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Orkney Wildlife

Orkney is a sanctuary for wildlife, making it the perfect destination for nature lovers.

This special archipelago of islands offers rich and diverse landscapes, providing the perfect homes - and homes-from-homes - for countless creatures.

You’ll find

  • sea cliffs,
  • marshlands,
  • rockpools

and more.

The maritime climate and distinctive soil mean that we get all sorts of unique flora here, like the:

  • Scottish primrose,
  • frog orchidand
  • various lichens and mosses.

This provides a rich foundation for all the wildlife on Orkney, from those who live here permanently to passing visitors.

Orkney also has low pollution, pristine air quality, and is largely undisturbed (under half of the islands are inhabited by humans).

Did you know that 30% of Orkney is protected for wildlife?

The result of all of this is a natural haven for wildlife to truly thrive. In fact, Orkney’s beautiful, wild landscape is a big inspiration behind our jewellery collections.

If you’re interested in visiting Orkney, you might be curious about what animals you can find here. We’ve put together a guide covering some of Orkney wildlife. We’ll cover particular species of interest, where you can find them, and how easy they are to spot. Let’s get to it!


Orkney's collective islands have a pretty extensive coastline, stretching over 500 miles, meaning there’s plenty of space for feathered friends to feed and rest up on their journey.

Let’s take a closer look at some of Orkney’s most famous and popular birds.

Orkney is a birder's paradise, with over 120 bird species documented across our many islands.

Some of these are full-time island residents, others passers-by. Orkney is positioned along migratory routes, making it an important stopover for many bird species during various migration seasons.


Puffins (known locally as Tammie Norries) are well-loved for their vibrant beaks and sociable, curious personalities. These charismatic seabirds come to Orkney from April to August for the breeding season, so if you want to see them, do make a note of these dates.

For those wanting to spot these avian entertainers (they’re called the clowns of the sea for a reason), the Brough of Birsay on the Orkney mainland is a great place. Alternatively, Westray is another puffin hotspot, specifically the castle of Burrian. There’s a sea stack here that provides excellent nesting burrows.

How easy is it to spot Puffins?

Easy, but you’ll need to visit the islands at the right time of year (April-August). Puffins spend the rest of the year at sea.

Why is Orkney so welcoming to puffins?

The grassy coastline slopes make fantastic burrows during the breeding season.


How easy is it to spot seabirds?

Easy. Lots of seabirds call Orkney home.

Why is Orkney so welcoming to seabirds?

The diverse environments, like sea cliffs and wetlands, appeal to a wide range of different seabirds.

Orkney is a fantastic place to spot seabirds - in 2019, over a million individual seabirds were recorded on the islands. The sandstone formations across the coastline make perfect ledges for seabirds, so if you want to catch seabirds in action, we recommend making a beeline to these. Here are some more of our recommendations for the best places to enjoy a range of different species in their full glory. 

The cliffs of the island of Hoy are great for spotting a wide array of seabirds, including fulmars, gannets, and guillemots, as their cliffs provide ideal nesting grounds. For those exploring the Orkney mainland, Marwick Head presents another excellent opportunity to observe seabirds. Then there’s the RSPB reserve on Westray Island, which is home to Arctic terns, Arctic skuas, and black guillemots.

Seabirds in Orkney


This fulmar was snapped by Kirsty Lloyd at Hoxa Head


A stunning Gannet picture taken by Kathleen Grant


2 Razorbills having a conversation by Kerry MacAulay

Arctic Tern

How easy is it to spot Arctic Terns?

Easy, but you’ll need to be in Orkney at the right time of year (May-beginning of August).

Why is Orkney so welcoming to Arctic Terns?

These are ground-nesting birds, which prefer pebbles and low vegetation (which there is plenty of in Orkney). Several special Protection areas have been designated for ground-nesting birds, and there are no mammalian predators for this species. This means Arctic Terns can breed in peace.

Arctic terns returning to Orkney is a sign that summer has reached the islands. These black-capped seabirds are known for their striking white plumage and long, elegant tales. With over 200 colonies across the islands, Orkney becomes an Arctic tern haven during the breeding months of May through to the end of July/beginning of August. To catch a glimpse, coastal locations such as Birsay, Copinsay, and North Hill on Papa Westray offer some of the best viewing points. There have been recent sightings at Hoxa Head too.

