The European otter, or Draatsi as it is known in the Shetland dialect, is one of Shetlands most popular mammals. Our combination of soft peat for holts, freshwater pools for bathing and offshore kelp beds for feeding make Shetland a des res for otters. In many areas of Europe they feed in rivers. However, ours have adapted to salt water hunting but need regular fresh water baths to clean their fur. We have around 1,000 individuals living with us from a total of 8000 across Scotland making Shetland an important and relatively safe home for the species.
My interest in otters was peaked in December when my neighbour reported that in the last few years he had found 8 dead near Henry’s Loch . I am used to finding dead bodies on the road, especially in autumn and winter, but it saddens me. Otters especially are valued by us locals and visitors alike, so we decided to see if there was a way to reduce the death count.
Otters are non-migratory but can frequently travel 10’s km as they move between feeding grounds and fresh water pools. Our local otters are using Henry’s Loch to bathe, but have to cross the main road to get to and from the sea. The A970 has a steep semi-blind bend, and it can be hard for cars travelling at 50 mph to stop in time if they see an otter. It can also be hard for otters, who have poor eye sight to see a car coming in time.
The problem of non-human species being road casualties is a world-wide problem and there is a wide range of ways of reducing road deaths. Each situation and species has to be looked at individually and is unique. Here are some links of examples from around the world:
Some areas have animal pathways or ‘ecoducts’ that go under or over roads giving species a safe way to cross highways and railways etc. However, they can be very expensive and the animals may not feel safe using them.
LED systems are used to warn drivers about, for example, deer on mainland Scotland, and otter crossing signs can be seen in some areas here in Shetland. However, people often habituate to these signs if they use a route frequently.
The SIC roads department acted quickly and enthusiastically and decided to opt for a visual otter reflector system. These work by directing car headlights down to otter eye level warning them of danger. However, just like humans, otters could habituate to these, though the hope is that this won’t happen since the reflectors won’t be working consistently all year. They will be most powerful when nights are dark and days are short; the times when otters and cars are most likely to meet. No solution is perfect but they have been effective in reducing otter road fatalities in Mull and Skye , so we are hopeful that they will be effective here too and will be keeping an eye out for bodies this autumn and winter.
Last month I wrote about how spending time with nature is good for our wellbeing. The Mental Health Foundation describes ‘everyday nature’ as the moments of pleasure that we can snatch regularly throughout the day. Taking a moment to look out the window; stopping to breath in the smell of the sea; chatting to a houseplant while watering it. For me, starlings are a brilliant example of this. They are a common sight; gregarious, argumentative, flapping, squawking and imitating, multi-coloured and shimmering as adults; dazzling with sharp beaks.
In gardening they say that a weed is a successful plant in the wrong place at the wrong time. Equally so with animals; friend or foe depends on context and perspective. Starling’s probing beaks, agility and size mean that they can slip into barns for a quick top up on sheep or hen feed and raid essey bags for our wasted food. They used to be a rare country species but that changed in the 1900’s when they started colonising urban areas and their population boomed. In the evenings, especially in winter, thousands of starlings could be seen gathering together forming clouds, ‘murmuration’s’ which fly in formation before roosting communally. However, when I post photos on Facebook, friends from mainland Scotland tell me that they haven’t seen one in years, and, how much they miss them.
Starlings can live up to 5 years and usually produce 1 or 2 broods a year. However, their numbers are declining dramatically. Between 1995 and 2016 Britain’s breeding population crashed by 51%, though Shetland is still a stronghold. Parents are successfully rearing chicks, but these are failing to survive and thrive. There seems to be no single cause of this. However, laboratory studies suggest that pollutants such as anti-depressants & flame retardants in food and water badly affect starlings so it’s possible that these are reducing the fledgling’s survival rate.
