Why Record?

Paul Harvey- Shetland Biological Records Centre

Kathryn Allan- NAFC Marine Centre UHI

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.

Bog Orchid (Copyright Jim Nicholson)

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.

Curlew (Copyright Jim Nicholson)

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.

Local recorders have ensured that Shetland is properly represented in national atlas’ in recent years helping to complete the national picture.

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.

Meet Sally Huband- Eggcase Hunter…

Thanks to everyone in Shetland who reports their findings to the Shark Trust’s Great Eggcase Hunt, we now have a good idea of the species that occur locally. But the more records that are submitted the better this understanding will become.

It can be a bit confusing at first, working out which eggcase is which but the Shark Trust’s very easy to use app will guide you through and the identification key on their website is great too. It helps to soak the eggcases in water before trying to work out what they are.

Flapper Skate Eggcase
Copyright Sally Huband

To the best of my knowledge, seven kinds of eggcases have been found on Shetland’s beaches. The most common eggcase by far is that of the small spotted catfish, aka dogfish, with its small narrow capsule and long curly tendrils. I am always hoping to find a cuckoo ray eggcase but have only found three so far, they have a bulbous capsule and long sinuous horns. It is always a joy to find the huge eggcase of a flapper skate, the largest species of skate in the world.

The Shark Trust examined all the Shetland records recently and found that these islands are a particularly good place to find the rough textured starry skate eggcases. Even more excitingly, three ‘aberrant’ starry skate eggcases have been found on Shetland beaches. Each is much larger and more typical in size for north western Atlantic populations of this species. Could they have drifted here, or is there another intriguing explanation for the presence of these unusually large starry skate eggcases on our shores?

Aberrant Starry Skate Eggcase
Copyright Sally Huband

I can’t wait to find out what else might be revealed by the Shetland Community Wildlife Project and the Shark Trust. A new species record for Shetland? More unusual starry skate eggcases?

Happy eggcase hunting!


If you would like to get involved in the Shetland Eggcase Hunt click here.

How to get an Accurate Grid Reference

I wanted to talk about grid references, they are very important when it comes to wildlife records as it lets us know exactly where the sighting was so that it can be accurately recorded and mapped. But it can be a tricky thing to get right so thought I would share a couple of ways you can get an accurate grid reference.

To find a grid reference on a map on your PC or phone you can access OS maps online here..

Then if you click on the Grid ref button at the top right and where the cross shaped curser is placed is the shown grid ref. We would like a 6 digit grid ref so you would take the 2 letters and first 3 numbers from each group. I have posted a screen shot to show you…

The second way is via an App on your smartphone. I’m sure there are many free apps out there that can do this which you can search for and download from your app store.

I have the GRID OS FREE app on my phone. It doesn’t show a map but gives you a 6 digit grid ref of where you are standing, which is great for when you are recording when you are out and about.

Gardening for Bumblebees and Butterflies

It is National Gardening Week this week (27th April- 3rd May) so we thought we would share some ideas of plants that grow wel lin Shetland gardens which are a hit with the bumblebees and butterflies.

Willows are great early in the season, especially woolly willow as they have catkins in early spring which are a great food source to the spring bumblebees such as the Northern White-tailed and Shetland Bumblebee. Willows grow well in Shetland and are easily cultivated from cuttings planted straight into the ground. Another early flowering shrub which the bumblebees seem to love in my garden at the moment is the flowering currant.

As we move later into the spring and early summer, shrubs such as the fuchsia and shrub honeysuckle start to produce rafts of beautiful flowers. Fuchsia are especially hardy and seem to come back every year looking better and better!

Flowering plants that are great for borders and pots include: Livingstone daisy, lupins, foxgloves, lavender, allium, chives, echium and poached egg plant.

Sedums such as Autumn Joy and Herbstfreude are good in late summer as their seeds are also a great food source for birds in autumn and winter. Cotoneaster Horizontalis is a compact evergreen which produces small red berries which add some lovely colour to the garden in autumn.

When gardening with wildlife in mind, one of the best things you can do is nothing! Try and leave patches of your garden wild, let the stinging nettles, thistles, dandelions and clover grow, the insects, birds and maybe even a hedgehog will most definitely thank you.

Shetland Bumblebee on a willow
Flowering currant