Be Warned

Arctic Terns will defend their nests and dive-bomb (and scream!) at any perceived threats. It’s best to keep a fair distance from them and enjoy from afar.

Thanks to Graham Campbell for this picture


How easy is it to spot Owls?

Despite there being lots of species of owl in Orkney, you might need some patience as they’re not the birds easiest to spot. However, take note that short-eared owls are active during the day rather than at night. You’re more likely to see one during June through to July when they’re hunting for their newly hatched chicks.

Why is Orkney so welcoming to Owls?

Orkney’s moorlands and grasslands are great breeding grounds for short-eared owls. Also, the short-eared owl’s main prey is the Orkney vole, which is only found here.

Whilst many types of owls can be found on Orkney, we’d be remiss not to talk about the short-eared owl. This owl is the only owl species that nests on Orkney, and is known locally as ‘Cattie Face’ for its feline-like features - think big yellow eyes and tufted ears. The best places to see them are at the RSPB's viewing hides at Cottascarth, the Loons hide near Marwick Bay, or the Birsay moors hide.

Thanks to Martyn Lennie, Graham Campbell and, Kerry MacAulay for these fabulous Owl pictures.


How easy is it to spot Waders?

Very easy! 

Why is Orkney so welcoming to Waders?

Fertile wetlands are the perfect habitat for wading birds

Orkney is home to a variety of wading birds, including curlews, oystercatchers, and redshanks. These can be seen anywhere along the coast of Orkney, so we recommend bringing a bird-watching guide with you so you can identify them all. You’ll also hear the distinctive call of the curlew from pretty much anywhere on the islands! You’ll be able to spot them by their slim, down-curved beaks and mottled brown feathers.

Wading Birds in Orkney


This Oystercatcher was snapped by Suzanne Oatley on Scapa Beach


This gorgeous Curlew was taken by Graham Campbell


It's there, believe us! This elusive Bittern was captured by Martyn Lennie

Marine Mammals

Orkney is located where the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea meet, meaning the water here is exceptionally rich in nutrients. Which as we all know, is great for wildlife! There’s plenty of plankton and fish that sustain the seabirds and other marine life that come along. Here’s a rundown of the unique marine mammals you might be able to catch a glimpse of when you visit Orkney.


How easy is it to spot Orcas?

Might require patience and planning, as they can be quite elusive and unpredictable.

Why is Orkney so welcoming to orcas?

The clean, clear water is rich in all sorts of marine life, which means easy pickings when it comes to orca food!

Orcas, also known as killer whales (despite actually being a type of dolphin), can be spotted off the shores of Orkney all year round. These imposing cetaceans (the family name given to orcas, dolphins, whales, and porpoises) have distinctive black and white markings and are renowned for their intelligence and emotions. Orcas often travel and live in tight-knit pods. To see one in the wild is itself a special experience, but you might be lucky enough to see multiple orcas at once.

To stay up-to-date on sightings, we recommend following the Orkney cetacean group on Facebook. Sightings have been reported in various locations across the islands, from Hoxa and Scapa Flow to the bay at Holm Pier on the mainland. This is just outside the Barrier View Cafe and our workshop!


How easy is it to spot dolphins?

Orkney is one of the best places in the UK to see dolphins! This being said, it's not a guarantee you’ll see them. Also, note that some species are easier to spot than others.

Why is Orkney so welcoming to dolphins?

Like orcas, dolphins like the clean, clear water that’s rich in fish.

It’s not just orcas that are attracted to Orkney. Other cetaceans - notably dolphins - swim in the local waters. Be on the lookout for Risso dolphins, Minke whales, porpoises, pilot whales, sperm whales, and if you’re lucky, a humpback whale.

Popular viewing spots like the Bay of Skaill and the Brough of Birsay offer great vantage points for dolphin spotting, as well as the Hoxa Head and Yesnaby coastlines.


How easy is it to spot otters? They can be quite shy, so be prepared to wait.

Why is Orkney so welcoming to otters? Orkney is full of otter-friendly habitats. The combination of clean water, plenty of fields, meadows, verges, sheltered coastlines, and lochs makes the islands perfect for these furry creatures.

