An Unforgettable Trip to the Edge of the World

I had never thought what initially seemed to be rough moorland with blanket bog and peaty pools would turn out to be a mosaic of colour and home to avian lives that were unknown to me. While climbing up on the graveled path of the Hermaness Nature Reserve I thanked my hosts who relentlessly pursued me to join them on this unforgettable trip.

Hermaness National Reserve—managed by the Scottish Natural Heritage—is located on the northern most point of Unst Island in Shetland.

It’s May and spring squill created a quilt of blue over the hill slopes. After a few hundred meters walk up the hill we descended and crossed over the Burn of Winnaswarta Dale which was covered under the thick carpet of deep green mosses and heather. From thereon, wooden pavement replaced the cobbled path making the walk a little easier for us.

Hermaness Nature Reserve

Crossing over the Burn of Winnaswarta Dale

The moorland shelters one of the most aggressive birds – Great Skuas. Locally known as Bonxie, great skuas are very protective of their nests and they can attack if they feel threatened.  Once there’re only three pairs of great skua in Hermaness, but thanks to conservation efforts, now there’re about 750 breeding pairs in the Reserve, which is their third largest colony. The moorland also hosts snipe and golden plover in summers.

Bonxie in Hermaness Nature Reserve

Great Skuas or Bonxie, as locally known in Shetland Island

Bonxie in Hermaness Nature Reserve

Bonxies are more of a threat to their avian neighbours, eating small birds and ruthlessly pursuing even the gannets. They grab a bird’s wingtip to stall them and make them disgorge their catch – a free meal for the predator.

Sheep in Hermaness Nature Reserve

Hermaness Nature Reserve

Vast expanse of rolling plains and dark moorland in Hermaness Nature Reserve

As we moved ahead we couldn’t see anything except the vast expanse of rolling plains, dark moorland and herds of sheep grazing on the fresh grasses, until we arrived at the precipice that offered stunning view of azure waters, crashing waves and noisy, bustling colonies of more than 100,000 breeding birds. It’s just another world. Only a few meters away from us, pairs of puffins were popping in and out of their burrows, with beaks crammed full of sand eels or sprats to feed their chicks.  Hermaness  hosts over 25 percent of the British population of tammie nories as puffins are known locally.

Puffins in Hermaness Nature Reserve

Puffins in Hermaness Nature Reserve. Puffins usually return to the same burrow each year. They can dig these with their powerful legs and beak, but often use old rabbit burrows.

We walked down along the cliff towards The Neap which is one of the best gannetries on the western coast of Hermaness Nature Reserve. As we moved ahead we could feel their presence – the fishy stench of the guano and a gurgling, gargling cacophony of Gannets. As we round a small headland we spotted thousands of gannets squabbling over territory on the white-stained cliffs.

Gannet Colony in Hermaness Nature

While sitting on the cliff edge of Hermaness, on the most northerly point of Britain, I felt as if I were sitting at the edge of the world. The deep turquoise of the North Atlantic Ocean stretches to the horizon. The bare cliff rocks speak out loud about the dramatic history of its geological past and formation of this beautiful land. Only the raucous cries of thousands of seabirds shatter the sense of timeless calm you find here.  Having finished our lunch and tea, we moved northward along the cliff to our next stop – a hillside that offered panoramic view of the Muckle Fugga and Outer Stack with the Arctic Ocean as their backdrop.

View of Muckle Fugga

Getting there

Hermaness NNR is 4.8 km north-west of Haroldswick on Unst in Sheland Island, Great Britain. It takes two ferry journeys to reach Unst from Shetland Mainland. The first is from Toft to Ulsta on Yell. This is followed by a 27.4 km drive north to Gutcher for the ferry to Belmont on Unst.

There is a bus service from Lerwick to Haroldswick, but it is not possible to enjoy the Reserve and get back in a day.

Need to know

Visitors are advised not to wear waterproof over-trousers near the cliff edge and on steep sea-facing slopes because a slip could result in you sliding over the edge. The paths on the Reserve are not recommended for those with mobility problems. Please avoid sensitive nesting areas from May to July.

 

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