Icons of the Northern Isles

by Brydon Thomason -

Shetland is justly renowned for ranking as one of the top 10 regions in the world to visit. As recently as 2011 it was listed as such by travel experts at Lonely Planet among destinations as exotic as Patagonia, the Marquesas Islands, Indonesia and Egypt. To quote: “this might just be the last untamed corner of the United Kingdom”.

There are of course many attractions for visitors, and wildlife is most certainly one. Shetland's geographic location, surrounding seas and unspoiled natural beauty are among the reasons for it hosting such a plethora of wildlife; and the list of species recorded is exciting and diverse.

There are some particular species often referred to as “icons of the Northern Isles”. As with the star attraction species of the African plains, Shetland could also be said to have its “Big Five”. Okay, so the “five” may not include lion or leopard, but show a visitor to Shetland their first otter or killer whale and their excitement and elation levels will reach similar peaks!

In a survey by the organisers of the Shetland Nature Festival, the Big Five wildlife attractions were ranked through a 2013 Facebook poll as: 1 otter, 2 puffin, 3 killer whale, 4 gannet and 5 storm petrel.

No. 1: it is perhaps no surprise that the otter was the firm favourite. Even as the status of this marvellous semi aquatic mammal changes so encouragingly for the better throughout the UK, Shetland is still the best place to see them as our shores are home to the most dense population.

No. 2: hardly a surprise for such an adorable and entertaining species for it to feature so high on the list. With such exquisite attire of black and white two-piece suit and contrastingly colourful bulbous bill, a puffin's beauty is as endearing as its antics.

No. 3: few creatures can exhilarate and enthral as powerfully as the killer whale. An encounter with these “sea wolves” is an experience never to be forgotten.

No. 4: with a pristine black and white plumage and a wingspan of 6ft, a beautiful yellow saturation to the head and an impressive dagger-shaped bill, the gannet quite rightly earns its place in the Big Five.

No. 5: the UK's smallest breeding seabird, not that much bigger than a sparrow, the storm petrel is probably one of the nation's most elusive birds as it only returns to its breeding colonies under cover of night. Its bat-like flight, along with its intriguing call as it arrives at its nest site from far out at sea, is an experience regarded as a highlight for many visitors.

Shetland's list of the Big Five may of course vary from person to person and with such an exhilarating cast it is little wonder. Species such as red-throated diver and red-necked phalarope will be high on many a “wish list”, and if beauty or charisma are among the qualifications or credentials perhaps they will push out two from the list above. Then of course there are the endemic species such as the Shetland bumblebee and Edmondston's chickweed. If you are visiting this year, what will your Big Five be?

Find out more about where, when and how to see these and other iconic wildlife attractions at www.shetlandnature.net