Shetland Porpoises in the Spotlight: volunteers and drone footage give new insight into porpoise behaviour

Our brilliant volunteers have now been completing surveys for Harbour Porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) since September 2021 at dedicated survey sites in Quendale Bay, Mousa Sound and South Nesting Bay as well as reporting sightings from all areas of Shetland. The Shetland Porpoise survey is led by UHI Shetland through the Shetland Community Wildlife Group in collaboration with WDC Shorewatch and NatureScot.

Site Focus- South Nesting Bay

  • Volunteers have undertaken over 50 watches
  • Out of those watches porpoises were seen on 41 occasions
  • They were seen every month from October to March
  • with groups of over 50 individuals being recorded on occasions.

An amazing effort considering the weather and short daylight hours we have over the winter here in Shetland.

During the surveys we have seen and managed to capture on film, some really interesting behaviour which has not been documented in Shetland before, and very rarely elsewhere in the world!

From the shore we had often been seeing individuals ‘rushing’ at other porpoises creating a fair bit of motion and splashing. Thanks to Richard Shucksmith and Nick McCaffrey, who managed to capture drone footage of porpoise groups, we have been able to see this behaviour more clearly and can see that the porpoises are performing behaviours linked to mating – males rush towards females in mating attempts and flash their undersides to the females as a form of display.

Rachel Shucksmith from UHI Shetland says;

“porpoises around Shetland can often be overlooked, but at locations like South Nesting Bay, Mousa Sound and Quendale Bay we are seeing large aggregations. The effort-based shore observations and drone footage can provide important insights into porpoise behaviour. Observations from outside of our watch sites are also important and we encourage reporting of sightings across Shetland. We are also really keen to get further drone footage, particularly at South Nesting Bay and at our site overlooking Mousa Sound, so if you are a drone pilot and have experience filming wildlife we would love to hear from you!”

The work being undertaken by our volunteers at our porpoise survey sites will help us gain a better understanding of porpoises around Shetland and how they use different areas during different times of the year.

It will be used as a preliminary dataset for PhD student Sophie Smith, who will be starting in October 2022. Sophie will be based at UHI Shetland, supervised by Rachel Shucksmith, Prof Ben Wilson (SAMS UHI), Dr Lauren McWhinnie (Heriot Watt University), as well as benefiting from the expertise of the UHI team behind the Shetland Community Wildlife Group, Emma Steel and the team at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Marine Scotland Science, and from Shetland based marine mammal expert at NatureScot, Karen Hall. The studentship is funded via the SUPER Doctoral Training Programme.

The Shetland Community Wildlife Group along with Whale and Dolphin Conservation will be supporting the project by continuing to undertake surveys, reporting one-off sightings and helping to capture drone footage and images of porpoise behaviour.

The studentship will then explore the use of these data collection techniques to further investigate porpoise behaviour, and spatial and temporal use relevant to their conservation and management.

If you are interested in getting involved in undertaking porpoise surveys or have one-off sightings records to submit please get in touch via email at Shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.com or take a look at our Porpoise Survey page for more details


A Plaice for Skate at the Ness

By Rhiannon Jehu

A friend and I went to the Discover Shetland’s Sharks and Skates event at the Ness Boating Club a few weeks ago. We both enjoy nature, but I don’t know that much about individual marine species lifestyles, so this felt like a great opportunity to learn more.

Before I went I decided to swat up on flatfish since they are superficially so similar to skate but are really very different. They are a great example of convergent evolution – being flat and living close to the seabed is a good niche and has been selected as a strategy by many species through deep time. So, here is some of what I learned before and during the event.


Bony fish (Osteichthyes) & Bony flatties:

The bony fish ‘standard’ model has bilateral symmetry and use their whole bodies as one big muscle to drive through the water in a streamlined way – fast, efficient and sort of rocket shaped. They move up and down in the water column through the use of a swim bladder which is essentially a built in buoyancy aid.

Plaice (Pleuronectes platessa) are a good example of a bony flatfish. They start life with the standard symmetrical body shape, but then gradually their left eye migrates round their head, and the fish lies on its side and flattens out so it has 2 eye’s on the top (right side) of its body. This means that when a flattie beats their tail they are beating up and down, rather than the more usual side to side. Plaice have white undersides that are hidden from the world, but the topside becomes the colour of the seabed. This camouflage varies a lot in colour, usually a grey/brown base with a range of stars and spots – white, yellow, orange.

Atlantic Cod- Richie rocket CC-ND 2.0
Plaice- Gentiane CC-BY-2.0

So what are skate?

