With the excitement of the festive season behind us it is easy to slip into the winter blues. Getting out amongst nature and soaking up a bit of vitamin D from the winter sun is a very important tonic to help boost our mood. Since 2018, GP practices in Shetland have been giving out Nature Prescriptions in association with RSPB Scotland to help promote the benefits of getting outdoors amongst nature to boost mental health. The project was so successful that it has now been rolled out to other areas including urban areas such as Edinburgh. Download the PDF Nature Prescription Calendar here.
In Focus- European Otter (Lutra lutra)
Otters are one of Shetland’s most iconic animals, I have never met anyone who doesn’t get that little spark of excitement when they are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one. In the Shetland dialect the otter is known as the ‘draatsi’. The name comes from the word ‘drats’ meaning slowly or heavily and most likely refers to the way they move on land.
Otters belong to the weasel family (Mustelidae) so are closely related to stoats and feral ferrets (which are also present in Shetland) as well as weasels, pine marten, badger and mink.
Males are known as ‘dogs’ and are larger and stockier than the females with a broader muzzle. Females, known as ‘bitches’ are smaller with a narrower muzzle. Coat colour can vary in individuals from dark to light brown, these light-coloured individuals are often called blonde otters.
Otters are carnivorous, hunting at sea for fish (their favoured prey) and crustaceans. But they will also take ducks, seabirds or rabbits. They are perfectly adapted to live a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Their fur is very important to them, with no body fat it is their only insulating layer to keep out the cold of the sea. It is made up of two layers the outer guard layer and a very thick insulating inner layer. When diving to hunt, air gets trapped between the layers and creates the insulation required to keep them warm. The salt water can be very damaging to the fur, so a supply of fresh water is needed to wash the salt off the fur. They are very fastidious and spend a lot of their time on land grooming and looking after their fur. They also have strong legs with webbed feet for swimming and a long strong tail which acts like a rudder. Their eyes and nose are placed high on their heads to allow them to see and breathe whilst swimming on the surface. Their ears are small but very sensitive and have protective valves to stop water entering. Their super sensitive whiskers are used whilst hunting to sense the vibrations from their prey allowing them to accurately locate it.
Winter is a good time to spot otters as with the short daylight hours there is more chance of catching one out and about. They hunt along the coastal edge in shallow water during low tide. The best time to look out for them is 2 hours either side of low tide along rocky shorelines. When assessing an area for otters you need to be on the look out for their signs. Spraint (otter poo) is the most obvious and is used by the otters as a form of communication. They will spraint in the same area as a kind of marker post to other otters. The spraint will usually contain fragments of bone and shell from their prey. In sandy areas you may spot their footprints, they are easily mistaken amongst the numerous dog prints that are on our beaches but once you know what to look for, they are more obvious. Otters have five toes whereas dogs only have four. Otters also have a longer pad on the foot and occasionally you may be able to spot the drag marks from the tail.
To find out more about otters in Shetland and to see some stunning photos, take a look at Richard Shucksmith and Brydon Thomason’s book, Otters in Shetland: The tale of the ‘draatsi’. Copies are available from Shetland Library.
In other news…
With a few winter storms raging, there have been a number of large aggregations of goose and buoy barnacles washing up on our shores. The two species are often confused and thought to be the more well-known goose barnacle as the two are quite similar.
Common Goose Barnacle (Lepas anatifera)- These are the largest and most common species to wash up on our shores. They are a pelagic species growing up to 50cm in length with a white ‘head’ shell section (5cm in length) with dark lines between shell plates. They attach to flotsam (driftwood, buoys etc.) often in large numbers of multiple hundreds. They attach using a large black/brown stalk. They feed on plankton using feather like ‘fingers’ which protrude from the pale shell.
Buoy Barnacle (Dosima fascicularis)– Also a pelagic species but much smaller than the Common Goose Barnacle with a much shorter stalk, only growing to 3cm in length. In comparison to the Common Goose Barnacle, they have transparent instead of the white shell plates with less obvious dark lines between. They can be found attached to flotsam in the same way as the Common Goose Barnacle but this species can also create its own spongy, polystyrene like float. They are much less commonly washed up on our beaches.