Calling all swimmers, 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 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.
  • Any PHOTOGRAPHS you may have

To download your copy CLICK HERE

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).


Introduced Plants in Shetland

Guest blog by Paul Harvey, Shetland Amenity Trust

Around a third of the species of flowering plants that one might come across in the Shetland countryside are not native to the islands. That’s a staggering 300 or so species that were deliberately, or accidentally, brought into Shetland by humans! The majority of these were brought here to brighten up gardens, or their seeds arrived as contaminants of agricultural crops.

Most have not moved far – maybe they’ve jumped (not literally) over a garden dyke or fence, or rely on the ground being ploughed for more crops. Some may provide an additional nectar source for insects – very welcome in areas where native flowers are beheaded by sheep before getting a chance to flower, but others contribute very little to wildlife and some may even be detrimental. Native wild plants and animals have adapted together, so can be useful to each other for example through pollination, or are in a continuous battle where the insect consumes the plant and the plant tries to evolve defences to keep the insects at bay. And of course their flowers, leaves and seeds, and the insects attracted to them, provide food for birds. These complex relationships simply don’t exist with many non-native species.

A good number of these non-natives have, however, found the Shetland environment very much to their liking and have spread through the islands to the extent that they look perfectly natural here. And indeed some of these co-exist with the native flora and fauna without causing any issues. A few, though, are more problematic. Here we consider three such species.

Japanese Knotweed

Japanese Knotweed is native to eastern Asia and was brought to the UK in 1850 by botanist Philip von Siebold. We don’t know when it was brought to Shetland but it was first noted at Kergord in 1952 and now occurs at quite a few places in the islands. It is most easily seen at the Dale of Walls where it occurs along the burn either side of the bridge across the road.

Down south this really is the archetypal triffid –  it spreads very quickly suppressing any other plants in its vicinity. It dies back in winter and then new stems arise from rhizomes that are deep underground. Even though it rarely sets seed in the UK new plants can arise from even a tiny bit of a rhizome – hence it is classed as controlled waste under the Environmental Protection Act needing to be disposed of at licensed landfill sites. Eradication is problematic and often involves calling in professional help. Indeed, if you’re trying to buy a house and Japanese Knotweed is known to be present then it’s unlikely you’ll get a mortgage until it’s eradicated – more expense!

Fortunately, here in Shetland it doesn’t appear to spread so quickly and at most of the sites I have seen it, its distribution hasn’t changed that much. I have had to give one potential house buyer in Lerwick the bad news on one occasion though, so beware!

Photo by Paul Harvey

Japanese Knotweed at the Dale of Walls (above). Here it dominates part of an old croft garden and appears to be slowly spreading along the burn. Fortunately, in Shetland this invasive plant only spreads slowly unlike its counterparts down south where it can soon spread and take over large areas.

Ground Elder

Ground Elder is a member of the carrot family that was introduced to the UK by the Romans as a medicinal and culinary herb. Its leaves are quite tasty – a kind of lemon come celery taste – and presumably that is what encouraged folk to bring it to the islands and plant it in their gardens. Don’t eat too much though as I have read that after flowering it can have a mild laxative effect. And therein lies the problem. Once established it takes over – forming a carpet of green, outcompeting and shading out all other flowers; that’s an awful lot of salads… and potentially toilet roll. Although not being subject to the same legislative issues as Japanese Knotweed, eradicating Ground Elder is a real challenge, as like the knotweed, it seems to be able to regrow from just the tiniest piece of white root that you might accidentally leave behind when attempting to remove it.

Ground Elder (right and in banner) grows quickly in spring and can soon dominate roadside verges, waste areas and gardens.