Skate are cartilaginous fish (chondrichthyans) and are related to rays and sharks. Cartilage is resilient, rigid, flexible, and light weight. Chondrichthyans don’t have swim bladders but their pectoral fins are rigid enough and large enough to allow the fish to move around the water column as easily as bony fish do. Bony fish have an active pump system for pushing water through their gills however most (pelagic) chondrichthyans need to keep swimming to keep breathing. Bottom living (demersal) species (generally) have a small hole found behind each eye (a spiracle) where they take in water before pushing it out through their gills. This better suits their lifestyles, and, their mouths are on their undersides, unlike flatties whose mouth is at the front.

Skate are flat like plaice but instead of their body providing the power to swim, they flap their large, pectoral fins (wings). They then use their long thin tails for direction and balance (bony fish use their fins to steer). Essentially skate have strong arm muscles and use their tail as a rudder while plaice have strong tail muscles and use their arms to steer.

Bony flattieSkate
Mouthat front, sideways openingunderside
Propulsiontail musclespectoral fins (rigid)
Guidance systempectoral fins (flexible and fan like)tail (flexible with fins on top)
Breathing stylein from the front, out from the top and undersidein from the top out from the underside

Types of skates

We have a range of batoides (skate and ray) in Scottish waters. Including the common skate which is one of the largest species in the world – it has a wingspan that can reach almost 3m. In recent years this species has been divided into 2 separate ones – flapper and blue, with the flappers being more common in our northern waters.

Flapper Skate caught and released as part of the Skatespotter project
Flapper skate eggcase (c) Sally Huband

These giants of the marine world produce egg cases ‘mermaid’s purses’ up 28cm in length that are tethered to the seafloor. The young take around 18 months to hatch and then take a long time to reach sexual maturity – on average, females mature at 21 years of age, while males mature at around age 14. Marine Scotland Critically endangered flapper skate study – Marine Scotland (blogs.gov.scot) These factors and the skate body shape make them very vulnerable to disturbance and over fishing.  Ultimately, this has resulted in the once common skate being one of our rarest sea creatures.

Though flapper skate were overfished throughout the 19th and 20th centuries they are now protected and there are ways that fishermen can avoid accidentally capturing them, for example, some fishing vessels use nets fitted with skate panels which allow juvenile flappers to escape without the fisherfolk having to release their entire catch Home – Orkney Skate Trust

In 2021 our neighbours in the Western Isles got a site within the Inner Sound of Skye temporarily listed as a ‘Marine Protected Area’ (Red Rocks and Longay MPA). The aim was to protect the largest flapper nursery found in Scottish waters by prohibiting some marine activities (fishing, diving and construction). This temporary designation was under review earlier this year – do people want the site to become a permanently protected? RIFG


The event

The skate event was great fun. There was a 5-6 foot paper skate for people to leave their mark on – ‘skate art’. It’s only when I think about it now, that I realise that the model skate was a realistic size. To imagine something so big gliding through the water – it’s spectacular.

There were interesting and fun videos showing some of the chondrichthyans that visit or live in our waters and also showing how skate embryos develop in the safety of mermaids purses. We then saw a range of egg cases that we tried to identify from shape, size and features – including a flapper ‘purse’ that was bigger than my hand.

The event had 2 microscopes that we could play with; a small digital one and a traditional laboratory type.  We spent quite some time chasing and identifying different micro beasties in a few drops of sea water.

I had one question – What is the difference between a skate and a ray? They are all lumped together as chondrichthyans. Sharks look very different to skate and ray, but these last 2 have very similar body shapes. It turns out that skate lay eggs while ray’s lay live young. But that is for another time.


Conclusion

We know very little about our local marine species and their lifestyles. It’s only in recent years that we have come to identify 2 separate (un)’common skate’. And learning about their slow development suggests to me that we need to take special care to protect them as a species. By protecting the flappers, other species are given respite too. Experimenting with new fishing technology to allow fisherfolks to harvest the seas, whilst at the same time reducing bycatch seems so important for us to find ways of living with nature, supporting it as it supports us.

Links

Surveying for flapper skate eggs | Scotland’s Nature (scotlandsnature.blog)

Become a Skatespotter

Eggcase hunting in Shetland


Calling all swimmers, divers and snorkellers!

We are looking for records of rare and important marine life. In Shetland we are very fortunate to have a long and varied coastline, home to a wide variety of marine life. Compared to other parts of the UK, the Shetland coastline is relatively well studied thanks to survey work undertaken to support the building of Sullom Voe, work UHI Shetland to map important marine habitats and continued government agency survey work. But there are still large amounts of coastline yet to be surveyed.

All the species in the guide have been included as they are either rare, provide a vital habitat for other marine species or provide an important function such as storing carbon, stabilising sediments or maintaining water quality.

