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

Shetland Porpoise Survey

Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) are the smallest of the cetaceans to be spotted around Shetland. They are generally shy creatures and do not often approach boats but can be easily spotted from the shore. They are regularly spotted in Shetland waters in small groups and sometimes in large aggregations that are not seen in many other areas in the UK.

Despite them being commonly spotted we have limited records and do not fully understand seasonal variations in the areas they congregate and for what purpose. To fill this knowledge gap we are undertaking porpoise surveys in areas porpoise are commonly seen.

Copyright WDC/Charlie Phillips

In collaboration with Whale and Dolphin Conservation we have created two new Shorewatch sites, one overlooking Quendale Bay and one at South Nesting Bay. We will also be surveying from the already established Shorewatch site at Mousa Sound. The survey involves undertaking a watch and recording the presence of marine mammals. If porpoise are present further information can be collected on number of individuals and their behaviour. This data will be used by the NatureScot and the Shetland UHI to update the Regional Marine Plan and will assist in protecting areas that are important to these wonderful creatures.

To gather as much information as possible we need your help! Are you interested in marine mammals and have time to undertake a short watch from one of our survey sites? All equipment needed is in survey kits which are available at the survey sites in lockboxes 24hrs a day so watches can be done at your leisure. Don’t worry if you have limited experience as full training on marine mammal ID from experts Whale and Dolphin Conservation is provided! A great way to start your marine mammal spotting journey.

We are also looking for experienced drone pilots who would be willing to come out and drone over our survey areas when we know porpoise are present. This will allow us to gain more accurate counts of individuals, see any calves present and observe behaviours such as mating. If you would like to help, please get in touch.

Contact us at shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.com for more information or head to the Shorewatch website for more information on the Shorewatch project.


Invasive American Lobster- Retain and Report

Marine Scotland recently launched a campaign to help raise awareness of American lobster (Homarus americanus) which are now being found in Scotland. The animals are considered an ‘invasive non-native species’ as they are not naturally found in Scotland and pose a threat to our native wildlife.

These animals cannot cross the Atlantic naturally and therefore have appeared because people have released them, either deliberately or accidentally. Marine Scotland are calling on people to report any American lobsters caught in our waters to gain a true picture of where the animals are, in what quantities and if they are breeding.

Identification

American lobsters are similar to European lobsters in appearance but there are some noticeable differences:

  • American lobsters are more stocky in appearance than European lobsters
  • Colouration varies but American lobsters are usually green/brown with orange, red, dark green or black speckling, while – European lobsters are blue in colour
  • The underside of the claws of an American lobster are orange, while those of a European lobster are cream coloured
  • American lobsters have one or more spines (ventral teeth) on the underside of the ‘nose’ (rostrum), a feature which is absent in European lobsters
  • The spines on the rostrum of the American lobster tend to have red tips, while those on the European lobster are white tipped

Why we need your help

It is thought that American lobsters could have a negative impact on native European lobsters and other species in the marine environment, by acting as a disease vector, competing for food and shelter and potentially interbreeding. Currently we do not have enough evidence to state with certainty how much of a threat this is, so it is important that any suspected American lobsters are reported so they can be verified by Marine Scotland.

Reporting

Please report any suspected American lobsters to your local Marine Scotland Compliance Fishery Office or the UK Fisheries Monitoring Centre at 0131 271 9700 or via email at UKFMC@gov.scot.


Calling all divers and snorkellers!