Whilst you are in Orkney,  you might be lucky enough to see one the fluffiest creatures in the world—otters. These elusive mammals prefer habitats near streams and lochs close to the sea. If you’re lucky, you might catch them using fresh water to wash and groom their fur.

Top otter-spotting locations include the coastline of Brough of Birsay and the Bay of Skaill, the Hoy Hills harbour, and Churchill Barriers. There’s also a resident otter family at Kirkwall harbour. 


A stunning photo of Otters captured by Graham Campbell


How easy is it to spot seals?

Orkney is one of the top UK destinations to go seal-spotting. They’re very common here!

Why is Orkney so welcoming to seals?

The environment here is rich in seal-favourite foods, including fish and sand eels.

If you love seals, you’re in for a treat when visiting Orkney. You’ll find a significant portion of the global seal population lives across Scotland. 

5% of common seals and 36% of grey seals are here, including those that live in Orkney.

Want to figure out which seal is which?

Common seals have a smaller, dog-like head, whereas their grey counterparts have a more robust form. For those wanting to see these charming - if sometimes ungainly - creatures, visit the Barrier View cafe or the pier in St. Mary's.

The seal is as important to Scottish folklore as it is to local biodiversity. You might be familiar with tales of the selkie. These are beings capable of transforming from seal to human form by shedding their skin. Perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of one of these in the wild? But be warned, they’re pretty shy.

Seal pictures taken by Suzanne Oatley


Orkney consists of incredibly fertile and undisturbed land, the perfect environment for wildlife to thrive in peace. You’ll find meadows full of wildflowers here. Orkney is almost completely free of mammalian predators (apart from stoats - which we’ll cover in a bit). If you’re on the lookout for four-legged friends, here are some mammals you might spot on your travels around the island.

Highland Cows

How easy is it to spot highland cows?

You’ll need to research where they are. Unlike other Orkney wildlife included in this guide, highland cows are not wild creatures.

Why is Orkney so welcoming to highland cows?

There’s plenty of open space here for a very happy cow life!

Highland cows, with their iconic ginger shaggy coats and horns, are as emblematic of Scotland as the thistle is. Did you know that their horns help them to forage for food and that they were originally black? These affectionate animals are a hit with locals and visitors alike.

Despite there not being a huge population of highland cows in Orkney, these hardy cattle are well-suited to the environment here.

Their thick, fluffy coats protect them against the elements, whilst they can graze peacefully on the grassy hillsides found across the islands.

Highland Cows in Orkney

Thanks to Kerry MacAuley for this lovely pic of Highland Cows in Orkney

Orkney Vole

How easy is it to spot Orkney voles? They’re a little shy, so might require patience and planning. You might have more luck during the day, as this is when they’re most active.

Why is Orkney so welcoming to Orkney voles? There are plenty of open pastures for these little animals to tunnel into.

These charming, small creatures are only found in Orkney. A member of the rodent family, they’re distinctive from other vole species. They’re a bit bigger and have shorter fur. There is evidence that the Orkney vole has been living on the islands for over 5,000 years, but it’s still not known where they originated.

There is a bit of sad news though. The presence of stoats - who are non-native predators - poses a significant threat to the Orkney vole population. But, efforts are underway to eradicate the stoat population and protect the Orkney vole. You’ll probably spot stoat boxes as you explore the islands. You can learn more about this project here.


Are there stoats in Orkney?

Stoats are found on Orkney, but they are an invasive species and are having an impact on our local wildlife (see the Orkney vole info above). We’re therefore trying to get rid of them. If you see any on your travels around Orkney, please get in touch with the Orkney Native Wildlife Project team.

Are there seals in Orkney?

Yes! There are plenty of common and grey seals to spot when you’re in Orkney. One of the best places to see local seals is at the Barrier View Cafe at St Mary’s Pier.

Are there penguins in Orkney?

No, there are no penguins in Orkney. Penguins are not found anywhere in Scotland unless you visit a zoo.

Summing up

Orkney is somewhere truly special, and a must-visit destination for wildlife lovers. The islands here are rich in biodiversity, and largely unspoiled by modern life. Our jewelry is inspired by the beauty of all of this, and we’re incredibly lucky that it’s on our doorstep. Just a quick look outside our workshop window and we see nature at play.

If you’d like to learn more about the stories and sights behind our designs, as well as other news we’d like to share, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.