The United Kingdom is relatively small in area, much of it densely populated. Most of its reserves reflect this—for while they are numerous and interesting, only a few are of world scale. These are the extraordinary bird reserves that lie off Scotland and harbor staggeringly large numbers of seabirds in some of earth’s most dramatic sea and landscapes.
Notable among these are ST. KILDA and the SHETLAND ISLANDS. Millions of seabirds that otherwise spend their entire lives on waters far from land return to Scotland’s northernmost shores and cliffs every summer to cover the cliff-sides with nests. Adults and downy offspring cling to rock ledges inches wide, barely wing-lengths from one another—squawking, flapping, parents planing out and returning from fishing trips with silvery meals for demanding youngsters, obeying an urgent need to reproduce and start a new generation during the short northern season.
It is one of nature’s wildlife spectaculars, best known of hundreds of places set aside for birds and other wildlife in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, where lands and coasts are dotted with protected areas, large and small— perhaps more per capita than any other country in the world.
Some are official parks and reserves, others set aside and protected by private groups. Others exist simply because special habitat has attracted wildcreatures and local people have taken an interest in their continued well-being—no place has more enthusiastic and numerous protectors of the natural world than here.
Premier among them are the world-famous islands of St. Kilda, 50 miles (80 km) out in the Atlantic Ocean off the northwest tip of Scotland, and the Shetlands, directly to the north of the Scottish mainland just six degrees south of the Arctic Circle.
The boisterous throngs there include clown-like little Atlantic puffins with rainbow-hued bills colored especially for breeding; ivory-plumaged gannets with buff-golden heads and sixfoot (2-m) wingspreads; murres with pyriform eggs pointed at one end so they don’t roll off the cliff but stay in a small tight circle safely within the nest area; gentle, pigeon-like fulmars with built-in nasal wind-velocity sensors enabling them to exploit varying wind speeds and avoid slamming into cliff-sides. Great rarities also find their way—especially to the Shetlands—sometimes in large numbers, ocean-going migrants blown off-course, finding safe landing and resting places on these remote islands.