Orkney Wildlife and Landscape

The Orkney landscape has been shaped over millions of years by the action of the wind and the waves; carving dramatic vertical cliffs, caves and sea-stacks and depositing the crushed shells of ancient marine creatures and eroded rocks on the hundreds of beaches fringing the coast. In archaeological terms Orkney is a truly ancient place with relics and structures found to be over seven thousand years old.  The dwarf forests of oak and hazel which would have covered much of Orkney were felled long ago, leaving vast tracts of heather and bog moorlands cloaking the dark hillsides.  These uplands are among the rarest habitats in Europe and they support equally fascinating and uncommon creatures.  Hen harriers, short-eared owls, kestrels and peregrines all thrive here; nationally rare mini-beasts such as the Great yellow bumblebee are locally common and the lochans are breeding sites for red-throated divers; their cak-cak-cak-cak flight call resonates through the air as they venture to and from the feeding areas in the sea.

And if the land and sea have shaped and formed the landscape and the people, then so have the people shaped the land.  The dwarf forests of oak and hazel which would have covered much of Orkney were felled long ago, leaving vast tracts of heather and bog moorlands cloaking the dark hillsides.  These uplands are among the rarest habitats in Europe and they support equally fascinating and uncommon creatures.  Hen harriers, short-eared owls, kestrels and peregrines all thrive here; nationally rare mini-beasts such as the Great yellow bumblebee are locally common and the lochans are breeding sites for red-throated divers; their cak-cak-cak-cak flight call resonates through the air as they venture to and from the feeding areas in the sea.

The Orkney coastline

The coast is spellbinding; benign and restful here, dramatic and tumultuous elsewhere, breath-taking and literally awesome in parts.  St John’s Head, on the island of Hoy (the high island) emerges from the fizzing foam of the Atlantic to tower almost 1200 vertical feet above the waves, looking down on the giant sandstone sea stack ‘The Old Man’ these are the among the highest seacliffs in Britain.  Where the land meets the sea at a less precipitous angle, meadows and marshes stretch along the coast, culminating in Caribbean-like sea shell beaches, rocky coves where otters scramble and estuarine mudflats teeming with wading birds.

The whole archipelago comprises some seventy islands of which about twenty are inhabited and several have been in the past but now their only inhabitants are the seabirds and the ghosts of those who lived and died there.  One island has the unique distinction of having a recognised feral herd of cattle; the island of Swona.  Otherwise the island is known as a puffin island and there are regular trips to see these photogenic little birds during the summer months.

Orkney also has some wonderful restaurants and pubs serving locally caught seafood, locally grown beef and lamb and both Indian and Chinese cuisine can be enjoyed in the county’s capital, Kirkwall.  With a population of around 9,000 souls Kirkwall is a thriving port and marina with shops, galleries, banks, pubs and a nightclub.  Stromness is the second most populous town, with round 2,000 people living here.  The Pier Arts Centre is just a 2 minute walk from the ferry which connects the Orkney West Mainland and Scotland (at Scrabster) and has an internationally important permanent collection of modern art housed in an award-winning architectural space.  Stromness also has pubs, restaurants, shops and galleries.

Wherever you venture you will find virtually empty country roads which meander through an uncluttered landscape and there’s always something of interest, whatever time of year you visit. Springtime has the commotion and frantic activity of the bustling seabird colonies, the iconic dance of the hen harrier aerial courtship and the chance of rare migrant birds.  Summer is truly wonderful and there’s plenty to do through the 21 hours of daylight – trips to uninhabited islands, listening for the rare and elusive corncrake, watching for pods of orca, sunny evening barbeques and strolling through carpets of clifftop flowers on the maritime heaths.  It’s unsurprising that Orkney regularly tops the list of ‘Best Places to Live in the UK’.