This year the first babies that I saw were in Lerwick. I was passing time waiting for my bus and came across an enormous, very loud nursery. There were fledglings everywhere, all at the same stage of development; chocolate feathers, black beaks and yellow gaping mouths. They were chasing their parents around demanding food and practising much needed flying skills. I saw one try to land on a washing line. It caught hold with its feet, but failed to stop, This resulted in the peerie fellow doing a gymnastic loop before landing (on his feet) on the ground.
I saw my first Quarff chicks a few days later. They were unfledged but enthusiastically waiting to be fed, the bravest ones putting their heads out of the safety of the nest. The parents returning again and again with beaks full of nutritious insects and grubs. A week or so later, now fledglings in the trees, total panic and lots of flapping and crashing as a hooded crow flies overhead. The youths have recognised the danger but still have a lot to learn.
It can be awesome to see the unexpected in everyday life; an otter fishing outside the supermarket, a goldcrest feeding at the side of the road, but there is something special about starlings and having the opportunity to live side by side with them and watch their lives unfold with the seasons.
The Mental Health Foundation argues that connectedness with nature increases pro-environmental behaviour and is important for our mental and physical health. I decided to focus on the theme ‘The Power of Nature’ for Mental Health Awareness Week this year. I kept a diary and am going to write a brief summary of my experiences and thoughts here.
The week didn’t get off to a good start with me finding a dying lamb and its dead mother. It brought back sad memories of the Braer disaster when I was a teenager and my fears for the future of Shetland and the planet in general. There are 2 terms for what I feel; solastalgia, a sadness for what has been lost environmentally and eco-anxiety, a fear for the future of the planet.
On Tuesday a friend told me of her hydroponics experiment and her vision for a possible future. She gave me some salad leaves and I reflected on where my meals come from. I looked at the labels; India, Africa, North & South America, China, Europe, the UK. It’s pretty awesome that I have access to food from, and therefore connections with, pretty much every continent on the planet.
There was a landfall of willow warblers and pied fly-catchers during the week and on Wednesday, with the help of books, family and Facebook friends I learned a bit about them. It was great connecting with others and I found that talking about my experiences somehow made my memories more real, more long-term. We get migrants from so many different places. They stop off for a rest and food, or maybe stay for a season. We are so interlinked, and that is so beautiful.
The Mental Health Foundation describes an emotional model (see diagram) of interactions with the environment and wellbeing. Emotions are linked to hormones and neurotransmitters and are often stronger than purely cognitive drives. For example, I know that going for a walk is good for me but my desire for chocolate is often stronger.
On Friday I felt very tired, so my walk was slow. The ground was very wet, and water droplets looked like jewels on the wild primroses. I felt revived as I absorbed the beauty.
During the week I felt joy, awe, sadness, fear. A whole plethora of emotions. I also connected with people and nature and both encouraged me. No single person or idea can solve all our environmental problems. However, I believe that by connecting with others, we can find lots of solutions together while also finding compassion, peace, comfort, hope and improved health.
Shetland is remote but it is also the centre of a busy network of life; connected, interlinked, beautiful. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to explore and connect with it. I think that we care for what we value. So, if we want people to care for the environment, first we have to try to fully understand and share its value. My knowledge of nature and biodiversity is limited, but the week increased my awareness of the beauty of our diverse island.
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) co-ordinate the bird ringing scheme for Britain and Ireland. Each year around 900,000 birds are ringed over 2,600 trained ringers. Ringing allows for the collection of scientific information on survival rates, productivity and bird movements. The rings are made from light weight metal, each inscribed with a unique number. These rings are placed around the bird’s leg which is completely harmless and does not affect the bird in any way.
“Ringing allows us to study how many young birds leave the nest and survive to become adults, as well as how many adults survive the stresses of breeding, migration and severe weather. Changes in survival rates and other aspects of birds’ biology help us to understand the causes of population declines.”BTO website
Birds are caught using mist nest, a type of fine mesh net between two poles. The birds fly into these nets and become trapped. They are safely removed by trained ringers who apply the ring and take weights and measurements from the birds. Chicks are also ringed in the nest.
