs.
The beauty of the Shetland Islands is that it is largely untouched and so remains in its stunning natural state. What’s more, the islands offer an amazing chance to see the cultural diversity of the UK since people here are heavily influenced by Norse traditions. While you’re here, it would be a crime not to try the local cuisine, consisting of seafood, tattie soup, beef, and reestit mutton.
With a strong Norse heritage, the Shetlands are a wonderful place for history lovers. Many years ago, Scandinavian resources began to run low, so Vikings headed to the Shetlands for farming but also as a base for piracy.
In terms of wildlife, the Shetlands are one of the most diverse and interesting places in the UK. With lots of rugged coastlines, it’ll come as no surprise that there is an abundance of seabirds here, including puffins, which have strong populations on Hermaness and Noss.
Along these same coastlines, visitors have the chance to spot whales, seals, dolphins, otters, and many other creatures, including several species of migratory birds, which make a stopover on the islands as they head south.
You may have heard of the Shetland pony which, as its name suggests, inhabits these islands. There is also an abundance of deer, primarily found in the uplands.
And it isn’t just fauna that will get wildlife lovers excited, for those with a penchant for plant life, the Shetlands offers some excellent opportunities to get up close to species like sea thrift and sea pink. There are around 400 plant species on the islands, including rowan trees, sea campion, and roseroot.
Types of Wildlife to See
The Shetland Islands are an amazing place to spot coastal and marine wildlife, and one of the biggest attractions are the puffin colonies. It’s thought that there are as many as 23,000 on Hermaness alone, and the great news is that they’re very unafraid of humans. However, I still strongly recommend respecting them and observing from a distance. As well as puffins, you’ll have the chance to spot several other species of seabird, such as razorbills, fulmars, and guillemots.
Staying around the coast, you’ll be treated to frequent seal sightings, with the gray and common seals being the most often observed here. There are also many species of whales and dolphins in the waters around the islands, and boat excursions offer a wonderful way to spot orcas, humpbacks, and the common dolphin.
Otters are also a common sight along the Shetland coasts as they spend a lot of time here looking for fish. There are even otter tours available that teach you some wonderful things about these playful creatures.
The Shetlands are a bird lover’s haven because there are so many species here. Aside from the famous puffins, you’ll also spot arctic terns that migrate between here and the Antarctic on a whopping 22,000 mile journey! Around the water you’ll also spot many other species of water birds, including the red-throated diver, the common loon, and the whooper swan.
Birds of prey are also abundant here, including owls, eagles, and merlins. However, there are also many migratory species that will pass through the islands, including the hen harrier and the common buzzard.
If you’re keen to spot rare avian species, then Shetland offers a chance to experience the corncrake, a small species of rail bird that’s now only found in a few locations around the UK.
As I mentioned earlier, Shetland is famous for its ponies, which can often be seen grazing around the coast as well as in fields and grasslands. The ponies, while seemingly free, are actually owned by local tenders and, every August, there is a pony show which attracts a lot of visitors. While they can be seen all over the Shetlands, the best islands are Mainland, Urst, Tingwall, and Dunrossness. On Mainland Shetland, you may also have the chance to spot the red deer.
With more than 400 plant species on Shetland, including goosegrass, silverweed, sea sandwort, and yarrow, the Shetlands are a great place for exploring flora. What’s wonderful about this diverse array is that it also attracts insect and pollinator populations, including rare species like the large tiger hoverfly that have specially adapted to the islands’ conditions. You may also spot insect-life among the heather covered hills that dot the landscape.
And it’s not just flora and fauna that can be spotted here; the Shetlands are one of the best places to see the Aurora Borealis outside of the Arctic Circle. Yes, the Shetlands lie close to the Arctic Circle but are actually just 400 miles outside of it.
Best Time to Visit
Between April and June many of the migratory birds come back to the islands, including the famous puffins, so this is a great time to watch them get into breeding season. This is the case with many other seabirds, so is a great time to visit for ornithology lovers.
Summer falls between July and August, but average temperatures here are still only around 13ºC, so bring a jacket! However, at this time, the puffins are at their most active and other marine life, like seals, can often be spotted with their young.
At the beginning of autumn, between September and October, the seabirds begin migrating south, so there’s a lot of activity. What’s more, fewer people tend to visit at this time of the year, so you’ll have more of the islands to explore in peace.
Otters are often at their most active in early fall, and as we move into late fall, we see many migratory birds passing through.