To be able to monitor and record these species we need to have accurate and up-to-date information on their distribution around Shetland. This information is used by the marine spatial planning team at UHI Shetland to create maps which are then used by developers, policy makers and local decision makers.

That’s where we need your help, we are asking wild swimmers, divers and snorkellers to report sightings of these key species. If you think you may have spotted one of the species in this guide please send us thew following information:

  • WHAT species you found
  • HOW many or how large
  • WHEN you found it
  • WHERE you found it (including coordinates if you have them) and at what depth.
  • Any PHOTOGRAPHS you may have

To download your copy CLICK HERE

We would also welcome records of any unusual species or invasive species (Shetland’s Marine Non-native Species), or shark and skate eggcases you might spot when diving (Shetland Shark and Skate Eggcase Hunt).


Summer Events Programme 2022

We are very excited to launch our programme of events for 2022 in collaboration with loads of great local organisations so come along for a nature adventure around Shetland!

Click the poster to download of copy of our complete summer programme or scroll down for more details of each event…


European Maritime Day Celebration

Sunday 5th June 10am-4pm

Sumburgh Head Lighthouse and Visitor Centre

Come and celebrate Shetland’s historic and natural maritime heritage.

Guided walks- Cultural Heritage Tours-Whale and Dolphin Watches- Family Activities and Crafts- Seabird Discovery Stations- Displays and more!

Click HERE to go to the event webpage to find details of all the activities and book onto a guided walk


Wildflower Walk

Sunday 3rd July 11am-3pm

Meet at the Sumburgh Hotel car park at 11am

The natural heritage team at Shetland Amenity Trust will be taking us on a guided walk up the west coast to Sumburgh Head and back over Compass Head to Grutness finishing back at the Sumburgh Hotel at 3pm.

Although we will be majoring on wild flowers we will also keep an eye out for birds, mammals and insects.

This is a FREE event but booking essential, all under 16s must be accompanied by an adult.

Moderate fitness required as it is a 5km round walk with some steep stretches.

There will be a lunch break at the Lighthouse, you can choose to take a packed lunch with you and relax outdoors or dine in at the popular Unken Kaffee (please note the cost of lunch is not covered).


Peerie Pollinators

Thursday 21st July. Drop in between 12-3pm

Lerwick Flower Park

Join Shetland Amenity Trust and ourselves for family fun in the Lerwick Flower Park, exploring the wonderful world of pollinators, from moths & butterflies to bees & hoverflies, and picking up tips on how you can look after them.

To find out more about Bumblebees and Butterfly species found in Shetland, download our handy ID guides HERE

(c) Painted Lady
(c) Rory Tallack

Discover Shetland’s Sharks and Skates

Sunday 31st July 10.30am-1.30pm

Ness Boating Club

Come along to the Ness Boating Club to learn all about the sharks and skate that live in the seas off Shetland. We will have an eggcase workshop to help you identify and report your eggcase finds, interactive displays, crafts and games.

Then try your eggcase spotting skills out at beach below the Boating Club!


Magical Moths

Monday 8th Aug 10am-1pm

Meet at the Crofthouse Museum, Boddam

We will take a short walk to a garden to examine the contents of moth traps that have been set the previous night. Local experts, Paul Harvey and Rob Fray will help you identify a broad range of moth species and see how a moth trap works.

This is a FREE event but booking essential, all under 16s must be accompanied by an adult.


Wonderful Woodlands

Friday 12th August 10am-2pm

Brae Community Woodland and Brae Hall

The woodlands team at Shetland Amenity Trust will be taking us for a guided walk through the Brae Community Woodland. They will explain the benefit of woodland ecosystems, help us spot some Shetland native tree species and hopefully some of the birds and wildlife that make our woodlands their home.

While you are exploring the woodlands, you’ll have a chance to collect materials for leaf printing with local artist and printmaker Linda Richardson back at the Brae Hall.

There will also be lots of information, displays and children’s activities in the Brae Hall so come along and find out more about Shetland’s Wonderful Woodlands.

Woodland tours will start on the hour at 10am, 11am and 12pm. You can then make your way to the Brae Hall with your chosen leaves.

This if a FREE event and suitable for all ages and abilities. Brae Woodland is fully accessible for wheelchair users. All under 16s must be accompanied by an adult.

Or drop in to the Brae Hall anytime between 10am and 2pm


Wildlife Drop-ins

Sunday 21st August 1pm-4pm

Various locations in the South Mainland

An afternoon of discovery where you can meet nature experts and learn more about Shetland’s diverse and marine and terrestrial wildlife.