Other types of rings used are colour rings. These can be on the legs (often seen on wading birds) or around the neck of larger birds (geese and swans) the colour combinations and/or numbers can usually be read through binoculars or a scope. There is a Greylag goose frequently seen around the south end of Shetland with this type of neck ring.
What to do if you find a bird with a ring
You can report metal and colour rings through the BTOs reporting website here
Metal rings can be near impossible to read on a healthy bird. Most rings found by the general public are from dead, injured or trapped birds. (The BTO themselves do co-ordinate re-capture projects where ring numbers and measurements are taken and the bird is released). BTO rings and colour rings, as well as rings from other institutions throughout Europe can be reported to this website just follow the onscreen instructions.
We have selected a fantastic array of books by local and national authors and publishers that will give you an insight into the wildlife in our islands and help you to identify your sightings.
A Naturalist’s Shetland
J Laughton Johnston
This book provides a good overview of all species that can be found in Shetland from plankton to mammals and where/when is a good time to see them. It also provides snippets of Shetland’s culture and heritage.
Available from Shetland Library
The Birds of Shetland
Mike Pennington, Kevin Osborn, Paul Harvey, Roger Riddington, Dave Okill, Pete Ellis and Martin Heubeck
A very useful repository of the bird species that have been found in Shetland. It has been written and compiled by some of the top bird experts in Shetland.
Available from Shetland Library
Discover Shetland’s Birds
Paul Harvey and Rebecca Nason
This is a beautiful photographic guide of Shetland’s birds with stunning photographs taken by the Rebecca Nason, renowned wildlife photographer and text by Paul Harvey, local wildlife expert.
Available from Shetland Library
Shetland Bird Report
Shetland Bird Club
A copy of the Shetland Bird Report is published every year detailing the species which have been found in the isles that year including all the rarities with details on where and when they were found. Contains lots of amazing photographs from local and visiting enthusiasts.
Current available issue is for 2018. The 2019 report is to be published in the new year. They are available from the Nature in Shetland website, the home of the Shetland Bird club here
Back catalogue available from Shetland Library
Otters in Shetland: The tale of the draatsi
Richard Shucksmith and Brydon Thomason
This book is packed full of stunning photographs of otters taken all over Shetland. The accompanying text gives a glimpse into their world with lots of information on all aspects of their lives.
Available from Shetland Library
Shetland’s Wild Flowers: a photographic guide
Pictorial guide to the wildflowers in Shetland with large clear pictures. Details when they flower, habitat preference and growing sites.
Available from Shetland Library
Collins Bird Guide (2nd Edition)
Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney, Dan Zettersrom and Peter J. Grant
Well regarded as the most comprehensive bird guide on the market and is used by bird enthusiasts as a general ID guide.
1st edition available from Shetland Library
Britain’s Sea Mammals
John Dunn, Robert Still and Hugh Harrop
Provides details of all the whales, dolphins, porpoises and seal species in the UK including how to identify them and where best to spot them. The book has some great photographs and illustrations of how each species would be seen surfacing and moving through the water.
Available from Shetland Library
Collins Complete Guide to British Coastal Wildlife
Paul Sterry and Andrew Cleave
This book covers all coastal habitats from estuaries to rocky shores and sandy beaches, a complete overview of all marine life, plants, birds and mammals. A great guide to take rock pooling.
Marine Fish and Invertebrates of Northern Europe
Frank Emil Moen and Erling Svensen
This book is useful as it covers species which are likely to be found in Northern waters. With Shetland being so far north species distribution can vary from the rest of the UK. This book covers intertidal to deeper water species so would be great for anyone interested in snorkelling and SCUBA diving.
The Essential Guide to Beachcombing and the Strandline
Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher
A great book for anyone with an interest in beachcombing. It gives details and photographs of a wide variety of both natural and manmade treasures that are waiting to be found on the beach.
