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A Bad Day in Shetland

Barren, storm-swept islands in the North Sea have been a human refuge for more than 5,000 years



"This place is for the birds!" And that about sums up my impression of the Shetland Islands.

The rain and wind started in the late afternoon, shortly after we left the Orkneys, and by the time we arrived in Lerwick the next morning the North Sea had been whipped into a frenzy of whitecaps and the Islands were being lashed by wind-driven rain.

Lerwick, the Island's capital, is home to about 6,000 people, most of whom make their living from the sea and its busy little port is the centre of Shetland's commercial life. Ever since the first intrepid sailors set out to explore the North Sea the Shetland Islands have provided a waypoint on the route from the British Isles to Northern Europe — a place to stock up on supplies, or simply ride out a storm in Lerwick's sheltered harbour.

Before landing at Lerwick, the ships' ornithologist gave us a briefing on seabirds. Kevin, whose enthusiasm for all things feathered is exceeded only by his total disdain for the weather, gave us a preview of his plan to take us to one of the largest rookeries on the islands. And so it was that we found ourselves slogging up a muddy trail in pouring rain to the cliffs of Sumburgh on the very southern tip of the Shetlands. Even the Shetland ponies and longhaired native bovines were hunkered down on the lea side of rock hedgerows in an effort to escape the driving rain. But Kevin and the hardcore bird watchers among us seemed oblivious to the weather.

From our lookout, just below the lighthouse on the edge of the cliffs, we have a sweeping view of the rookery and the ocean. Three hundred feet below the surf, gnawing at the base of the cliffs, is an angry maelstrom of white foam and each breaker that rolls in from the sea explodes into a towering plume of spray that bathes the cliffs in a perpetual wet mist. It's a wild, hostile environment but it is home to thousands of nesting birds. A breeding pair of puffins, fulmars or guillemots has staked every little ledge wide enough to hold an egg and the work of raising a family goes on regardless of the weather. Some birds are still incubating their eggs; others swoop in from the ocean with small silvery fish in an attempt to satisfy the insatiable appetites of their nestlings.

As I watched a half-feathered young fulmar yelling for more food while clinging precariously to its ledge above the surf I thought, "That little guy had better get it right the first time." When the fledglings raised on Sumburgh cliffs leave home for the first time it's either fly or die. There is no second chance. But the cliffs provide a degree of security from predators and that probably explains why the birds have chosen such an inhospitable place for their colony.