This event is being run in partnership with Shetland Amenity Trust

  • Waders autumn migration at the Pool of Virkie
  • Cetacean spotting at Scord Beach (opposite Old Scatness)
  • Birdwatching from the new Loch of Spiggie hide
  • Look for cetaceans & seabirds at Sumburgh Head
  • Investigate the intertidal rock pools at Leebitton

This is a free, drop-in event. More info to follow.



European Maritime Day Celebration

Sunday 5th June 10am-4pm

Sumburgh Head Lighthouse and Visitor Centre


Programme of Activities


Guided Walk

Join Shetland Amenity Trust’s expert ranger on a circular walk up Sumburgh’s west coast to Sumburgh Head, returning back via Compass Head and Grutness. The walk will focus on all aspects of natural heritage, including birds, wildflowers and, if we’re lucky, sea mammals.

There will be a lunch break at the Lighthouse, you can choose to take a packed lunch with you and relax outdoors or dine in at the popular Unken Kaffee (please note the cost of lunch is not covered).

This is a FREE event but booking essential, all under 16s must be accompanied by an adult.

Click the following links to book your place:

Time: 11am – 3pm
Meeting point: Sumburgh Hotel Carpark
Ability: Moderate fitness required as it is a 5km walk with some steep stretches. 


Lighthouse Tower Tours

The team at Sumburgh Head Lighthouse will be giving tours of the visitor centre and explaining the rich history of Sumburgh Head.

There will also be the opportunity to go on a Light Tower Tours with Retained Lightkeeper, Brian Johnson.

A rare opportunity to step inside Shetland’s oldest Stevenson Lighthouse and see the Fresnel lens, clockwork mechanism and a spectacular view from Shetland Mainland’s most southerly point.

Tour times and booking arrangements to be confirmed on Friday.

Treaure Hunt

The Sumburgh Head Lighthouse team have created a fun, pirate themed treasure hunt to help young explorers navigate their way around the visitor centre and nature reserve. Follow the clues as they take you around Sumburgh Head and find out more about the animals that make it their home.

The treasure hunt is running throughout the day.

Collect the first clue from us at the decked area at the top of Sumburgh Head and make sure to come back and see us once you’ve completed the hunt!


Whale and Dolphin Watches

Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s Shorewatch team will be looking out for whales, dolphins and porpoises from two vantage points around the lighthouse. Join them to find out how you can spot whales and dolphins and hear about how you can get involved in Shorewatch.

Binoculars will be provided and the team will have some whaley great games for you to get involved in!

Discover Seabirds

RSPB Shetland Wardens and Members of the Shetland Bird Club will be positioned at various platforms around the Sumburgh RSPB reserve to explain about the amazing lives of the seabirds that visit the cliffs of Sumburgh Head.

Coastal Wildlife

Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group (SOTEAG) will be bringing along some activities designed to help increase your knowledge of coastal habitats and wildlife, and to encourage you to become a coastal explorer.

Come along to the SOTEAG stand to find out more about their work, pick up some fun activities and learn about the ‘Your Coast’ summer photo competition. 


Activity Table & Mask Making

Our craft table will be set up in the Engine Room with FREE nature themed activities all day, just drop in.

Mask Making

Artist Linda Richardson will join us for a creative mask making activity in the Engine Room from 2pm-4pm. No booking required. Cost £1 to cover materials payable on the day.

Nature Bingo

Join us for a scavanger hunt with a difference- Explore Sumburgh Head and see if you can spot all birds and flowers on bingo card.

Pick up your card from us at the decked area at the top of Sumburgh Head and remember to pop back and see us when you are finished!


Doing Less for Nature

By Rhiannon Jehu

I think that this year I’m going to commit myself to doing less for nature. No Mow May is a campaign started by Plantlife and is linked to their wild verges campaign that I mentioned in a blog last year and also to their Citizen Science project called #everyflowercounts Every Flower Counts | Plantlife.

The thinking goes like this:

  • People depend on plants and their products. Many of the plants we depend on, depend on insects to pollinate them.
  • We need to care for our insects so we can care for our plants, so we can care for ourselves and those we love.

However, as the UK population has increased, and agriculture has industrialised to try to feed us all, the number of meadows has reduced and the use of pesticides has increased. This means that people’s gardens are becoming more and more important as refuges for wildlife.

(c) Rhiannon Jehu

In the past it was popular to have a flat, green, single species, manicured lawn. There was stigma against not mowing, but councils and individuals are beginning to understand the benefits of an unmown lawn. If you spend 1 hour a week cutting your lawn your CO2 footprint will be around 293kg per year. Indeed, less mowing and allowing species to arise naturally gives your lawn the opportunity to sequester carbon – to become a better carbon store. Also, a manicured lawn takes a lot of effort to maintain – mowing, raking, weeding (or using weedkillers).