Concise Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland (2nd Edition)
Martin Townsend, Paul Waring and Richard Lewington
For anyone interested in moths this book is a great all-round guide to the most common moths found in the UK. Brilliant illustrations all actual size or to scale with details of when they fly and the plants they feed on.
There are a number of different goose species that visit Shetland, the most common being the Greylag Goose which has become a resident species in recent years with a number of individuals staying into the spring and summer to breed. The geese species can be broadly split into two groups, the ‘grey’ geese species in the genus Anser and those within the Branta genus such as the Barnacle Goose. It can be very difficult to identify one species from another, especially the ‘grey’ geese which look very similar and are often seen in mixed flocks when on the ground.
This article will take you through each of the species detailing the main features that tell each one apart. The different species also have different calls which can be a good way to identify flocks in flight.
Need ID help in the field? Download our handy ID leaflet here produced with assistance from Shetland Bird Club.
The only resident goose in Shetland. Historically they were passage migrants, arriving in the isles in late autumn and overwintering before heading away further north to breed in the spring. In recent years, they have started to appear in larger numbers, flocks of several hundred can be gathered in fields in autumn and winter. There were records of breeding pairs in Unst and Fetlar in the 1970’s but in the late 1990’s the number of pairs staying in the isles to breed dramatically increased and has been steadily increasing since. This increase is thought to coincide with a 250% rise in grassland areas in Shetland from 7,000ha in 1981 to almost 20,000ha in 1996.
Identifying features- largest/ bulkiest of the ‘grey’ geese species with a large orange beak and pink legs. In flight their upper wings are pale grey in colour. Their call is similar to that of domestic species with a loud, raw ‘ank-ang-ang’ sound, although their repertoire is quite varied.
A common passage migrant. Large flocks, sometimes in their thousands, pass over Shetland heading south in late September/ early October but the majority do not land. Those that do make a pit stop in the isles can be spotted in amongst the flocks of Greylag Geese. A handful of individuals have overwintered in Shetland most years usually in the Dunrossness area. Pink-footed Geese also migrate through Shetland in the Spring but in much lower numbers.
Identifying features- Smaller than Taiga Bean Goose and equal in size to Tundra Bean Goose but as its name suggests, they have pink legs in comparison to the bean geese (although this can be difficult to establish at a distance). They have a small, short, dark beak with a pink band, and a dark head and neck. Call similar to the bean geese species but of higher pitched ‘ca-ca-ca’ sound.
Another common passage migrant which passes over without often making landfall. Peak numbers seen from end September to early October but smaller numbers continuing until early November. Occasionally, large flocks of several hundred do land in the isles, this autumn (2020) a group of approximately 850 were seen on the ground in Scatness.
Identifying features- easily identifiable medium sized goose with white under belly and grey, black and white barred upperparts. Black neck, white face with a small black beak. Very vocal when in flight making a single ‘kaw’ sound.
A winter visitor in Shetland, their arrival is usually linked to cold weather on the European mainland which encourages them to seek milder conditions. In a usual year between 10 and 40 individuals arrive in the Isles, however some years there are more, such as 2011, when at least 300 were sighted throughout the islands in November including a flock of 80 at Spiggie.
Identifying features- medium sized ‘grey’ goose species, smaller than a Greylag, similar in size to a Pink-footed Goose. They are browner in colour than the other ‘grey’ goose species with prominent black patches on its underbelly, bright orange legs, pinkish beak and the white blaze around the face between the eye and the beak which gives it its name. Their call is described as having a laughing quality to it and being more high-pitched and musical than other species. Often heard making this ‘Kyu-yu-yu’ sound when in flight.
Bean geese were recently split into two unique species, the Tundra Bean Goose and the Taiga Bean Goose. They are very difficult to distinguish from one another, the only real noticeable difference is the size and shape of the bill. Most likely to be seen in the winter between November and March.