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

That’s where we need your help, we are asking divers and snorkellers to report sightings of five key species which are either rare or sensitive to disturbance or are considered of high biological value:

Spiny Lobster. Copyright National Lobster Hatchery
White Cluster Anemone. Copyright Paul Naylor
Fan Mussel. Copyright Dr Keith Hiscock
Burrowing Anemone. Copyright JNCC (Bernard Picton)
Native Oyster. Copyright Paul Naylor

We would also be interested to hear about records of important seabed habitats which are sensitive to disturbance and considered of high biological value:

Maerl. Copyright Rachel Shucksmith
Seagrass Bed. Copyright Paul Naylor
Horse Mussel. Copyright Rachel Shucksmith

In Scotland, these important species have been termed ‘Priority marine features’- Download our PMF Leaflet to find out more. We are still keen to hear of records in locations where these species have been known for a long time, particularly if you have noticed them disappearing or becoming more abundant. Your records can provide important information on changes to these key species and habitats, which might overwise go unnoticed. For instance, seagrass beds in the Vadills are known to have died back, but when this occurred is not clear.

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


Have you spotted a Crofter’s Wig?

Crofter’s Wig (Ascophyllum nodosum ecad makii) is a very rare and interesting little seaweed. It is a form of egg wrack (Ascophyllum nodosum)but is free-living (not attached to anything). It is thought to have first originated from broken fragments of the normal form of egg wrack but in very sheltered conditions grows unattached. It gets it’s name, Crofter’s Wig, from the wig-shaped masses it forms. It prefers the mid-upper tidal zone in very sheltered areas such as the head of some voes where it is not at risk of being washed away by stormy weather.

Austin Taylor/ Copyright Shetland Islands Council

To submit any potential sightings of this species, send your name, location (with a grid reference if possible) and a photograph if you have one, to us via email to shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.com or fill in the contact form here.

Austin Taylor/ Copyright Shetland Islands Council

It is a Priority Marine Feature (PMF) and a UK Biodiversity Action Plan species (UKBAP). It provides an important habitat for other seashore species such as crabs and molluscs.

So far in Shetland it has only been recorded on the west side of Shetland and is considered globally rare. The Shetland records might represent the northern most extent of this species.

Austin Taylor/ Copyright Shetland Islands Council

Delve into the World of Hoverflies….

…with this new ID guide by Rebecca Nason

A local naturalist and wildlife photographer, Rebecca has a passion for hoverflies and has recently created a leaflet to help people identify and record these garden visitors…..

We are only just beginning to scratch the surface of species, populations and distribution of hoverflies on Shetland, with only a few naturalists delving into their identification and recording them. With understanding of Shetland hoverflies still in its infancy, there is still much to learn and add to the current database of knowledge. These are exciting times for the Shetland naturalist; with so much to still explore and understand, anyone can really make a difference to biological recording in the Islands.”

Download Shetland’s Hoverflies- A Photographic Identification Guide here.

Common Snout. Copyright Rebecca Nason
Plain-faced Dronefly. Copyright Rebecca Nason

We welcome your Shetland hoverfly records or photographs for identification. Please use the Shetland Insect Group on Facebook Page, or contact Paul Harvey at Shetland Biological Records Centre (paul.harvey@shetlandamenity.org). Please don’t forget to add a location (grid reference if possible) and a date to your discoveries.


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.


Become a Skatespotter

As restrictions on water sports continue to be eased, we would like to share the Skatespotter Project, led by NatureScot. Common or Flapper Skate (Dipturus intermedius) are considered critically endangered.  By using unique body markers individuals can be identified from photographs, allowing us to gain new insights into these fascinating fish. Jane Dodd leads the project for NatureScot and has shared with us how the project was set up and the results from Shetland so far.

In 2016 Steven Benjamins, a researcher at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) received around 400 digital photos of Flapper Skate taken between 2011 and 2016 from Ronnie Campbell a skate charter skipper operating out of Oban. Steven was able to identify around 250 individual skate with several recaptures by recognising the spot patterns on their backs (Benjamins et al 2018). These 250 skate became the foundation for Skatespotter, an online database of flapper skate photos submitted by charter skippers and anglers. Anglers upload their photos to the website and they are checked against the existing catalogue of photos by staff and volunteers at NatureScot and SAMS. New recaptures are added and if the skate can’t be matched to the catalogue it is added as a new fish. The majority of the data so far is from the Argyll area where both sexes appear to spend most of their time in a small home range, females even more so because they are recaptured more often. We have 2 females who have been captured 17 times, Di000031 was captured 17 times between 2014 and 2020 and Di000369 was captured 17 times between 2016 and 2019.