Gardens are often multi-purpose and vary in size. Some people grow vegetables, others flowers, some use them as children’s play areas, and all these different functions need to be taken into account. Plantlife and the RSPB both offer advice on managing your garden to make the most of it and share it with nature at the same time.

Cuckoo Flower
(c) Kate Allan
Heath spotted orchid
(c) Kate Allan

Plantlife suggest giving gardens a ‘Mowhican’ style cut – as with the hair style, cut some grass short and leave other areas long. Allowing two lengths of grass to grow maximises the diversity and quantity of flowers that will arise and this will increase the quantity of nectar your lawn produces and the length of time it is productive. ‘Short-grass’ plants like daisies and clover start flowering again soon after being cut, while areas of longer, unmown grass welcome a different range of flowers, in Shetland this could include yellow rattle, dead nettles (don’t worry, they don’t sting!), selfheal, cuckoo flower and even heath-spotted or northern marsh orchid!

The ideal is to cut the short grass once every month or so to a height of 1 or 2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) then strim all the grass in August or September and remove the clippings. Mow it a couple more times if needed and then let your lawn rest over winter.

Other ideas include rotating patches of long and short grass within your garden so there are always some areas in flower. Or leaving areas long and then cutting strips to areas like the washing line that you want to keep clear for easy and ‘dry footed’ access.

The RSPB describe more detailed ways of creating wildlife habitats in your garden Stop mowing your lawn for nature (rspb.org.uk) and have a range of gardening ideas for all the family Wildlife garden ideas (rspb.org.uk)

(c) Rhiannon Jehu

Dr Trevor Dines a Botanical Specialist at Plantlife said:

“Put simply, the less you mow the more bees and butterflies there will be in your garden.” And that works for me.


Related Articles


A Celebration of Birds and Bogs

By Rhiannon Jehu

I find birds amazing, they can seem so small, so light weight, so vulnerable looking, and yet they survive in what to us feels like harsh extremes. The RSPB suggest that birds are probably the most researched and recorded wildlife on the planet. At the opposite end of the spectrum, wetlands have often been viewed by people as wastelands. However, they are essential not just for the survival of many of our much loved bird species, but also for our survival as a species. This month I thought that I’d write about 2 different events that have happened almost together this year –RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch that has been running since 1979 and World Wetlands Day which has been celebrated since 1997 and has just become an official UN event.


The Big Garden Birdwatch

The Big Garden Birdwatch is a very popular citizen science project – in 2021 over one million people took part across the UK with 78,000 people counting a total of 1.5 million birds in Scotland. The BGB data was combined with information gathered by 70 other organisations and used in the ‘State of Nature 2019 report’ which in turn is being used to advise and campaign for improvements in nature care. The BGB count is especially important because it has been taking place for so long that it allows trends and changes to be identified. Sadly, this means that we know that over the last 50 years, 40 million birds have vanished from the UK’s skies.

For me, doing the birdwatch is a social experience since we compare notes with neighbours and friends as to what we’ve seen and not seen. This year we saw sparrows, starlings and pigeons. The RSPB ask us to record the maximum number of each species we see with their ‘feet on the ground’ at any one time. This means no counting the flock of geese flying over-head, which can be very frustrating – a case of the ones that got away.

Sparrow looking handsome on a hawthorn. (C) Rhiannon Jehu
Starlings are amazing generalists – I see them at the table, on the beach and amongst the bogs and heather. (C) Rhiannon Jehu

The stats from 2021 show that house sparrows were our most common garden visitor across the UK. In Scotland this was followed by starlings but in England, blue tits came number two. Nationally, sparrow populations have dropped by 58% and starling numbers by 83%, since 1979.


Wetlands

So, where do wetlands come into the equation? The name wetland describes a wide range of habitats, saltwater or fresh, inland or coastal, natural or human-made. In Shetland, this includes our peatlands, blanket bogs, marshes, lochs and lagoons.

Blanket bogs (a type of peatland), form where soils are water-logged and acidic. Conditions are too harsh for many non-specialised species but mosses, especially sphagnums thrive. They can hold up to 20 times their dry weight in water meaning they reduce runoff (and therefore flooding) and hold water during dry periods, reducing the risk of droughts.

Sphagnums and other bog plants break down very slowly and thus build up (at a speed of about 1mm a year) to form layers of peat which can be over 8m deep (Blanket bog | NatureScot). However, though healthy peats store carbon, when they are degraded they release it back into the atmosphere. This means that caring for our bogs is massively important if we are to limit climate change.

