Shetland’s Marine Meadows

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.

Zostera marina (c) Ben Jones
Zostera noltei (c) Ben Jones
Ruppia maritima. Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0 US

Why is Seagrass Important?

Seagrass provides a number of important functions for humans as well as other marine life…

(c) Shetland UHI

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 shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.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.



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.


Woodland Areas in Shetland

Shetland is not known for its trees, but you may be surprised at how many plantations and woodland areas there are doted around the isles.

We have created a guide to help you find and explore many of the accessible woodland areas in Shetland. The guide describes the types of tree species, features such as burns, information boards and seating areas, and accessibility. The map below shows the location of all the woodland areas detailed within the guide.

Click on the image to download a pdf copy of the Woodland Guide


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.


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.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu
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.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

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.


February Highlights

The light is starting to creep out earlier and hang around a bit longer each day but it still feels very much the middle of winter with this cold spell we have been having. I have however been noticing some promising signs that spring will be along soon. The bluebell bulbs in the garden are just poking their heads above ground and even the buddleia bush has green shoots appearing. The Shelducks have made their return to Boddam Voe and the Ravens have been showing their mating flight dances where they twist and tumble together.


In Focus- winter visiting gulls

There are two species of gull that visit Shetland during the winter months: Iceland Gulls and Glaucous Gulls. They can be hard to spot at first but once you know what to look for you will be able to pick them out among the crowds. The best places to spot them is around Lerwick harbour, especially around the piers at the Shetland Catch and on Loch of Spiggie where large aggregations of gulls come to bathe.

The RSPB have some great illustrations to assist with ID on their website here.


Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides)

The adults of this species look similar to Herring Gulls but there are a few differences, they are slightly smaller, with a smaller ‘neater’ head and smaller beak. They most obvious difference however is on the wings, Iceland Gulls have white tips to their wings whereas Herring Gulls have an obvious black tip to the wings.

Adult Iceland Gull
Copyright Rob Fray

Young Iceland Gulls, in comparison to Herring Gulls are much lighter in colour showing more cream and buff colours in the plumage and still lack the dark wing tips.

Young Iceland Gull
Copyright Rob Fray

Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus)

Adult Glaucous Gulls are bigger that Herring Gulls and much bigger and bulkier than Iceland Gulls. They have a large head often speckled with brown and a big thick beak. They are often described as having a fierce expression. As with the Iceland Gull they also have white wing tips instead of the black tips as in Herring Gulls.

Adult Glaucous Gull
Copyright Rob Fray

Young Glaucous Gulls have similar plumage to Iceland Gulls but are bigger and have the bulkier features of the adults. They have very large pink beaks with a black tip.

Young Glaucous Gull
Copyright Rob Fray

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

Herring gulls, for comparison are shown below.

Adult Herring Gull
Copyright Rob Fray
Young Herring Gull
Copyright Anne Burgess

In other news…

Snowy weather can be a great time to go out and look for animal and bird tracks. Head out into the garden and discover who has been paying you a visit!

Woodcock tracks in snow
Copyright Kathryn Allan
Rabbit tracks in snow
Copyright Kathryn Allan

Below are a few of the mammal tracks that you may spot in Shetland (dog and cat tracks have been inclued for comparisons).


January Highlights

With the excitement of the festive season behind us it is easy to slip into the winter blues. Getting out amongst nature and soaking up a bit of vitamin D from the winter sun is a very important tonic to help boost our mood. Since 2018, GP practices in Shetland have been giving out Nature Prescriptions in association with RSPB Scotland to help promote the benefits of getting outdoors amongst nature to boost mental health. The project was so successful that it has now been rolled out to other areas including urban areas such as Edinburgh. Download the PDF Nature Prescription Calendar here.


In Focus- European Otter (Lutra lutra)

Otters are one of Shetland’s most iconic animals, I have never met anyone who doesn’t get that little spark of excitement when they are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one. In the Shetland dialect the otter is known as the ‘draatsi’. The name comes from the word ‘drats’ meaning slowly or heavily and most likely refers to the way they move on land.

