Orkney in Five - Wildlife

In the first of a new series we ask local residents for their recommendations on what to see, where to go and things to do in Orkney...

Orkney has so many attractions it can be hard for visitors to decide what they want to see when they're here. The main sites in the islands are well documented - Skara Brae, St Magnus Cathedral, the Ness of Brodgar - but what about those other places, activities, cultural and historical treasures that you might not find in the guide book?

For our first 'Orkney in Five' we've asked local wildlife cameraman and photographer Raymond Besant to share some of his favourite wildlife to see in Orkney.

From our big skies to clean, clear and cold waters, there is so much life to enjoy across the islands.

Hen Harrier

A hen harrier in flight above Orkney

Orkney is undoubtedly the best place in the UK to see this magnificent bird of prey - with plentiful prey and undisturbed nest sites the moors of Orkney are a real stronghold. You have a great chance of seeing a Hen Harrier anywhere on mainland Orkney as they hunt the roadside verges, but for something truly special head to the RSPB Cottascarth reserve in Rendall. On fine spring days in mid April, male Hen Harriers carry out a beautiful undulating display know as 'skydancing'. The silver grey male rises high in the sky making a 'yikkering' call to catch the attention of a female and then tumbles towards the ground before rising and carrying out the manoeuvre again and again.

Grey Seal

A grey seal pup taking a break on the Orkney shoreline

The Grey Seal or 'selkie' as we call it is deeply rooted in Orkney folklore with tales of transformation from seal kind to human form. It's possible to see these charismatic mammals almost anywhere in Orkney and a walk along any secluded beach is sure to be rewarded with a curious selkie following you along the tide line. However one of Orkney's most dramatic spectacles are the thousands of Grey Seals that come ashore to breed each October. With crashing waves, fighting males and cute white pups it's a fantastic sight. The really big numbers tend to be on uninhabited islands in the north isles but you can safely watch the drama without disturbing the seals from cliff tops on both the east and west coasts of South Ronaldsay.

Emerald Damselfly

An emerald damselfly - Hoy is the place to go to spot these beautiful creatures in Orkney

The Emerald Damselfy is a recent coloniser in Orkney and currently can only be found in the island of Hoy. Head to Rackwick and behind the car park lies a large boggy pool perfect for dragon and damselflies. These metallic green damselflies are surprisingly small and dainty and you'll need to 'get your eye in' before spotting one. Luckily they like to return to the same spot they were sitting on so you have a great chance of seeing one, especially on warm sunny days in July and August.

Barnacle Goose

Barnacle geese can be seen in fields in Orkney during the winter months

Most folk are now accustomed to seeing geese in Orkney's fields all year round with a large population of Greylags now resident here. For a real migratory treat though it's worth hopping across to Hoy on the ferry and driving down to South Walls to see the beautiful Barnacle Goose. Most of the Barnacle Geese which breed in Greenland head to Islay for the winter but around 1500 of these black and white birds feed in the fields of South Walls from late October until April. Once dusk descends they rise as one across Cantick Sound to spend the night on the safety of uninhabited Switha.

Brown Hare

A brown hare photographed in an Orkney field

The Brown Hare is an introduced species to Orkney but is now very much part of the landscape. It has thrived in Orkney's farmland recently and so it's possible to see it almost anywhere in the lush fields of the east and west mainland. They are much more relaxed early morning and so close views are possible. You might even be lucky enough to see 'boxing' hares, once thought to be competing males, these fighting hares are actually females not yet ready to breed fending off males. April into May is the best time to see them before the grass grows too long covering up all but their big ears!

Raymond Besant is a wildlife cameraman and photographer from Orkney who has worked for the BBC Natural History Unit, BBC Scotland and BBC Springwatch. He has also published a number of short films focused on Orkney and his book 'Naturally Orkney' was voted Scotland's Favourite Nature Photography book of 2014. You can also follow him on Facebook.

All photographs (c) Raymond Besant

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