Do you live in Shetland? Please take part in a new survey which is looking to understand how we connect with and value our local marine and coastal environment in and around Shetland.
The survey is led by Dr Emma McKinley at Cardiff University, working in partnership with UHI Shetland along with other partner organisations, to explore how different communities around the UK value their own local coasts and seas.
Our brilliant volunteers have now been completing surveys for Harbour Porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) since September 2021 at dedicated survey sites in Quendale Bay, Mousa Sound and South Nesting Bay as well as reporting sightings from all areas of Shetland. The Shetland Porpoise survey is led by UHI Shetland through the Shetland Community Wildlife Group in collaboration with WDC Shorewatch and NatureScot.
Site Focus- South Nesting Bay
Volunteers have undertaken over 50 watches
Out of those watches porpoises were seen on41 occasions
They were seen every month from October to March
with groups of over 50 individuals being recorded on occasions.
An amazing effort considering the weather and short daylight hours we have over the winter here in Shetland.
During the surveys we have seen and managed to capture on film, some really interesting behaviour which has not been documented in Shetland before, and very rarely elsewhere in the world!
From the shore we had often been seeing individuals ‘rushing’ at other porpoises creating a fair bit of motion and splashing. Thanks to Richard Shucksmith and Nick McCaffrey, who managed to capture drone footage of porpoise groups, we have been able to see this behaviour more clearly and can see that the porpoises are performing behaviours linked to mating – males rush towards females in mating attempts and flash their undersides to the females as a form of display.
Rachel Shucksmith from UHI Shetland says;
“porpoises around Shetland can often be overlooked, but at locations like South Nesting Bay, Mousa Sound and Quendale Bay we are seeing large aggregations. The effort-based shore observations and drone footage can provide important insights into porpoise behaviour. Observations from outside of our watch sites are also important and we encourage reporting of sightings across Shetland. We are also really keen to get further drone footage, particularly at South Nesting Bay and at our site overlooking Mousa Sound, so if you are a drone pilot and have experience filming wildlife we would love to hear from you!”
The work being undertaken by our volunteers at our porpoise survey sites will help us gain a better understanding of porpoises around Shetland and how they use different areas during different times of the year.
It will be used as a preliminary dataset for PhD student Sophie Smith, who will be starting in October 2022. Sophie will be based at UHI Shetland, supervised by Rachel Shucksmith, Prof Ben Wilson (SAMS UHI), Dr Lauren McWhinnie (Heriot Watt University), as well as benefiting from the expertise of the UHI team behind the Shetland Community Wildlife Group, Emma Steel and the team at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Marine Scotland Science, and from Shetland based marine mammal expert at NatureScot, Karen Hall. The studentship is funded via the SUPER Doctoral Training Programme.
The Shetland Community Wildlife Group along with Whale and Dolphin Conservation will be supporting the project by continuing to undertake surveys, reporting one-off sightings and helping to capture drone footage and images of porpoise behaviour.
The studentship will then explore the use of these data collection techniques to further investigate porpoise behaviour, and spatial and temporal use relevant to their conservation and management.
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.
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.
at front, sideways opening
pectoral fins (rigid)
pectoral fins (flexible and fan like)
tail (flexible with fins on top)
in from the front, out from the top and underside
in 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.
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 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.
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.
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 UHI Shetland to map important marine habitats and continued government agency survey work. But there are still large amounts of coastline yet to be surveyed.
All the species in the guide have been included as they are either rare, provide a vital habitat for other marine species or provide an important function such as storing carbon, stabilising sediments or maintaining water quality.
To be able to monitor and record these species we need to have accurate and up-to-date information on their distribution around Shetland. This information is used by the marine spatial planning team at UHI Shetland to create maps which are then used by developers, policy makers and local decision makers.
That’s where we need your help, we are asking wild swimmers, divers and snorkellers to report sightings of these key species. If you think you may have spotted one of the species in this guide please send us thew following information:
WHAT species you found
HOW many or how large
WHEN you found it
WHERE you found it (including coordinates if you have them) and at what depth.