In January 2020, Skatespotter was updated to include skate captured in the Portpatrick area and in the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. So far 39 skate have been submitted from Shetland since 2019 and there have been no recaptures but we remain hopeful that as the number of photos in the catalogue grows and time goes by we will edge closer to a recapture. We have noticed that so far Shetland skate are a bit more spotty than Argyll skate. Most Shetland skate have very symmetrical patterns of spots or whorls on the wings made up of small spots on a background of very small spots whereas Argyll skate usually have a simple symmetrical pattern of large spots on a plain background. On a couple of Shetland skate the spots have spread creating a complex pattern of lines and squiggles.

If you are keen to get involved please have a look at our Skate Handling Best Practice Guide before heading out to fish. In addition to the photo, you will be asked to provide the general location where the skate was caught, the date and time it was caught, its gender and size. The best photos for identification are taken from above and include the whole skate including the base of the tail, further advice on taking good photos of skate for photo ID is available in our Guidance. You can upload your photos to Skatespotter here. We are also interested in receiving reports of skate strandings. The vertebrae and measurements from stranded animals will help with work aiming to more accurately age skate and determine at what age they start to breed.


Shetland’s Marine Non-native Species

Can you help spot marine non-native species on your local beaches?

For a few years, the NAFC Marine Centre UHI has been keeping check of the number of marine non-native species arriving in Shetland. Non-native species are those which come from elsewhere in the world and have become established here, usually transported on hulls of boats or ballast water. In the past, species were also transported with shellfish aquaculture when novel species were brought into and trialled across Europe (back in the 1960-1980s). The NAFC has been monitoring ports and marinas, as this is usually where species enter first.

Download our NNS ID Guide here…

The NAFC has found that compared to elsewhere in the UK, Shetland has relatively few non-native species, perhaps reflecting Shetland’s cooler waters, making it harder for some species to colonise. However, non-native species can compete with native wildlife and smother aquaculture structures which have caused economic impacts elsewhere in the UK.

Very few non-native species make it into the ‘wild’ (beyond man made structures such as pontoons), but there are some exceptions that establish there first. That is why we need your help, we are keen to hear from anybody who spots anything odd. The NAFC has produced a leaflet to help you to spot non-native species but the two we’d really like people to watch out for are the Orange-tipped Sea Squirt (Corella eumyota) and Wireweed (Sargassum muticum), both originally from Japan.


Copyright Lisa Humphray

Lisa Humphray recently spotted the non-native Orange-Tipped Sea Squirt in Scalloway harbour while turning over rocks on the beach. This is only the second time it has been found in the wild in Shetland and indicates it may be spreading beyond marinas and harbours. We’d be really interested to hear if anybody else finds it, as it would help us to understand how fast it is spreading around Shetland. It loves living right at the bottom of the shore and under rocks. At marinas it may be found on the underside of floats and buoys.


The second species we’d like you to look out for is Wireweed. It has been spotted twice in Orkney but hasn’t yet managed to become established. It can drift long distances in the current, so could easily make it to Shetland too. In Orkney it was found in the ‘wild’ rather than at a marina. Once established it can grow rapidly, clogging boat propellers and smothering our native animals.

GBNNSS © Crown Copyright 2009
Paul Brazier (CCW) © Crown Copyright 2009

We also don’t know if either the Orange-tipped Sea Squirt or Wireweed can survive Shetland’s wet ,windy and cold winters, so year round and year-to-year data is really important to understand how a species is establishing and spreading, particularly as the climate changes.  

For more information have a look on the NAFC Marine Centre UHIs webpage on non-native species here.