Paul Harvey- Shetland Biological Records Centre
Kathryn Allan- UHI Shetland
This is a question that we often get asked – why are you bothering to record that? What’s the point? Put simply recording the wildlife around us helps build up our knowledge of the environment – what is where and how might this be changing. Shetland’s socio-economic well-being is tied heavily to its environment – fishing, aquaculture, agriculture and tourism are all dependent on a clean, thriving environment. Recording helps us to monitor the health of this environment and can act as an early warning system if, and when, things start to go wrong. It can often be done relatively cheaply using so called citizen science – as hundreds of folk enjoy getting outside and many of these contribute by sending in their wildlife observations or posting them on social media.
We’ll try and outline a few examples of why recording can be important. Some species are common and widespread and some species are rare and localised. The only way we can ascertain which is which is through recording. The Bog Orchid is a tiny but attractive wee orchid that, as its name suggests, grows in damp, acid bogs. It is a rare plant in Shetland and indeed throughout Scotland and was known from only a handful of sites in the islands. A small group of folk out looking at and recording flowers came across a previously unknown site for the species in the Catfirth area. And what a colony it was, numbering several hundred plants and making it the biggest colony in Scotland. It so happened that this area was earmarked for a housing development but following discussion with the Council the developer changed the plans slightly meaning the site could be saved and Scotland’s largest Bog Orchid colony remains for others to enjoy. Without recording, this site would have been lost.
The Curlew is a relatively common bird in Shetland. Yet elsewhere in the UK the Curlew population has plummeted such that it is now on the Red List of Birds to watch. Every year since 2002 about 60 Shetland residents head out twice in the spring with maps to record breeding birds in a one kilometre square close to their home. These data are collated and have allowed us to establish population trends for our more common breeding birds. This has told us that the Curlew population in Shetland is holding its own; unlike elsewhere in the UK it is not in sharp decline. This also suggests that existing crofting/farming practices in Shetland are currently well suited to maintaining Curlew (and indeed other breeding wader populations). Many of these waders – Curlew, Lapwing, Redshank, Snipe, Oystercatcher are present here in nationally important numbers. Now more than ever the taxpayer is looking for greater public benefits from agriculture and it is likely that rewards for farming in an environmentally sensitive manner will increase in the future. So here, volunteer recorders have provided the data that allows environmentalists and farmers to make strong arguments that the existing agriculture in the islands should be supported because it already yields considerable environmental benefits.
Global warming is on almost everyone’s lips these days. Can we show it is happening here in Shetland? There has been much talk of the adverse impacts of a rise in sea temperature on Shetland’s seabirds and this is likely to impact on fish stocks too but things are very complicated in the marine environment and it’s not always easy to make direct links. A few island residents however have been recording large insects – bumblebees, butterflies, moths and hoverflies for starters – and this has revealed some big changes as a result of climate change. Insects have good powers of dispersal and can reproduce very quickly and in large numbers so are often one of the first groups to respond to environmental change. In the last few years, the recording undertaken by these folk has revealed that two species of bumblebee and several species of moth have, or are in the process of, colonising the islands.
In our marine environment, previously unseen non-native species (NNS) coming from elsewhere in the world can become established in the isles due to the change is sea temperatures. UHI Shetland has been monitoring ports and marinas for a few years as this is usually where species first enter on the hulls of boats or ballast water. Once established they can be very difficult, if not impossible to eradicate. These non-native species are troublesome as they can compete with our native species for food and space and smother aquaculture structures causing economic impact. To be able to assess if these species have made it into the ‘wild’ (beyond man made structures) we need everyone’s help to submit records of species they find whilst out on our beaches and coastlines.
The many individuals that record wildlife here in Shetland are also helping to put the islands on the map. Thanks to these efforts Shetland is now well represented in new publications about Scotland’s or the UK’s wildlife. This helps establish patterns and trends farther afield than just our islands, and can also illustrate just how important the Shetland’s biodiversity is.
Finally, it is important to say that watching and recording wildlife should also be about fun. If this can be done as a group then the accompanying banter can certainly add to the atmosphere(!) and learning can become so much easier. It seems that nationwide, the recent pandemic has encouraged a lot of people to get out and reconnect with nature and that can only be of benefit to us as individuals by boosting our mental wellbeing and to society as we struggle to overcome the many environmental challenges that we will face in the future.
So, we’d be delighted to receive any records of wildlife and plants that you can make. All we need is an observer name, date, location (preferably a grid reference) and your record will be added to the Shetland database