Guest blog from Holly Paget-Brown, Biosecurity for LIFE
AtBiosecurity for LIFE we are working hard to raise awareness of the threat of invasive predators and put in place systems to prevent their accidental introduction to islands. In particular we are focusing our efforts on 42 specially protected islands that are designated for breeding seabirds, including 7 in Shetland. Biosecurity is the practice of protecting places from the threats to wildlife posed by introducing new diseases or types of plants or animals that do not naturally occur there. Seabirds often choose to nest on islands with no land predators and are particularly vulnerable to introduction of predators such as rats, stoats, mink, and feral cats. Biosecurity for LIFE will work to ensure that the UKs important island seabird populations are provided with safe places to breed and build long-term resilience considering the other significant threats. It will also aim to ensure that island communities are engaged and central to the implementation of successful biosecurity measures.
What better way to learn about the environment and island biosecurity than being a warden for the day?
On Mousa in Shetland we now have our ‘Be a Warden’ trail set up and open. Here children (and of course adults!) can have fun learning about biosecurity and getting hands on with an RSPB warden’s duties for a day.
When you arrive on the island you can pick up a backpack with tools you’ll need and a map for your walk around the island.
As you go around you can look out for the native seabird and plant species present on the island that it’s important to protect from invasive species. Mousa is special as it is home to thousands of European storm-petrels as well as many other seabirds such as great skuas and Arctic terns.
One of the key reasons European storm-petrel flock to Mousa is because it has no mammal predators living on it! This makes it a safe place to breed. Storm petrels nest in the Broch on Mousa and in other areas such as on the stony beach (photo at top of page by Holly Paget-Brown). It is important to keep Mousa free from invasive mammalian predators so our special native species can continue to thrive.
Keep an eye out for the surveillance that’s out on the island and see if you can spot any rodent teeth marks on the wax block in the ‘warden’s box’. This is a useful tool used on many islands to help monitor whether there are any rodent species present. The smell of the chocolate wax attracts them and they leave distinctive gnaw marks which can help to identify if they’ve reached an island.
You’ll learn about some key things to remember when you’re on Mousa and other seabird islands:
Don’t disturb the wildlife
Stay on the path
Take your rubbish home with you
Rats and mice like to hide in bags and boxes: check your bags for stowaways before getting on the boat
If you see an animal that shouldn’t be there, report it!
Don’t climb on the stone walls, there may be storm petrels nesting in there
Inspire others to do the same
So if you’re on Shetland why not take a trip to Mousa and find out more about biosecurity and our incredible native species!
As well as when on Mousa, keep an eye out on other seabird SPA islands in Shetland for invasive predators and follow the other key biosecurity guidelines you’ve learnt on your visits.
Mammalian predators aren’t the only non-native species in Shetland, there are many in the marine environment as well. As you walk around Mousa or if you’re ever close to the seashore or out for a swim, why not keep an eye out for some of our non-native and indicator marine species. Take a look at the Shetland Community Wildlife Group’s guide to species of interest here: Identification Guides | Shetland Community Wildlife Group.
Today we’re exploring the species that get moved around across oceans and continents to be introduced to our coastal seas. As the world becomes increasingly connected by trade, there are more opportunities for species to hitch-hike attached to boats or within ballast water, or be accidentally transported for aquaculture, released from aquariums or as part of live food imports.
The species we find in the UK which are commonly introduced are those which are good at living or growing in man-made environments – i.e. they can be found attached to hard structures like boats, piers or pontoons.
Free-swimming species such as fish and jellyfish have caused big impacts in other parts of the world, introduced when canals like the Suez Canal connect two previously isolated water bodies. Hundreds of species have moved from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean along this pathway.
Marine species can be transported vast distances and no place is remote enough to escape the impact – there is increasing worry about the potential introduction of novel species to the Arctic andAntarctica on visiting boats. These environments could be especially vulnerable to novel species due to their isolation and unique habitats.