Picture by Jim Nicholson

Monkeyflower

The final plant I want to consider is Monkeyflower and its various hybrids and forms. This one is much more controversial as it has become much-loved by many Shetlanders. It actually originates from North America, is undoubtedly attractive and seems to thrive in Shetland in wet places; ditches, loch margins and marshy ground. It was brought to the UK in the mid-1700s and found growing wild by 1830. Beeby was the first to note it in Shetland in 1886 at the Loch of Clickimin, although it was restricted to just two or three sites until at least the 1920s. Since then, it has expanded markedly and despite its pretty appearance it might be having a negative effect on some plants and animals. The jury is still out but it certainly has a tendency to form extensive mats and dominate some damp areas and ditches at the expense of our native flora.

Monkeyflower (right) comes in several colours from yellow through to a burnt orange. This is the most common colour. Although attractive, the plant can soon clog-up and dominate ditches and wet, marshy areas.

Photo by Jim Nicholson

In their native ranges these plants are kept in check by insects, fungi and other predators but once introduced into a new environment where these natural predators are absent they can explode and replace our native plants. Whether we have learnt the lessons from such introductions is something of a moot point. Folk should be particularly careful when dumping garden waste away from their gardens. As well as being illegal fly-tipping, this can also lead to the spread of invasive plants including those outlined here.

This feature is also available at the Shetland Amenity Trust website.


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

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



December Highlights

It is the darkest month of the year with the shortest day soon upon us, the good news however is they will soon start getting longer again! It is a month where we could easily forget about our wildlife as our minds turn to the festive season. It is important however to keep filling the bird feeders with seeds, nuts and apples as with less natural food sources around birds will be very grateful of the helping hand. Follow the link here to find out how to make your own homemade high fat, nutritious bird feeders. Water also is important for wild birds, you will be amazed at the activity even a small shallow dish of water will bring. Just remember to keep the water free of ice on those cold days when it might freeze over.

One of my favourite activities on a crisp sunny day, especially after a storm is beachcombing. You never know what may get washed up on our shores or how far it may have come. Take a look at our article ‘Secrets of the Strandline’ to find out what may be waiting to be discovered.


In Focus- Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle)

Black Guillemots, known as ‘Tysties’ in Shetland are members of the Auk family along with puffins, Razerbills and Guillemots. They are a northern species found around the coasts of Scotland, NW England and Ireland. They are the only guillemot to stay around our coasts during the Winter. One of the best places to view Black Guillemots is in Lerwick at the small boat harbour at Victoria pier or around Mareel and the Shetland Museum.

In the summer, they have all black plumage with an oval shaped white patch on the wings. They also have the most amazing bright red legs and if you catch sight of one calling you will notice the inside of their mouths are also a stunning red colour.  In contrast, in winter they change colour, and you might be fooled into thinking you are looking at a completely different bird. They become mainly white with grey/black barring on the wings.

Tystie winter plummage
Copyright: Rob Fray
Tystie summer plummage
Copyright: Rob Fray

They are not as sociable as Gulliemots and will often be seen alone or in a small group. They also do not nest in large colonies but prefer to nest in small numbers on lower cliffs amongst rock crevices. Black guillemots are they only member of the auk family to lay two eggs, all the others only lay a single egg.

They feed on small fish and crustaceans. Diving under the water to hunt, where they are able to stay for up to 2mins. Individuals each hold a preference to how they carry their fish. They will carry them in their bill either consistently with the heads pointed to the left or to the right eliciting a type of ‘handedness’.


In other news…

Winter Wildfowl! We recently posted an article and ID guide for the geese species which visit Shetland often during the winter months but there are other species of wildfowl which frequent the island during the winter…


Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) have started breeding in Shetland in small numbers in recent yearsbut are present in much higher numbers during the winter months. They migrate here from their northern breeding ranges to spend the winter in our milder climes.  Wintering herds (yep that is the collective noun for swans) can be seen many lochs in Shetland but the biggest numbers are on Spiggie Loch, Uyea Sound in Unst and Cullivoe in Yell. Whooper swans are distinguishable from Mute Swans by their beak shape and colour. Whoopers have thick, yellow bills with a black tip whereas Mutes have an orange bill with a bulbous black base.

