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 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). 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 SNH 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 SNH 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 an 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 is 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’s found under floats and buoys.

JDD Bishop (c) JDD Bishop

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’s webpage on non-native species here.


Shetland Butterfly Spot

Now that we are fully into spring and the sun is shining, the butterflies have started to appear back in our gardens and wild areas. There are just five species of butterfly commonly seen in Shetland.

The Large White (Pieris brassicae) is our only resident butterfly and has a bit of a bad rep with the veg growers due to its caterpillar’s choice of lunch! The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) and Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) butterflies are all migrant species, the Red Admiral and Painted Lady are regular visitors to flowers in our gardens, with the Small Tortoiseshell being rarer.

Over recent years there has been an increase in the number of sightings of the Peacock (Aglais io) butterfly, another migrant species which is now recorded in Shetland every summer potentially due to the effects of climate change.

There are however 15 species detailed in the Shetland Butterfly ID Leaflet although many of them are very rare, you may just be lucky enough to spot one!

As all but one of the butterflies seen in Shetland are migrants, they can appear each year in very variable numbers, so we need your help to gather accurate records of the butterflies in our islands, both resident and visitors.

Painted Lady (coyright Rob Fray)

You can send your completed survey data straight to SBRC by email to paul.harvey@shetlandamenity.org.

If you have any questions you can get in touch with the Shetland Community Wildlife Group via our Contact Us page.

Sightings records can be emailed to SBRC with photos if you have them (this is important for evidencing the rarer species). If you have more time, we would love it if you could carry out a short survey in your garden or on a set walking route once a week, or as often as you are able.

Simply download our Butterfly ID Leaflet and Survey Sheet and get spotting!


New Zealand Flatworm Survey 2020

We are teaming up with the fantastic and very experience Orkney Field Club (OFC) for this project. It is one that everyone across Shetland can get involved in in their own garden/allotment. We would like you to tell us about sightings of the invasive NZ Flatworm (and indeed earthworms) to find out more about their current distribution and abundance in Shetland.

The NZ Flatworm is an invasive, non-native species that is spreading rapidly across the UK with serious consequences on our native earthworm populations which are predated by the NZ Flatworm. They arrived in Scotland in the mid-60s and have been in Shetland now for a number of years but we do not currently know the extent of their distribution or in what numbers and that is why we need your help. We would like as many records from all over Shetland including the outer islands to see how far they have spread. Negative records are also very important as this indicates areas that may not yet be populated.



NZ Flatworm and egg
If you are not familiar with the NZ Flatworm, here is a description taken from the 2013 OFC bulletin by B. Boag and R. Neilson of the James Hutton Institute, Dundee:

“New Zealand flatworms are usually found during the day, often curled up like a Swiss roll, under pieces of wood, stone or polythene lying on bare earth. They are relatively flat compared with earthworms, are pointed at both ends and covered with a sticky mucus. They can vary in colour but usually have a dark brown upper surface with a lighter beige speckled border which extends to cover the ventral surface. Flatworms can also vary greatly in shape from long and narrow (up to 15 cm) to short and relatively fat. They produce egg capsules which look like small, shiny blackcurrants.”

The NZ Flatworm and its eggs may be found under stones, plastic and wood etc. We would also like you to record the numbers of earthworms you are finding in your ground as their lack of abundance may be an indicator of the presence or absence of the NZ Flatworms.

We would like you to complete the Recording Form and answer some Short Questions and email them back to us at shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.com. Feel free to add any other information that you feel may be of interest.

We will be sharing data with the OFC to get a full picture of the distribution and abundance around the whole of the Northern Isles region. We will also share your records with the Shetland Biological Records Centre.

Some useful information on earthworm species can be found on the OPAL website www.opalexplorenature.org/earthwormguide and there is some useful information on NZ Flatworms on the RHS website www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=975.

Happy hunting!


Big Seaweed Search

Whilst you are enjoying a stroll along the beach or rock pooling with the kids, why not take a few minutes to look a bit closer at the seaweed. The first thing you may notice is the array of different colours: reds, browns and greens and the many varied shapes.

The British Isles are perfect for seaweeds, they just love it here with over 650 species known to grow along UK coasts and shallow seas.

MCS and the Natural History Museum launched the Big Seaweed Search to encourage folk to observe and record seaweed species in their area. They would like you to download their leaflet which details the 14 species to look out for and then submit your records using the recording form or upload the data straight onto their website.

Currently, very little is known about the abundance and distribution of many of our seaweed species.

The Big Seaweed Search was set up as a partnership project between the Natural History Museum and Marine Conservation Society.

Also, due to environmental issues such as:

  • ocean acidification (the sea becoming more acidic as a result of absorbing carbon dioxide from the air);
  • rising sea temperatures; and
  • the arrival and spread of non-native species

the seaweeds we are seeing around our coasts are changing so people’s records are more important than ever.


Shetland Shark and Skate Eggcase Hunt

If you have access to the coast and head there as part of your daily exercise we would like you to keep your eye out for shark and skate eggcases or ‘mermaids purses’ as they are often known. Why not get the kids involved too!

The shark and skate species around Shetland produce these eggcases each with a single embryo inside. Once hatched the eggcases wash up on beaches and can be found in the strandline. Although Shetland has a few very active recorders (click here to read about Sally Hubands experiences hunting for eggcases in Shetland) we have very limited information about the species present around Shetland, so the distribution of eggcases are a great indicator of the species breeding around our coast.

Click here to learn how to prepare and identify your eggcase(s)

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.

Each species produces an eggcase with a slightly different design. Using the ID guide provided by the Shark Trust as part of their Great Eggcase Hunt you can identify and find out more about the species you have found. The Shark Trust has a great App: Great Eggcase Hunt, which you can download from your phone’s app store. If you don’t have a compatible smart phone or don’t want to download the app you can send your records to them via their online recording form here.

The Shark Trust and ourselves will be sharing data from this project so your records will not only be helping us further understand the species and distribution of sharks, skates and rays around Shetland but also contribute to national conservation efforts. Check out the video below to see Cat Gordon, Senior Conservation Officer and the Shark Trust talk more about eggcase hunting….

If you have any questions or want to get in touch with us about the project, email us at shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.com or contact us here or on our Facebook page.