(C) Rhiannon Jehu

There are over 30 species of sphagnum moss in the UK, but they are very difficult to tell apart.

(C) Rhiannon Jehu

The Shetland Amenity Trust, with funding from the Peatland ACTION project have so far helped to restore about 400 ha. of Shetlands degraded peatlands as part of a wider national target to restore 250,000 ha. of degraded peatlands by 2030. In Shetland, they are hoping to reach the point where we are restoring 1000 ha. a year. The RSPB in Shetland are also working hard to protect peatlands, employing a dedicated Peatland Officer who works to restore and protect peatland habitats for the benefit of Shetland’s bird species.  

Scotland’s location at the edge of the Atlantic means that it catches a lot of rain which the hard rocks stop from draining away quickly. This combined with agricultural practices has allowed bogs and thus peat to cover almost a quarter of Scotland’s landscape (1.8 million hectares). This is a significant amount of our planet’s blanket bogs which in turn support some of our rarest wildlife. So, whilst some people may view wetlands as not being very productive because we can’t grow many crops in them, globally, they are home to 40% of the world’s known plant and animal species and 30% of known fish species, with, for example, many birds using wetlands as rest & refueling stops during migrations.

In Shetland, the vast extent of peatlands is an important breeding area for wetland birds such as dunlin, golden plover and curlew, giving islanders plenty of opportunity to spot these birds while out and about.

Curlews breed on a range of habitats including moorland and bogs. For me, their song suggests the start of spring (almost)

(C) Rhiannon Jehu

I love watching for the birds that visit our islands and our gardens – even when they hide. Monitoring the wellbeing of individual species, as happens with the Big Garden Birdwatch, helps us to see and understand the long-term situation and can inspire action. However, individual birds trying to survive and reproduce need a wide range of resources and wetlands are incredibly valuable. Caring for them here and around the world is important if we want to give other species and ourselves the opportunity to survive and live well.

If anyone is interested in learning more about carrying out peatland restoration on their hill or apportionment then Sue White from Shetland Amenity Trust would love to hear from you. There are also some ‘how to’ You-tube guides to peat restoration by NatureScot: Peatland Restoration Techniques.



Shetland’s Marine Meadows

Under our shallow seas are hidden meadows of grass, these seagrasses play important ecological roles in marine ecosystems. But more recently, these unassuming plants of the sea have been noticed by scientists and governments as a natural solution in the fight to mitigate climate change.


What is Seagrass?

Seagrasses are a type of flowering plant known as an angiosperm belonging to the same family as terrestrial grasses. They have leaves, roots and rhizomes and in the same way as land-based grasses, take up nutrients from the sediment and energy through photosynthesis. Seaweeds, in comparison are a type of algae and do not perform these same functions.


Shetland Seagrass Species

Historically, Shetland had many areas of seagrass but some have been lost and the extent of others unknown. We are aiming to collect records of seagrass beds and map the current extent of the known beds around Shetland.

Eelgrass (Zostera marina)-

a subtidal seagrass growing to depths of 5m. It is the most common species of seagrass in the UK. In Shetland however, Eelgrass is restricted to only a handful of sheltered bays on the western coast such as Whiteness Voe. Historically, there were large beds in The Vadills SAC but these have now been lost.

Dwarf Eelgrass (Zostera noltei)-

the smallest British seagrass species. It is most commonly an intertidal species found in sheltered shallow muddy areas which become exposed at low tide. However, here in Shetland it is more likely to be found submerged in lagoons such as Loch of Hellister.

Beaked Tasselweed (Ruppia maritima)-

mainly found in sheltered brackish water within lagoons, lochs and salt marshes. In Shetland it is found in areas such as as Loch of Strom, Loch of Hellister and The Vadills SAC.

Zostera marina (c) Ben Jones
Zostera noltei (c) Ben Jones
Ruppia maritima. Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0 US

Why is Seagrass Important?

Seagrass provides a number of important functions for humans as well as other marine life…

(c) Shetland UHI

Threats to Seagrass

In the UK we have lost approximately 44% of our seagrass since 1936. The primary threat to seagrass is Eutrophication. Excessive nutrients entering the water through run-off cause blooms in phytoplankton reducing light travelling to the seagrass and restricting their ability to photosynthesise.

Climate Change has also put multiple stresses onto seagrass beds through:

  • Rising sea temperatures
  • Increase in storm events
  • Rising sea levels
  • Changes in chemical concentrations in the water

Once damaged a seagrass bed can take a considerable length of time to recover and once lost, may never recover.