Pair of Whooper swans
Copyright: Rob Fray
Pair of Mute Swans
Copyright: Cburnett

Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) are a type of diving duck which congregate in small groups in lochs and sheltered voes. They breed in forested areas by lakes and slow-flowing rivers in northern Europe and in smaller numbers in Scotland. They migrate to the UK, including Shetland to over-winter. The best place to see them is Spiggie Loch, Loch of Benston, Uyea Sound in Unst and Sullom Voe.

Pair of Goldeneye
Mike’s Birds from Riverside, CC BY-SA 2.0


Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis) are known in Shetland as ‘Calloos’ due the sound of their call. They are a type of sea duck which migrate to Shetland from their Arctic breeding areas where they nest on tundra pools and marshes and along sea coasts. They spend the winter at sea sometimes in large, dense flocks. In Shetland, they can commonly be seen close inshore in sheltered voes and bays. The best places to view them are Grutness and Westvoe beaches in the South Mainland, Lerwick harbour close to the Shetland Catch and Bluemull and Yell Sound.

Flock of Long-tailed Ducks
Copyright Rob Fray

As their name suggests males have an elongated tail. In winter males have a white, grey and black plumage whereas the females keep their brown wings and breast with only their heads and neck becoming whiter.



November Highlights

Winter storms are well and truly here to batter the last remaining leaves from the trees and bushes. Hedgehogs and frogs will be finding cosy places to hibernate and the migrant birds have mostly all moved on. Life carries on however for our resident wildlife, why not help them out by keeping your feeders topped up and leaving plants with seed heads such as thistles, hogweed and wild angelica for the birds to eat.


In Focus- Mountain Hare

The first introduction of the Mountain Hare in Shetland was two pairs on the isle of Vaila from Perthshire in around 1900, followed by individuals onto the Kergord Estate in 1907 and later, Ronas Hill (Johnston 1999). They are now found in moderate numbers on heather moorland throughout mainland Shetland as far south as Maywick and are still prevalent on Vaila.

Mountain Hares are much bigger than rabbits with a head to body length of 50-65cm compared with the rabbits 35-45cm and of course they have the very distinguishable large ears. In summer, Mountain Hare’s fur is brown-greyish with a white belly but this changes to white or partially white in winter. The ears however always keep their black tips.

Unlike Rabbits, Mountain Hares do not dig burrows, instead only shallow scrapes amongst heather and rocks. They are also not as sociable as rabbits and prefer to live alone or in small groups. They mate from Feb-Aug and can have 2-3 litters a year of 2-5 young. As with rabbits in Shetland, adult Mountain Hares have no natural predators although Bonxies (Great Skua) and Greater Black-backed Gulls will take leverets.

Mountain hare in summer
polandeze, CC BY 2.0
Mountain hare in winter
Bouke ten Cate, CC BY-SA 4.0

Johnston, J Laughton. (1999) A Naturalist’s Shetland. T & A D Pyser Ltd: London.


In other news…

European Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Many of you may have been blessed with a Robin visit your garden this autumn as there has been a high number of migrant birds such as Robins in 2020. Robins are an iconic British winter bird and often feature in the winter wonderland scenes on Christmas cards, they have even been termed Britain’s unofficial national bird.

Copyright: Rob Fray
Charles J Sharp, CC BY-SA 3.0
Si Griffiths, CC BY-SA 3.0

It is likely that if a robin has found your garden, it will stay for the winter. Robins are hardy little birds and can withstand the low temperatures of a British winter. The individuals that have migrated here have most likely come from Scandinavia and Russia where temperatures drop to extreme levels. They are well adapted to live in areas where day length is short and can often still be found feeding quite late in the day. Scientists from BTOs Shortest Day Survey suggest this may be due to Robins having relatively large eyes for their body size allowing more light to enter the eye. If you would like to help your Robin out this winter, placing suet, seed and mealworms on a flat surface such as a bird table, rock or tree stump, will be well received.

Robins are known for being very territorial and thus you are only likely to have one Robin in you garden. You may have noticed your Robin singing and thought this was unusual for this time of year, and you would be right. Birds usually sing to announce their presence and tell other individuals that this is their patch, and this normally coincides with the spring mating season. The Robins, having recently arrived in Shetland, are now singing for the same reason- to establish their winter territory.