If you’re coming to the Shetlands to see the Northern Lights then winter is one of the best times. The nights are much longer at this time of the year, so there’s a greater chance of catching this natural light show.
Other Times to Visit
While the Shetlands doesn’t receive as many visitors as other places in the UK, that doesn’t mean it’s not an incredibly welcoming place to go. In fact, there are events running throughout the year, such as guided tours, festivals, and even the Shetland Wool Week which draws a lot of attention.
What to Explore?
- Exploring the flora: To see the most diverse range of plant life, I would recommend checking out the botanical gardens. You might also visit Lea Gardens in Tresta which is one of the most impressive gardens in the Shetlands. In spring, the islands come alive as various species of wildflowers start to bloom.
- Explore history: Shetland has a rich history dating back thousands of years, and Jarlshof is one of the top historical sites here. This prehistoric settlement allows you to explore more than 4000 years of history on the islands and has many interesting ruins.
- Hop between islands: While only 16 of the Shetlands are inhibited, there are actually 100 islands within this group. Fair Isle can be accessed via ferry and is a great place for bird lovers with some unique species, including the arctic tern. There are ferries that go to many of the islands, although some are harder to access. For example, Mousa can only be accessed in summer using the Mousa Boat.
- Birdwatching: It’s evident that seabirds and waterbirds are in abundance in the Shetlands, and one of the best places to see them is at the Hermaness National Nature Reserve. With lots of cliffs and moorlands, you’ll have the chance to spot various species. Other noteworthy places for birdwatching include RSPB Sumburgh Head, St Ninian’s Isle (especially for wading birds) and the islands’ many heathlands. The island of Fetlar is considered to be one of the best places to spot wetland birds, and there are regular ferries for easy access.
- Take a wildlife tour: One of the best ways to see the Shetland wildlife is by taking a tour. From island trails to otter tracking or even a seal, whale or dolphin spotting trip, there’s something for everyone.
- Nature reserves: The Shetlands is home to several nature reserves, including Voe on the mainland, which contains various habitats like woodlands, wetlands, and moorlands and is home to many species, including birds and otters.
- Spot the ponies: It’s estimated that there are around 1000 ponies on the Shetlands and these are managed by around 170 people. You’re most likely to spot them in fields and around the coast where they’ll be grazing. They are more common on Mainland, Urst, Dunrossness, and Tingwall.
- Local events: As I mentioned earlier, the Shetland Wool Week is one of the biggest attractions of the year, but there are many other local events taking place all the time. These include the Lerwick Up Helly Aa and the Shetland Boat Week. Check the calendar before you travel to see what’s on.
- Local landscapes: The Shetlands are, surprisingly, home to white sandy beaches along the beautiful ancient coastlines. Sandwick and Hillswick are of particular note. However, you might also check out the Shetland Geopark, which is home to ancient rock formations and provides guests with information on the volcanic history of the islands.
- Take the car: For a free day trip, why not take a scenic drive around the islands? This is a great way to see much of the stunning landscape and wildlife this location has to offer.
How to Get There?
- Once you are on your chosen island, there are several bus services that will take you between wildlife viewing locations and some of the rural villages.
- While there are no public train services on the islands, you can catch a train to Aberdeen and take a ferry from there.
- Accessing the Shetlands via plane can be done by booking a flight from Scotland to Sumburgh Airport, which is located on Mainland.
- Flights to Sumburgh can be taken from major Scottish cities, including Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh.
- Some islands, like Tingwall and Fair Isle have small airports which can be used for island hopping.
- Ferries from mainland Scotland run daily to the Shetlands.
- You can catch a ferry from Aberdeen or Scrabster to the capital of the Shetlands, Lerwick.
- When traveling by ferry, be sure to look out for marine life which is often spotted.
- Once on the islands, ferries run between them allowing for a better chance to explore.
- Be sure to book in advance to avoid disappointment, as spots on the ferry are limited and can get busy during peak season.
Where to Stay
There aren’t a huge amount of accommodation choices in the Shetlands, but some of the best islands to base yourself include:
- Public transport, flights, and ferries may be affected by extreme weather conditions. While winters are much milder than you might think, some locations do get a lot of snow. In fact, Baltasound, Urst receives as much as 65 days of snow each year.
- Before traveling, be sure to check local information for any important things you might need to be aware of.
- Because of the unpredictable weather and risk of travel plans changing when visiting Shetland, it may be worth getting a special type of travel insurance that covers this.
- By booking with a tour operator, you may have the chance to combine your travel with wildlife tours and other events.