Monitoring in Shetland
At UHI Shetland, we monitor key sites to detect the arrival of new species and track the spread of marine non-natives already present in Shetland. We do this every year by setting out monitoring panels in marinas and harbours as these environments are most at risk. Native and non-native fouling species that like to grow on hard structures settle on these plates. We remove the plates after 3 months or so and identify the different species. This gives us an easy way to look at what’s living under the surface without having to go for a swim.
We have been carrying out this monitoring over the last decade. There are records of 12 marine non-native species in Shetland which is far fewer than are found in the south of the UK, or in mainland Scotland, potentially as a result of the colder waters around Shetland.
However, we still have had a few introductions which have the potential to cause problems. For example, the orange ripple bryozoan, a type of animal where lots of individuals housed in box-like outer skeletons (zooids) which form a larger colony. It was originally from the northwest Pacific but has been found in Scotland since 2010. It is used to cold-waters and can come to dominate fouling communities that grow on hard structures, taking over space from native species.
The reason why we’re so keen to detect species quickly once they arrive is that it’s much harder to control the impact they have once they have become established and started to spread. And while many non-natives don’t cause any problems, others can harm both the environment and people.
Invasive species can cause problems for marine industries, for instance by growing on structures such as piers or slipways, by getting tangled in boat propellors, or by spreading disease or growing on aquaculture species. They can also change how we interact with the sea. The introduction of a jellyfish species Rhopilemanomadica to the Mediterranean meant more people were being stung on beaches, resulting in millions lost in reduced visitor numbers for the tourism industry.
Some changes might not have such big economic consequences, but can still change how people interact with the environment. The invasive wireweed Sargassum muticum has become the dominant species in rockpools in some areas of the south of England and on the Isle of Man, and because it floats and is very stringy and tough it means people are more likely to trip and fall over when exploring rockpools as it gets tangled around your legs.
Keeping an eye out
It’s important that we detect new arrivals quickly and it is challenging to monitor species over the long coastline so we also rely on members of the public looking out for key species or noticing unusual species while they are out and about. Species we are most concerned about include wireweed, Sargassum muticum, and the Carpet seasquirt, Didemnum vexillum. We have an identification guide that sets out key species we’re interested in hearing about if you find them on Shetland. Any records can be sent via firstname.lastname@example.org email address, with a note of where exactly you found something, a description and a photo.
Preventing the spread of invasive plants and animals is something we can all help with. If you are moving equipment or boats, paddleboards or snorkel gear between water bodies, and especially on/off Shetland you should follow “Check, Clean, Dry”. The GB Non-native Species Secretariat website has a lot of information on biosecurity in the UK, including information specific to the marine environment for industry and individuals.
Anyone interested in learning more about non-native species is welcome to come and see what we do at one of our events in Scalloway or Burravoe this week, and we’ll be running further training in the summer for anyone who wants to get more actively involved in monitoring. Let us know if you’d be interested in this by dropping us an email!
You can find out more information about the work we do on marine non-natives on the UHI Shetland website – click here
Under our shallow seas are hidden meadows of grass, these seagrasses play important ecological roles in marine ecosystems. But more recently, these unassuming plants of the sea have been noticed by scientists and governments as a natural solution in the fight to mitigate climate change.
What is Seagrass?
Seagrasses are a type of flowering plant known as an angiosperm belonging to the same family as terrestrial grasses. They have leaves, roots and rhizomes and in the same way as land-based grasses, take up nutrients from the sediment and energy through photosynthesis. Seaweeds, in comparison are a type of algae and do not perform these same functions.
Shetland Seagrass Species
Historically, Shetland had many areas of seagrass but some have been lost and the extent of others unknown. We are aiming to collect records of seagrass beds and map the current extent of the known beds around Shetland.
Eelgrass (Zostera marina)-
a subtidal seagrass growing to depths of 5m. It is the most common species of seagrass in the UK. In Shetland however, Eelgrass is restricted to only a handful of sheltered bays on the western coast such as Whiteness Voe. Historically, there were large beds in The Vadills SAC but these have now been lost.