October Highlights

The autumn bird migration is now in full swing. This month will bring a mass arrival of thrushes including migrant Blackbirds, Redwings, Fieldfares and Song Thrushes. It is a good idea to keep those feeders topped up during this month as this can attract the common migrants such as Brambling, Chaffinch, and Siskins. Slice and spear apple onto tree branches and you may be rewarded with a sighting of the fruit loving Waxwing and Blackcap. Keep an eye out for the UKs smallest bird, the Goldcrest, weighing it at a mere 6g! They are very distinctive with their yellow/gold strip down their head. They are insect eaters so will often be seen flitting amongst bushes catching small bugs and flies.


In Focus- Grey Seal Pups

Seems a strange time of year of any animal to decide to start giving birth, especially a marine animal just as the strong winds and storms start to blow through tossing up the sea. But there is method in the madness it seems, after a full summer of feasting on rich oily fish the mothers are in the best shape to give birth and suckle their young.

Grey Seal mum and pup.
Copyright Rob Fray
Newborn Grey Seal pup.
Copyright Rob Fray
Grey Seal pup.
Copyright Rob Fray

Grey seal pups are born on quiet, often remote beaches. The mothers haul themselves up onto the beach to give birth to their white fluffy young. The young will stay on this beach suckling their mother’s rich milk for around a month in which time they can put on 30kg in weight every 2 weeks. While the mothers are busy with their young, the male Grey Seals, who can weigh up to 300kg and grow to 2metres in length, stalk the beach fighting with other males to keep their territory and ‘harem’ of females. Once the females have finished suckling their young, they will mate with the dominant male before heading back to the sea leaving their pups alone on the beach. They will stay here for around another 2 weeks while they moult their white fluff and become brave enough to head out into the unpredictable winter seas.

Seals have been the subject of persecution in the past, especially the young Grey Seal pups whose white skins were highly priced. For this reason, seals are protected under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. This Act allowed Scottish Ministers powers to designate seal haul-out sites and protect them under the Protection of Seals (Designation of Haul-Out Sites) (Scotland) Order 2014. There are currently 47 designated seal haul-out sites in Shetland where it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturbed or harass seals.


Moth of the Month- Rosy Rustic

It is getting pretty late in the year for moths but with favourable weather and light winds the Rosy Rustic (Hydraecia micacea) is one of the few that will still be seen in the moth trap. They are a common resident flying from August-October. There size can vary greatly with females generally being larger and darker. The forewings are pointed and pinkish/brown with a rather velvety texture and darker margins in the centre. Adults will lay their eggs on the food plant (a low growing plant such as docks, potatoes, horse tails and yellow iris) before dying off. The eggs overwinter with the larva hatching in April, pupating underground without a cocoon before emerging as an adult in August.

Rosy Rustic
Copyright Rob Fray

In other news…

One of the more curious birds to arrive in October is the Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor). They have grey backs, white underbellies and black and white markings on the wings and tail. Their most distinctive feature is their black mask and sharp hooked beak, giving them their nickname the ‘masked assassin’.

What makes these guys so interesting is their feeding habits. They are predatory, hunting small mammals, birds and lizards which they beat to death with their beaks. In Shetland they often hunt on Goldcrests which are passing through in high numbers at this time of year. They are lone hunters, sitting in wait on a vantage point such as a fence post. They can even imitate other birds calls to try and lure its prey closer. Now for the gruesome bit…once they have made a kill they will cache it for later by impaling it onto thorns and branches within a bush hidden from other predators.

Great Grey Shrike.
Copyright Rob Fray

As they are members of the passerine (songbird) family they have weak feet that are not designed for holding their prey, by impaling it onto a thorn or stick they can use this to secure the food while they use their beaks to pull it apart and devour it. So, if you happen to spot a bush adorned with small dead birds, you’ll know there is a Great Grey Shrike not far away!