Otters belong to the weasel family (Mustelidae) so are closely related to stoats and feral ferrets (which are also present in Shetland) as well as weasels, pine marten, badger and mink.

Males are known as ‘dogs’ and are larger and stockier than the females with a broader muzzle. Females, known as ‘bitches’ are smaller with a narrower muzzle. Coat colour can vary in individuals from dark to light brown, these light-coloured individuals are often called blonde otters.

European Otter
Copyright Rob Fray
European Otter
Copyright Rob Fray

Otters are carnivorous, hunting at sea for fish (their favoured prey) and crustaceans. But they will also take ducks, seabirds or rabbits. They are perfectly adapted to live a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Their fur is very important to them, with no body fat it is their only insulating layer to keep out the cold of the sea. It is made up of two layers the outer guard layer and a very thick insulating inner layer. When diving to hunt, air gets trapped between the layers and creates the insulation required to keep them warm. The salt water can be very damaging to the fur, so a supply of fresh water is needed to wash the salt off the fur. They are very fastidious and spend a lot of their time on land grooming and looking after their fur. They also have strong legs with webbed feet for swimming and a long strong tail which acts like a rudder. Their eyes and nose are placed high on their heads to allow them to see and breathe whilst swimming on the surface. Their ears are small but very sensitive and have protective valves to stop water entering. Their super sensitive whiskers are used whilst hunting to sense the vibrations from their prey allowing them to accurately locate it.

Winter is a good time to spot otters as with the short daylight hours there is more chance of catching one out and about. They hunt along the coastal edge in shallow water during low tide. The best time to look out for them is 2 hours either side of low tide along rocky shorelines. When assessing an area for otters you need to be on the look out for their signs. Spraint (otter poo) is the most obvious and is used by the otters as a form of communication. They will spraint in the same area as a kind of marker post to other otters. The spraint will usually contain fragments of bone and shell from their prey. In sandy areas you may spot their footprints, they are easily mistaken amongst the numerous dog prints that are on our beaches but once you know what to look for, they are more obvious. Otters have five toes whereas dogs only have four. Otters also have a longer pad on the foot and occasionally you may be able to spot the drag marks from the tail.

European Otter on a mussel float.
Copyright Kathryn Allan
Otter tracks on the beach.
Copyright Karl Graham
Otter Spraint.
David Perez, CC BY 3.0

To find out more about otters in Shetland and to see some stunning photos, take a look at Richard Shucksmith and Brydon Thomason’s book, Otters in Shetland: The tale of the ‘draatsi’. Copies are available from Shetland Library.


In other news…

With a few winter storms raging, there have been a number of large aggregations of goose and buoy barnacles washing up on our shores. The two species are often confused and thought to be the more well-known goose barnacle as the two are quite similar.

Common Goose Barnacle (Lepas anatifera)- These are the largest and most common species to wash up on our shores. They are a pelagic species growing up to 50cm in length with a white ‘head’ shell section (5cm in length) with dark lines between shell plates. They attach to flotsam (driftwood, buoys etc.) often in large numbers of multiple hundreds. They attach using a large black/brown stalk. They feed on plankton using feather like ‘fingers’ which protrude from the pale shell.

Commn Goose Barnacles attached to a buoy. Skaw, Unst.
Copyright Mike Pennington
Common Goose Barnacles
Copyright Mike Pennington

Buoy Barnacle (Dosima fascicularis) Also a pelagic species but much smaller than the Common Goose Barnacle with a much shorter stalk, only growing to 3cm in length. In comparison to the Common Goose Barnacle, they have transparent instead of the white shell plates with less obvious dark lines between. They can be found attached to flotsam in the same way as the Common Goose Barnacle but this species can also create its own spongy, polystyrene like float. They are much less commonly washed up on our beaches.

Cluster of Buoy Barnacles.
Patrice78500 CC BY-SA 4.0
Single Buoy Barnacle.
Drahreg01, CC BY-SA 4.0