Shetland 2015 – Day 6 Hermaness Headland

We awoke to a bright, but breezy day and decided to head up to Hermaness Nature Reserve. This reserve is in the North of Unst and is home to over 100,000 breeding sea birds.   Not only are the sea cliffs a superb breeding ground, but the  areas leading up to the cliffs are a stronghold for the Great Skua, or Bonxie.

Conservation began in 1831 when the Laird, Dr L Edmonson, began to protect the few Bonxies that were breeding there. A keeper was employed to watch the site to protect the three pairs from egg collectors and taxidermists. In 1907, this role was taken over by the RSPB up until 1960. The area was declared a National Nature reserve in 1955 and is now managed by Scottish Natural Heritage under an agreement with the Edmondston family and the Northern Lighthouse Board who own Mukkle Flugga… the lighthouse further along the coastline.

After our ferries and drive up to the reserve, we loaded ourselves up with all our gear and started the walk up to the cliffs.

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A lot of work has been undertaken building a walkway up the hillside, ensuring stable platform for visitors and prevention of erosion and disturbance. It is quite a trek, but most definitely well worth it as , when you reach the top, the most spectacular views await!

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The cliffs of Hermaness rise to over 170m and the jagged and varied coastline is stunning. The skies were blue and the air clear, but the wind was cold and you were soon chilled if sitting still for too long! As we stood for a moment and just soaked in the scene, a puffin appeared from a burrow only a couple of metres from our feet! We managed a couple of shots before it shuffled underground.

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Puffin numbers have declined on this site recently, as they have all over the UK. Rising sea temperatures have meant that sand eel numbers have been dropping. Puffins have had to fly further to feed, wasting energy and leaving chicks alone in burrows for long periods of time. Although we did see puffins on various cliffs along this coastline, they are certainly not in the numbers they have been in the past.

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Paula and I walked left, further up the cliffs to a huge gannetry. The sound of their calls and the raw smell of guano (their droppings) hits you before the spectacle does. Hermaness boasts almost 5% of the Western Gannet population now and the cliffs were simply white with their presence. Endless flows of gannets pass you on the cliffs, soaring on slender wings, masters of the airways. Adults boast the white wings with black tips, but the younger birds take several years to reach this plumage and display a speckled appearance, gradually getting whiter as they get older.

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The Fulmars were performing well, cruising along the cliffs below us, providing plenty of photographic opportunities as well…

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Pete, Andy and Lyndsey had headed in the opposite direction, along the cliffs towards Muckle Flugga, so I headed that way. At every turn, as the next part of the coastline appeared, it simply took your breath away. I sat for a while, just soaking it in, as Pete scanned the cliffs for photographic opportunities.

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I walked about 6km along the headland, almost to the lighthouse, before heading back up the hillside. Pete followed and managed to fall in a marshy area, having used a small tuft of grass to step on which gave way, meaning he went up to his knee! As he arrived back up on top, we had to all laugh as he was soaking wet and covered in peaty water. We are now going to call him Pete Bog!

As we made our way back down the walkway, we all spent some time photographing the numerous Bonxie  nesting on the moorland.

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More than half the world’s population of Bonxies breed here on Shetland and they can be seen all over the island, often attacking incoming seabirds. They often grab the wing of a gannet, unbalancing it and causing it to regurgitate its meal which the Bonxie takes full advantage of! You also need to be careful if you are near their nests, as they will fly straight at you… quite disconcerting as they are pretty large!

We made our way back to the car , ferries and home to Cheyne House, my mind buzzing with the wonders of Hermaness.