How You Can Help

We really need your help to record and map Shetland’s important seagrass habitats, you can get involved-

  • By submitting records of seagrass you may spot whilst swimming/ snorkelling/ diving/ kayaking etc.
  • By join us on a shore based seagrass hunt around our lochs and lagoons
  • If you are a drone pilot you can get involved by helping us map the extent of known seagrass beds using video footage.

To find out more and to get involved please contact us at shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.com

To keep up to date with all news, events and projects sign up to become a member and receive regular updates via email. You can sign up here.



Connecting with life’s cycles

By Rhiannon Jehu

This time of year is for sitting back, dreaming and planning, so I’m going to write a few thoughts here. In one of my blogs last spring, I discussed how connecting with nature can help a person feel physically and mentally fitter, while Covid has highlighted the importance of connecting with people we care about. Some friends recently started up a Cocaine Anonymous group in Lerwick. CA is a 12-step programme open to anyone who wants to stop using addictive chemicals, legal or illegal, or who wants to stop gambling. I love the motto; ‘Hope, Faith, Courage’ and so will use these as headings here.

Hope- a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen

Da Voar-Redd-Up joined forces with the Marine Conservation Society’s national beach clean project some time ago. The MCS use the information they gather (with our help) to identify areas for action and improvement and to communicate this to governments and other organisations. They have found that:

  • the average litter recorded per 100 metres (across the UK) has dropped to 385 items in 2019
  • the number of single-use plastic bags has dropped from an average of 13 in 2013 to 3 in 2021

COP 26 was a massive event for 2021 and though it didn’t achieve what everybody wanted, there was some good news for the sea- the UN has agreed to hold annual ‘ocean dialogues’.

The Marine Conservation Society offered some positives too:

  • Between 60-70% of UK fish stocks are now sustainably harvested.
  • We have a large number of Marine Protected Areas on paper and where these are fully protected, biodiversity increases by an average of 21%.
  • Some species of marine mammal are making a comeback with 47% of 124 well assessed marine mammal populations showing a significant increase in recent decades (and 13% decreasing) (Duarte et al, 2020).

Faith- trust or confidence in someone or something even when there is limited proof

Faith is frequently connected with religion, but I ran into the term ‘faith in humanity’ recently. It is defined as:

‘A readiness to see positive aspects in individuals, strangers and subgroups, as well as in those we know. At the same time accepting that the other person may hold different beliefs and opinions. FIH requires a willingness to act on these positive perceptions when interpreting individuals past and present behaviour and when looking to their future actions.’

I want to grow more faith in humanity. I feel I need it as I face the future since, though there are some positive statistics there are also many negative ones. I think that citizen science is one way of making connections and working together across sometimes testy political borders. There are many migratory species that are depending on us. They were ‘citizens of the world’ long before we were.

Added to this, nature is on the move as environmental conditions change. Growing up in Shetland (a scary long time ago) I didn’t know what a wasp was, and I’d never seen a land snail larger than 4mm. Will tomorrow’s children see walruses as ‘common as snails?’

Connecting with others and talking about our experiences and the environment involves learning a new language for me at least. For example, ‘Rewilding’ is a term that is often misunderstood but can be seen as a ’empowering nature’- reinstating natural processes and then trusting nature to look after itself. But having ‘faith in nature’ will take courage.

Courage- the ability to do something that frightens one

I feel that it can take courage to connect with ourselves, to be honest with ourselves, to see and admit our mistakes and to learn from them rather than being ashamed. We are a social species and so connecting with others is important for our health. For me video conferencing app’s like Zoom are a boon. I can stay in Shetland and learn from people from around the world. But I need to stay grounded too – to connect with my neighbours, the people around me and especially with the people who I don’t agree with – to meet them and listen and learn.

Shetlanders are connected to the sea. We are surrounded by a vast, life-giving (kelp) forest that has fed us for generations (a beautiful image I gleaned from a talk by Richard Shucksmith). For my own well-being, connecting with nature helps me to feel calm, exhilarated, joyful. To watch ‘life’; the starlings, the sparrows, the changing seasons, the constantly changing sea and sky. At the MCS AGM a speaker pointed to the single most important thing that we can do as individuals for ourselves and for our planet – it’s a process for creating ‘blue bonds’, paraphrasing;

connect -> value -> love -> care -> share -> protect.

We are all at different points in our journeys but by connecting and sharing our experiences, by being open minded and listening to those around us whether online or face-to-face with children or with the elderly. Connecting with others, connecting with nature, sharing the joy and beauty. I believe that by doing that I can find the hope, faith and courage I need for the coming year.

