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


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.



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.


Verging on Beautiful

By Rhiannon Jehu

I walk on single track and other unpaved roads as a part of my daily routine. Stepping into the verge and waving ‘Hi’ to passing traffic is normal for me and gives me the opportunity to really enjoy the beauty and colour of our wild flowers; this year’s verges have been blooming beautifully.

In the world of flowers, verges provide a habitat for grassland and meadow species (as well as for scrubland and forest plants in some places). This is essential since we have lost 97% of our meadows since the 1930s. They are now home to almost half of UK wild flower species (over 700) and nearly 45% of our total flora. They cover over 1% of UK land and about 500,000 kilometres. All this makes them crucial habitats for rare and declining plants.

Roadside conditions are relatively undisturbed and the soil is low in nutrition and high in salt (from winter gritting). In areas with heavy traffic there are also high levels of nitrogen and other pollutants. Together, these conditions make verges good for coastal, saltmarsh and cliff species, and also for nitrogen-loving plants.

Nitrogen loving nettle
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

Wild flowers attract insects which have a wide range of lifestyles. There are herbivores, such as caterpillars, and predators, such as wasps and spiders. Pollinators – bees, hoverflies and the like – are especially important to us humans since they are essential for the growth of many of our food crops. For more on pollinators; Pollinators | Buglife.

Copyright Rhiannon Jehu
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

Vegetation and insects draw amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds, creating a food-web, and in some places, thriving ecosystems. Verges can act as corridors that reconnect, repopulate and restore sites. They give species the opportunity to travel, mix and feed, improving their life chances and genetic diversity. This leads to healthier, less vulnerable populations; social isolation is as bad for other species as it is for us.

Verges are mown for our safety so drivers can see clearly at junctions and curves in the road. Mowing is also needed to maintain an environment that best suits our native species. It prevents annuals being overwhelmed by more vigorous types and, for best results, it needs to take place late in summer once plants have set seed. These seeds then feed the local food-web and visitors such as migrating birds. They also provide the next generation of flowers.

After mowing, grass clippings need to be removed from a verge. Leaving them in situ makes the soil more nutritious so bigger plants thrive and more delicate species become overwhelmed. Clippings can also act as a blanket preventing some species’ seeds from germinating. Over time these conditions reduce the biodiversity of the verge.

Eyebright- a semi-parasitic plant that struggles if soil nutrients improve too much
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

As our climate changes species are evolving, and on the move. Verges are one place where this happens, but there are downsides to having vibrant roadsides. Animals die in RTA’s and verges can be highways for invasive species and weeds as well as plant pests and diseases. These need to be controlled so they don’t spread. However, with care, they can be a powerful tool for conservation and coping with climate change. Indeed, the charity ‘Plantlife’ estimates that if all verges were managed for nature there would be 400 billion more flowers in the UK.

Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation and the Wildlife Trusts have come together and produced a guide to caring for and developing verges where nature can thrive; Managing road verges for wildlife | The Wildlife Trusts.

Several local authorities have produced interesting projects and initiatives:

References:

Why road verges are important habitats for wildflowers and animals | Natural History Museum (nhm.ac.uk)

Road Verge Campaign (love-wildflowers.org.uk)

Kidney vetch
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu
Red clover
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

Otter Eye View

By Rhiannon Jehu

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.

Henry’s Loch from above. The road can be seen to follow the entire length of the loch. Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

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:

Buffalo in USA

BBC Word Service Podcast-People Fixing the World.

Helping animals cross the road and other obstacles

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p09ck4dp


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.

Davy Govaert, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

More information on these projects can be found on the International Otter Survival Fund website and the Mull Otter Group website.

Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

An ‘otter reflector’ attached to a ‘human reflector’. There are ones attached to each human reflector along this length of road. They direct car headlights across the road and into the verge.

Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

Everyday Nature: Starling Surprises

By Rhiannon Jehu

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.

Yellow summer beaks. Males have a blue beak base & a females pink one.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu
Self-care is essential for survival. Copyright
Rhiannon Jehu

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.

(https://www.birdguides.com/articles/conservation/the-decline-of-british-starlings/)

Lunching with the neighbours. They all have black winter beaks.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

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.

Waiting hopefully.
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A nutritious breakfast for the nestlings.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

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.

Waiting loudly with training wings working.
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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.


My Experiences Of #ConnectWithNature for Mental Health Awareness Week.

By Rhiannon Jehu


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.

Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

 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.

I enjoy spotting bunnies in the grass, one big eye wide open
In the world of fight, flight or freeze I can relate to them; they are very much into flight or freeze. So am I.