Identifying features- the Tundra Bean Goose has a shorter, heavier bill and the orange/yellow colouration is limited to a small band around the bill. The Tundra Bean Goose is also slightly smaller than the Taiga Bean Goose, similar in size to the Pink-footed Goose. Call is a trumpeting ‘ung-unk’ similar to Pink-footed but deeper pitched.
A very scarce migrant in Shetland with only a handful of individuals each year. Most commonly sighted in the winter months between September and April. Two subspecies occur, the Dark-bellied Brent Goose (B.b.bernicla) and the Pale-bellied Brent Goose (B.b hrota). The later is more commonly seen in Shetland.
Identifying features- in the same genus as the Barnacle Goose, the Brent Goose is slightly smaller and browner in colour, they have a dark neck similar to the Barnacle Goose but lack the white colouration on their face. Noisy and repetitive ‘rhut’ call.
Introduced into the UK from America and now common in most of the UK but rare in Shetland. Most likely to be seen from April-June.
Identifying features- large, easily identifiable goose. Body mainly brown in colour. Long neck with black colouration which does not extend down onto the breast as it does in the Barnacle Goose. Also, a white patch on the head that does not extend up and over the eye. Vocal goose with a repetitive ‘awr-lut’ with the second syllable higher pitched.
A very rare vagrant from Europe, the last record in Shetland was of two individuals in 2016 (one in Whalsay in February and one in Sumburgh in October). Easily confused with the Tundra Bean Goose.
Identifying features- the bill is longer and slimmer than that of the Tundra Bean Goose with a larger proportion of orange/yellow colouration. The Taiga bean goose is also slightly larger with a longer neck in comparison to the Tundra Bean Goose, more similar in size to a Greylag Goose. Call indiscernible from that of the Tundra Bean Goose (trumpeting ‘ung-unk’ similar to Pink-footed but deeper pitched).
Very rare species in Shetland. Individuals arrive on occasion, but their true status is confused by the presence of a feral breeding population in other areas of the UK meaning we can never be sure if they are completely wild.
Identifying features- medium sized, comparable to Pink-footed Goose. Snow Geese occur in two colour morphs: White with black wing tips or blue/grey body and wings with a white head and tail tip. Crackling call ‘ak-ak’
It should be noted that there are many local populations of domesticated geese around Shetland that may be spotted in fields and on lochs. As most domestic geese are thought to originate from the Greylag Goose species, they are similar in appearance but will often have markings of white anywhere on their body/head.
Our British hedgehogs have recently been classified vulnerable to extinction on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List as it is estimated that there are less than a million left in the UK.
Hedgehogs start to hibernate in October/November and the Scottish Wildlife Trust have some useful information on making them more comfortable in your garden.
Juvenile hedgehogs weighing less than 500 grams during late autumn will be unlikely to survive through their winter hibernation and so will need help. Download this factsheet caring for autumn juvenile hedgehogs from the RSPCA for advice.
Or you can call the SSPCA on 03000 999 999 if you find a sick, injured of underweight hog.
To help preserve our prickly friends, please report your sightings on the Big Hedgehog Map an initiative set up by People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.
How to make your garden more hog friendly –
Resist the temptation to remove all of the leaf litter from your garden. Instead leave log and leaf piles which make a perfect nesting place as well as great habitat for all of the invertebrates (beetles, slugs etc) that hedgehogs love to feed on.
If your fruits have finished for the season and the kids don’t play football in the winter, remove all types of netting from the garden as hedgehogs and other critters can easily become entangled in it.
Before beginning any work in your garden, check for hedgehogs hiding in bushes etc before using any strimmers or lawnmowers. Compost heaps make lovely warm nesting places for hogs, so do be careful and check before forking it over.
As we are approaching bonfire night, please build any bonfires as close to the lighting time as you can, and always check them thoroughly for any animals which may have begun nesting in it.