Dwarf Eelgrass (Zostera noltei)-
the smallest British seagrass species. It is most commonly an intertidal species found in sheltered shallow muddy areas which become exposed at low tide. However, here in Shetland it is more likely to be found submerged in lagoons such as Loch of Hellister.
Beaked Tasselweed (Ruppia maritima)-
mainly found in sheltered brackish water within lagoons, lochs and salt marshes. In Shetland it is found in areas such as as Loch of Strom, Loch of Hellister and The Vadills SAC.
Why is Seagrass Important?
Seagrass provides a number of important functions for humans as well as other marine life…
Threats to Seagrass
In the UK we have lost approximately 44% of our seagrass since 1936. The primary threat to seagrass is Eutrophication. Excessive nutrients entering the water through run-off cause blooms in phytoplankton reducing light travelling to the seagrass and restricting their ability to photosynthesise.
Climate Change has also put multiple stresses onto seagrass beds through:
Rising sea temperatures
Increase in storm events
Rising sea levels
Changes in chemical concentrations in the water
Once damaged a seagrass bed can take a considerable length of time to recover and once lost, may never recover.
How You Can Help
We really need your help to record and map Shetland’s important seagrass habitats, you can get involved-
By submitting records of seagrass you may spot whilst swimming/ snorkelling/ diving/ kayaking etc.
By join us on a shore based seagrass hunt around our lochs and lagoons
If you are a drone pilot you can get involved by helping us map the extent of known seagrass beds using video footage.
To find out more and to get involved please contact us at email@example.com
To keep up to date with all news, events and projects sign up to become a member and receive regular updates via email. You can sign up here.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
The environmental conditions (sea state & visibility)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The European otter, or Draatsi as it is known in the Shetland dialect, is one of Shetlands most popular mammals. Our combination of soft peat for holts, freshwater pools for bathing and offshore kelp beds for feeding make Shetland a des res for otters. In many areas of Europe they feed in rivers. However, ours have adapted to salt water hunting but need regular fresh water baths to clean their fur. We have around 1,000 individuals living with us from a total of 8000 across Scotland making Shetland an important and relatively safe home for the species.
My interest in otters was peaked in December when my neighbour reported that in the last few years he had found 8 dead near Henry’s Loch . I am used to finding dead bodies on the road, especially in autumn and winter, but it saddens me. Otters especially are valued by us locals and visitors alike, so we decided to see if there was a way to reduce the death count.
Otters are non-migratory but can frequently travel 10’s km as they move between feeding grounds and fresh water pools. Our local otters are using Henry’s Loch to bathe, but have to cross the main road to get to and from the sea. The A970 has a steep semi-blind bend, and it can be hard for cars travelling at 50 mph to stop in time if they see an otter. It can also be hard for otters, who have poor eye sight to see a car coming in time.
The problem of non-human species being road casualties is a world-wide problem and there is a wide range of ways of reducing road deaths. Each situation and species has to be looked at individually and is unique. Here are some links of examples from around the world:
Some areas have animal pathways or ‘ecoducts’ that go under or over roads giving species a safe way to cross highways and railways etc. However, they can be very expensive and the animals may not feel safe using them.
LED systems are used to warn drivers about, for example, deer on mainland Scotland, and otter crossing signs can be seen in some areas here in Shetland. However, people often habituate to these signs if they use a route frequently.
The SIC roads department acted quickly and enthusiastically and decided to opt for a visual otter reflector system. These work by directing car headlights down to otter eye level warning them of danger. However, just like humans, otters could habituate to these, though the hope is that this won’t happen since the reflectors won’t be working consistently all year. They will be most powerful when nights are dark and days are short; the times when otters and cars are most likely to meet. No solution is perfect but they have been effective in reducing otter road fatalities in Mull and Skye , so we are hopeful that they will be effective here too and will be keeping an eye out for bodies this autumn and winter.