Hermaness – seabird haven with a warm welcome

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We came across an old newspaper recently, dated 27 September 1955. In it was an announcement that The Nature Conservancy had established two new National Nature Reserve on Shetland – at Hermaness and Noss.  Fast forward 70 years and Hermaness is again in the spotlight, this time as a major improvements project is poised to revamp access on the reserves.

The 1955 report praised the work of Lieutenant-Colonel Laurence Edmonston who was credited with overseeing the recovery of the great skua in the northern fringes of Unst. Hermaness it is interesting to note was then referred to as Herma Ness, two words.

Breeding birds, and their conservation, lay at the heart of the decision to give Hermaness protected status. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had been looking after the area and the designation of National Nature Reserve was intended for formally recognise the significance of the site.

Other birds beyond the great skua would benefit significantly too. Red-throated divers, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and puffins were also named as likely beneficiaries. With an estimated 3,000 pairs of gannets in 1955 – considered absent before 1914 – there was a lot to be excited about. (Now the number of pairs of gannet exceeds 25,000!)

Since becoming Scotland’s most northerly National Nature Reserve visitors have made the pilgrimage to this outpost on a regular basis. Lured no doubt by the seabird extravaganza but equally transfixed by the peatland, heather, cotton grass, and the floral delights of a coastal rim which boasts blue swathes of spring squill, and bright pink of thrift, as spring advances into summer.

With visitors comes pressure, and an old path to Hermaness Hill, through the interior of the reserve, had to be closed off to public due to erosion of peatland and disturbance to protected breeding birds

The new project is taking place thanks largely to the Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund which distributes ERDF funding to projects across the Highlands and Islands, and the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund, administered by VisitScotland for Scottish Government.

It will see 1940m of recycled plastic boardwalk installed, reinstating the route to the signalling station to the world famous Muckle Flugga lighthouse and creating a circular walk around the nature reserve, whilst relieving pressure on the fragile blanket blog and being routed to avoid the most sensitive birds.

The recycled plastic material provides an ideal solution to the challenges of laying a path on fragile blanket bog, because it lies on top of the existing vegetation, leaving the peat intact, and won’t rot in the wet conditions.  A huge added bonus is the advantage of having a non-slip surface, and so requires no additional maintenance.

In addition to opening the reserve up the plans include moves to install toilets, an interpretation shelter, and welcoming information signs at the reserve entrance and low-level ‘arrival’ sign at the cliffs, giving directions, and information on heritage and safety.

Juan Brown, NatureScot Operations Officer said “We are delighted that everything has finally come together to bring this project to fruition.  Hermaness is a spectacular and iconic location with internationally important seabird populations and fascinating cultural heritage.  The new facilities will enhance the visitor experience, give more people a greater insight to the place, and open up a new part of the reserve, while protecting nature.  They will safeguard this important site well into the future.”

The Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund supports new opportunities to promote the outstanding scenery and wildlife of the Highlands and Islands and Hermaness is but one of 14 project to benefit from the fund. However, as the most northerly project it is sure to make a splash when opened and will do in a way which accommodates the wishes of interest parties who focus on visitor access, conservation and agriculture.

Back in 1955 the addition of two Shetland reserves to the suite of National Nature Reserves in Scotland brought the total to six – joining Beinn Eighe, Morton Lochs, Tentsmuir, and Cairngorms. A proud moment indeed for Shetland, which is still very much ‘on the right path’.

The Hermaness NNR project is being delivered by a team comprising NatureScot, Shetland Islands Council, and VisitScotland.

The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) is structured around specific themes known as Strategic Interventions, administered by lead partners. NatureScot is the Lead Partner for the Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund Strategic Intervention.

The Natural & Cultural Heritage Fund is part of the Scottish Government’s current European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programme, which runs through to 2023.  This is one of two ERDF Strategic Interventions led by NatureScot – the other is the Green Infrastructure Fund.

You can follow the European Structural Funds blog for ESF activities, news and updates. For twitter updates go to @scotgovESIF or use the hashtags #ERDF and #europeanstructuralfunds

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