Hedgehogs have surprisingly large territories, they have been known to roam up to 2km in a single night. To allow free movement of hogs between neighbouring gardens and fields it is also recommended that you add a 13cm square hole through fences.
Beachcombing can be a really fun activity; I always get a feeling of excited anticipation when I step onto a beach as I never know what I might find. And the brilliance of it is, with the tide coming in and out twice a day there is always something new to discover.
This article will introduce you to some of the natural treasures that may be lurking out there just waiting to be found on the beaches in Shetland. For more information on other projects and activities to get involved in on the beach have a look at our Projects page.
It can be tricky to ID some of the finds as they can look a bit weathered from the sea and the surf. We are always happy to help, either send us an email at email@example.com or tag us on facebook @SCWG. There is also a brilliant group on Facebook full if local enthusiasts who would love to see all your finds, just search Shetland Seashore Discoveries.
It is great fun hunting for all those natural wonders amongst the strandline but we all know too well that often the man-made and plastic materials on our strandlines can out-number the natural. Why not take a bag and some gloves with you whenever you head to the beach and do a #2minutebeachclean, the wildlife will most definitely thank you! Visit www.beachclean.net/ for more info.
Shark and Skate Eggcases
Many skate and shark species around Shetland lay eggcases (also known as mermaid’s purses) which lie on the sea floor or wrapped amongst seaweed and kelp. Each eggcase holds a single embryo which once developed breaks out of the eggcase. These eggcases then often become washed up on our beaches. There are a surprising variety of eggcases and once you get looking it is interesting to see how many different species you can find on a beach. Click here to see our post on the Shetland Eggcase Hunt which will give you all the info you will need to identify the eggcases you find and how to record them. To find put more about the joys of hunting eggcases, read Sally Hubband’s experiences.
If you are super lucky you may find an intact urchin but more commonly, as they are very fragile, it is just fragments that are washed up. There are two common types of urchin in Shetland, the Edible Sea Urchin (Echinus esculentus) which has a pinky red shell with white spots where the spines have broken off. The second species is the Green Sea Urchin (Psammechinus miliaris) which as its name suggests is a greenish brown in colour.
You may also find what is know as an ‘Aristotle’s Lantern’ which is actually the mouth part of the urchin and is often found as it is the toughest part of an Urchin. It is used to scrape and tear algae which is then chewed with the teeth.
Sea Potatoes (Echinocardium cordatum) are a relative of the sea urchin and are also known as heart urchins. They are a sandy colour with fine spines which give it a hairy appearance although these spines may have been worn off in the surf.
Jellyfish in their adult stage, are not long-lived creatures and once they have spawned, they will die. Moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) are the most common jellyfish found in Shetland. They are easily recognised by its transparent bell with four pink-purple rings. As they are often found in large shoals and spawning happens en masse, large numbers of these jellyfish (sometimes in their thousands) can often be washed up on beaches at the same time. Moon jellyfish feed on plankton and as such only have a mild sting which is unlikely to be felt by humans.
The largest jellyfish to visit our waters is the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) which is commonly seen at sizes of 0.5m in the UK but can grow up to 2m in diameter in Arctic waters. It is known as the Lion’s Mane due to the mass of tentacles around the underside of the bell and the jellyfish’s brown-red colouration. Care should be taken if you come across one in the water or on the shore as their sting is severe and they are still able to sting even when dead.
The Blue Jellyfish (Cyanea lamarckii) grows up to around 30 cm and can range from pale yellow-brown (younger specimens) to light blue-purple. They have trailing stinging tentacles on the underside of the bell along with clusters of stinging tentacles on the upper surface of the bell. Their sting is fairly mild and similar to that a stinging nettle.
