100 miles beyond mainland Britain lie Scotland's islands above all others. With the restless North Sea to the east and the wild Atlantic to the west. This is a place rules by the sea. It can bring danger, but it’s also the great provider, bringing the endless bounty to the thousands of animals and people who call this ancient isles home. Remote, magical and full of subtle beauty, this is Wild Shetland-Scotland’s Viking Frontier.
It’s late January and the Viking squads are on the march. Up Helly Aa, Shetland’s iconic winter festival, has claimed the streets of Lerwick, bringing light to the darkness of winter. But as dawn breaks, it’s the sea that rules. The Mighty Atlantic unleashes her greatest fury as storm after storm batters these isles, whipping the sea to a frenzy. For wildlife, it’s now a battle for survival. Survival of the strongest. But Shetland’s creatures have mastered this season and have what it takes to flourish here. For ill weather never lasts, and following every storm is the promise of calm. On the isle of Unst, at the most northern tip of Shetland, a young family is enjoying the winter sun. Only a few months old and recently emerged from their underground holt, these otter cubs have been born usually late. It’s strange new world, and the cubs-a male and a female-have a lot to learn. The family will stay together for a year or so, hunting these tidal pools and learning the secrets of the sea. But, for now, it’s all about play. Their experienced mother must always be on guard- the cubs are still at a vulnerable age and danger is never far away. It’s a male, a dog otter. If he’s not their father, he could kill the young cubs. They are unaware of the danger. The mother grabs the first one, dragging it across the deep channel. The second cub follows quickly, sensing the urgency. The male doesn’t pursue them, for now. But this is HIS territory and the young family will need to be on their guard. Shetland is made up of over 100 different islands. Situated at 60 degrees north, they are at the same latitude as Greenland and as close to Norway as they are to most of Scotland. Treeless, with a cool oceanic climate, Shetland is fringed with over 1,000 miles of rich coast. Nowhere is more than three miles from the sea. Its influence is felt everywhere. Inhabited since the Stone Age, these windblown isles have been home to wildlife and people for millennia. Once a critical staging post for the Vikings as they navigated the Atlantic, boat building and fishing are still important to the population here. Everyone lives by the rhythms of the sea. On Unst, the fierce winter storms have brought rewards for some. Tiny sanderlings and turnstones scour the broken help for scraps. Whilst in a secluded bay, the prize is even greater. A minke whale carcass will support these hooded crows for months. As long as they remember the pecking order of the scavengers. Raven’s always come first. Nearby, the otter family has moved to the edge of the male’s territory. The cubs are gaining in confidence- able to swim more independently and starting to explore. Each new object is worth investigating. Like everywhere in the world, climate change and warming seas are causing changes. In recent years, octopus numbers around Shetland appear to be increasing. For the otter family, this is a real treat. The mother must hunt every few hours to satisfy the cubs. And with the threat of the male still present, she chooses a hidden spot to leave them carefully stripping seaweed from the rocks to make them a bed.