I’m attaching a range of links here to ideas and activities that you can be a part of. Or, maybe you know someone else who would like to try one:

A journal filled with seasonal ideas for connecting with nature:

Thriving-With-Nature-compressed.pdf (mentalhealth.org.uk)

A local link to da Voar-Redd-Up planned for April:

Da Voar Redd Up | Shetland Amenity Trust

‘Cycling UK’. A bicycle library where you can borrow a bike, or ebike or get cycling sessions to brush up on skills:

Cycling UK Shetland | Facebook

Connect with nature and create a ‘wheel of time and nature’

Phenology Wheels: Earth Observation Where You Live – Earthzine


Sea mammals and Shorewatch- a beginners perspective

By Rhiannon Jehu

Despite living in Shetland all my life, I know very little about the sea mammals that live so close to us. I decided to fix that and have written a few notes on what I have learned so far.

For many generations people have hunted whales. Commercial whaling started in the Middle Ages and by the 1750’s most Scottish ports were involved in the industry. Whales have provided us with oil for our lamps and meat for our stomachs. The hunting of cetaceans in Scotland stopped in the 1960’s and has reduced significantly worldwide. However, other challenges, such as increasing levels of pollution and underwater noise and by-catch from some fishing methods, has led to a crash in global whale, dolphin and porpoise (WD&P) populations.

Baleen whales (Mysticeti) who have baleen plates to filter their food; mostly plankton and small species of fish e.g. minke whales

(c) WDC

Toothed whales (Odonotoceti) which includes all species of dolphin and porpoise, such as the Risso’s dolphin and harbour porpoise. As the name suggests, these sub-order species all have teeth and often eat larger prey than the baleens. Most have cone-shaped teeth for grasping and holding their food. However, porpoises have flatter, spade-shaped teeth. Though porpoises and dolphins can look quite similar, porpoises are smaller and chunkier. This allows them to stay warm despite their smaller size and the cold water– short and round is easier to heat than long and lean. Also, porpoises can be heard to ‘puff’ through their blowhole while dolphins whistle through theirs.

(c) WDC
(c) WDC

One unique role that larger species of whale play is the ‘whale pump/poop pump’. Some species move between the low pressure of the surface and the high pressure of the depths when hunting. As they do this they cycle nutrients, taking it from the depths and carrying it to the surface where they release it. These mega-poops help to feed open ocean ecosystems.

Whales also create ecosystems in the ocean’s deepest darkest parts. Deep seas were once believed to be almost lifeless due to their extreme conditions; high pressure and eternal darkness. More recently explorers have discovered a wide range of strange and beautiful lifeforms. Many of these feed on marine ‘snow’ that falls from above. This is made up of the decaying bodies of plants and animals that are sinking to the ocean floor. A ‘whale fall’ is an extreme example of this. It occurs when a dead whale falls to the deep ocean floor. The body becomes a feeding ground and ecosystem for a multitude of other extreme survivors. One fall can support an ecosystem for years, even decades before becoming completely consumed.

To find out more about the role whales play in marine ecosystems, take a look at WDC’s Green Whale Campaign Website

The other week I attended a 1 day online training course run by Whale & Dolphin Conservation (WDC) so that I could take part in their ‘Shorewatch’ citizen science project here in Shetland. Shorewatch volunteers gather presence and absence data on cetaceans which is uploaded into the WDC database. This information is used for research purposes and to provide evidence of what is happening in marine ecosystems. For example, to advise our government on the most effective locations to put ‘Marine Protected Areas’ and on how effective these are. Shorewatch data and data currently being collected by the SCWG’s Shetland Porpoise Survey will be used locally by the Marine Spatial Planning team at Shetland UHI to fill knowledge gaps in the Shetland Islands Regional Marine Plan, to assisting marine management and planning decisions in the isles.

WDC Shorewatch

Shorewatch has been running since 2005 and has trained over 1000 volunteers, who carry out on average 9,000 surveys every year around Scotland. Each Shorewatch involves 10 minutes of intensive watching from a specific location.

We record:

  • The environmental conditions (sea state & visibility)
  • What boat traffic is on the water
  • What marine mammals we see
  • Any other interesting sightings.

For more info:

Shorewatch – Watching out for whales and dolphins in Scotland – WDC (wdcs.org)

I am discovering that WD&P’s are fascinating and awe inspiring. They also play important roles keeping our oceans fit and healthy – we are all dependent on each other. If the whales thrive, the seas thrive and if the seas thrive, we thrive. In Shetland we have a long history of connecting and valuing WD&P’s and we have easy access to them. There is so much more we can learn about individual species and their lifestyles. The more we know and understand them the better able we will be to live alongside them in harmony, to be able to be a small part of that process, is so exciting.