The Common Goose Barnacle (Lepas anatifera) is the most commonly found species of goose barnacle on our shores. They are a type of crustacean which spend their lives attached to drifting objects floating on the ocean’s surface. They have a flexible stalk which attaches to the floating object with a shelled ‘head’ which protects its feeding legs. These feeding legs uncurl from the shell and catch floating plankton. Goose barnacles are often found in large clusters on objects that have become washed ashore.
These are one of the commonest finds on our beaches. They have a spongy appearance and are often mistaken for a type of natural sponge and were in fact used by mariners for washing in the past. These egg masses are actually from either the Common Whelk (Buccinum undatum) or the Red Whelk (Neptunea antiqua) which are both common species around Shetland.
These are less common on Shetland beaches compared to the rest of the UK. They are from the Common Cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) and can be up to 40cm in length. Cuttlefish are molluscs and members of the cephalopod family along with squid and octopus. The bone that is washed up is filled with gas and used to control buoyancy by adding or releasing the gas. As these bones float, they are easily washed onto beaches. They are made from calcium carbonate and have many uses including as a dietary supplement for birds and reptiles.
These are actually plant seeds that are specially designed to drift long distances in water. They have a very strong outer shell that stops water from penetrating inside and rotting the seed, some have air pockets on the inside to keep them buoyant. These seeds generally come from tropical plants that may have spent months or even years drifting across the Atlantic from the Americas, and the West Indies. You would have to be very lucky to find one of these drift seeds in Shetland as they are very rarely reported. There are a handful of different species but two of the most likely would be the Sea Heart from the Entada gigas plant or a Horse-eye Bean (sometimes known as hamburger bean) from the Mucuna spp.
On rare occasions larger animals may become stranded or wash up on the beach. Please note that marine mammals can carry a variety of diseases than can be transferable to humans – please don’t touch or allow dogs to get too close. If possible try to take a variety of photos and estimate the length – this will help with ID.
If you find a dead marine mammal on the shore report it to the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme on www.strandings.org/ or to NatureScot (formally SNH) who will coordinate collection of samples or sending the animal south for post mortem examination. For dead otters please also report them to NatureScot on 01463 667600 (Lerwick office) or NORTH@nature.scot
Rockpooling can be a fun activity for the young, and not so young alike. There is a huge variety of species in this very changeable habitat. Many species have developed special adaptations to allow them to live in this harsh landscape, with changing sea levels, water temperature, salinity levels and the battering of waves. Read on to find out more about some of the most common species you are likely to see in a Shetland rockpool.
Just remember, if you plan on taking a trip to the coast, check the tide times first and be mindful of the rising tide. Do not go alone and always carry a mobile phone, if you find yourself in trouble call 999 and ask for the coastguard.
Green Shore Crab (Carcinus maenas)- Most common crab found on our seashores, they can grow up to 6cm (carapace width) but are usually smaller juveniles that are found in rockpools and under rocks on the lower shore. Their colouration can vary from a green/brown to a bright orange underside with many patterns and blotches. Females will be moulting during the summer months with breeding following straight after. The female will can lay up to 185 000 eggs which she holds in an orange sac under a flap on the underside of her abdomen.
Common Limpet (Patella vulgate)- Found in large numbers at all levels of the tide line, they have a very strong muscular foot which it uses to stay attached to the rock which allows them to live in areas with strong wave action. They graze on algae and micro-organisms that grow and live on the rock surface. They return each day to what is known as a ‘home scar’ which they create using their shell to cut into the rock.
Beadlet Anemone (Actinia equina)-Very common anemone seen in most rockpools and on the underside of rocks below the high-water mark. When out of the water they retract their tentacles, extending them again once submerged in water. These tentacles are used to catch floating food which it then moves to the mouth parts in the centre of its body. They use their tentacles for defence giving any intruder or neighbouring anemone a sting.
Common Periwinkle (Littorina littorea)- Known locally as whelks these little snails are a common seashore inhabitant in Shetland. Preferring rocky areas with good weed cover where they feed on different types of algae. This species is of commercial importance, they are gathered by locals and sold to the vivier trucks (trucks with seawater tanks used to transport live seafood) which visit the isles before travelling south as far as France and Spain to be sold on.
