The archipelago of Orkney is not only a cultural gem with some of Europe’s best archaeological sites, but Orkney wildlife is thriving and waiting to be discovered.
Wildlife expert and wilderness Guide, Cory Jones explains what to expect in terms of Orkney wildlife. Cory has been leading wildlife expeditions to this magical far-flung destination for many, many years. Learn what to look for and the best spots to find Orkney’s local fauna and flora below.
The first time visitor to Orkney will be surprised by the diversity of landscape across the islands, from high moorland to immense sea cliffs, unspoilt wetlands and pastures. This makes it a haven for a rich diversity of sea life, birdlife and mammals ashore.
Orkney has 36 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and 13 Special Protection Areas and 13 RSPB nature reserves many with viewing hides. Many of the best wildlife sites can be easily combined with the archaeological ones, as the islands are quite compact.
Orkney is rich in special wildlife. In combination with the unique landscapes and archaeology, a holiday on the Orkney Islands is an unforgettable experience. See our image gallery and learn more about Orkney here.
The hen harrier is Orkney’s most common bird of prey, with about 80 breeding females. These brown ‘ringtails’ (because of the black bars at the base of their white rump and brown tail) outnumber males 3:1, with each pale grey male having a harem of several females.
Most wildlife watchers visit the Northern Isles for their important bird populations. Day flying short-eared owls, known as cattie faces, are the only nesting owl in Orkney. The highest number is on the Mainland. Their main prey is the Orkney vole, this small mammal making up as much as 90% of their food. Both these species can be seen flying around the islands throughout the year. They can be seen whilst driving around the islands or on early morning visits to the RSPB’s viewing hides at Cottascarth, Loons hide near Marwick Bay or the Birsay moors hide. If you’re lucky you may spot a merlin too.
Marwick Head is home to the largest seabird colony on the Mainland with around 25,000 birds. Take a walk from Marwick Bay up to the Kitchener Memorial to see and smell kittiwakes, fulmars, puffins, gannets, razorbills, black guillemots and guillemots. Arctic and great skuas (Bonxies) hunt the cliffs looking to steal food. There are great areas to see seabirds at the dramatic cliffs at Noup Head on Westray (note the lower lying areas support Corncrakes here). Don’t forget to visit Yesnaby and Brough Head on the Mainland to see smaller seabird colonies. Best places for spotting puffins are Marwick Head Mainland and Castle o’ Burrian on Westray. Remember the seabird colonies are best seen May-July.
Hoy is a great place for a day trip. Hoy is home to the islands on white tailed sea eagles (near the ‘Dwarfie Stane’). A six-mile walk to the iconic Old Man of Hoy will produce good chances for seeing bonxie, hen harrier, red-throated diver and the cliffs hold a few pairs of Puffins too.
Red-throated divers can be spotted in the summer at the Loons hide near Marwick Bay, around Eynhallow and Churchill barriers. Hides at Loch of Banks and Standing Stones of Stenness are good places to spot waders and wildfowl and to watch for otters.
There are 500 native plants on Orkney, but two of these are specialist wildflowers – Oysterplant and the Scottish Primrose. Oysterplants grow near the shore; around the Churchill Barrier No4 is good place to look for them. Exposed turfs around Yesnaby cliffs hold healthy populations of Scottish Primrose with their deep purple flowers.
The maritime grassland just back from the cliff edge at Yesnaby and elsewhere are covered in the pink haze of sea pink or thrift in the spring, along with sea campion, spring squill, grass of Parnassus and ox-eye daisies.
The Great yellow bumblebee is on the wing in July and August. Walk the RSPB track around the Ring of Brodgar for a chance of seeing one feeding on the abundant wildflowers. Look for a large yellow bee with a black stripe across the back linking the wings.
Orkney host’s good populations of hares and otters, the latter are more elusive. You will spot Otter Crossing signs in some places but it is worth looking for otters on sheltered coasts and lochs. Dawn and dusk are good times to spot otters as well as at rising tides. Orkney’s other remarkable mammal is the Orkney vole, which is not found in mainland Britain. These are larger than the field and bank voles.
On any ferry crossing to or around the islands look out for dolphins, porpoise, whales and seals. The islands have colonies of both grey and harbour seals and porpoises can been seen around any coastal harbour at any time of year. 90 per cent of UK orca sightings are off Orkney and Shetland. Pods pass the island regularly but you will need luck to spot them. Commoner are Minke Whales which can measure up to 8.5m long. The best places to see them are coastal headlands, like Hoxa Head, Marwick Head and Birsay Bay.
Get the lowdown on How to Spot Orca in Scotland.