Dog Whelk (Nucella lapillus)- Found on most rocky shores in Shetland the Dog Whelk is similar to the Common Periwinkle but generally paler in colour with spiral ridges. Unlike the Common Periwinkle who are strictly vegetarian, Dog Whelks are carnivores, preying on barnacles, mussels and other bivalves. They use their mouth parts, known as a proboscis, to force open the shells of bivalves (mussels and clams) or drill a hole in the shell of its prey to remove the flesh inside. They are also NOT edible as they are apparently ‘distasteful’.
Butterfish (Pholis gunnellus)- A small eel-like fish up to 25cm long with continuous dorsal fin running the length of its body. They are a red/brown colour distinguishable by the ~12 black spots outlined with white along the base of the dorsal fin. They can be found in rock pools or in very shallow water underneath stones. Their skin is covered in a slimy coating making they very difficult to catch by hand, hence the name. They are the most commonly seen fish in rock pools in Shetland.
Common Mussels (Mytilus edulis)- A very important commercial species in Shetland with 80% of Scotland’s mussels grown in Shetland. They are grown commercially on ropes suspended from header ropes held up on the surface by large floats. They are also common on our seashore where they can be seen in often very large groups (known as beds) attached to rocks using thin but very strong threads called basal threads. They are blue/purple in colour with size and shape varying dependant on environmental conditions. Even though they are edible, it is not recommended to eat wild mussels, being filter feeders, those in shoreline areas can contain a lot of sand making them gritty to eat, they can also ingest large quantities of E-Coli which can be found in run-off from surrounding farmland and septic tank run-off. Additionally, they can accumulate a naturally occurring, but toxic algae which is common in the summer and autumn.
Barnacle (Semibalanus balanoides)- Super abundant in Shetland found at all levels of the intertidal zone. Barnacles live an upside-down life; they are permanently cemented to the rock by their head and, when covered by water, feed with their feet (cirri). They famously have the largest genitals (about 15 cm) to body size ratio in the animal kingdom.
Common Starfish (Asterias rubens)- Very abundant species in Shetland but scarce in rockpools except for occasional juveniles in low tide areas. Adults can however commonly be seen on pier and harbour structures. At their maximum they can grow up to 50cm but are more commonly seen to be around 10-30cm. They are orange/pale brown with 5 arms each with many rows of short tube feet which they use to move along the seabed. They can live on a wide range of substrate from sand, gravel to rocks and can sometimes occur in very large groups. They feed on a large range of species including bivalves, small crustaceans and other echinoderms. They use their tube feet to price open the shells of other creatures before extracting their stomach and placing it directly into the fleshy area to digest its meal. They have another clever adaptation where, if captured by predators, they are able to lose a leg to escape and will grow a new one, so if you spot a starfish with a leg smaller than the others, it is in the process of re-growing.
Edible Sea Urchin (Echinus esculentus)- Known locally as ‘Skaadman’s head’.A large urchin around 15-16cm in diameter, they are red in colour, although shade may vary. They are covered in pinkish white spines and when submerged soft tentacles are extended in rows alongside the spines. They have a hard bony ‘beak’ on their underside which they use to feed on algae and barnacles. They are scarce in rockpools but are often seen on piers and harbour walls. They are often found washed up on beaches, usually broken and with no spines left intact. They are known as the Edible Sea Urchin as the roe was eaten as a delicacy in some areas of the UK.
Sandhoppers- Commonly found on sandy beaches under rocks or seaweed above the high-water mark. They can also be found along the strandline amongst rotting weed. They are a staple food source for many seashore birds include Turnstone, Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover. They get their name from the leaping movement they use to propel themselves away from danger.
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. The NAFC Marine Centre UHI 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
For a list of current projects that you can get involved in visit our Projects page.