Summer Holiday Project #5- Create your own Mini Ecosystem

This is a great fun activity and really easy to do. We used different species of moss in ours but you could use any small plants such as sedums and alpines that don’t grow too big. Once made just pop it on a sunny windowsill and watch it change and grow. It is also a great way to learn and watch the water cycle in action keeping your mini ecosystem alive and thriving.

Download the Mini Ecosystem leaflet to find out how to get started.


Summer Holiday Project #4- Build your own Hibernaculum

What’s a hibernaculum I hear you ask…..it is a warm, dry, safe place for reptiles and amphibians to hibernate over the winter. The word ‘hibernaculum’ means “winter quarter”, with the Latin word hibernus meaning “winter”.

Here in Shetland the Common Frog is our only amphibian, but they are plentiful. They hibernate over the winter in underground holes to avoid the cold and frost, their heart and breathing rate slow right down and they no longer need to find food.

By creating a hibernaculum in your garden, you are providing the perfect place for frogs to hibernate whilst making space for nature and encouraging more wildlife into your garden.

Download the Hibernaculum leaflet to find out how to get started.


Have you spotted a Crofter’s Wig?

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

Austin Taylor/ Copyright Shetland Islands Council

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

Austin Taylor/ Copyright Shetland Islands Council

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

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

Austin Taylor/ Copyright Shetland Islands Council

Summer Holiday Project #3- Make your own BIOGAS

This week is all about science. We want you to head back to the shore to collect more seaweed so that you can make your own renewable energy source- BIOGAS.

BIOGAS is made up of methane and carbon dioxide which can be used as a renewable source of fuel or turned into electricity and heat. Seaweed is a great material for making BIOGAS as seaweed farming is environmentally sustainable, but you can also give it a try with grass cuttings or food waste. You can also try changing the conditions in which you make your BIOGAS, try putting it in a sunny spot or dark cupboard, a warm or cold place- what happens?

Download our BIOGAS leaflet to get started.


Delve into the World of Hoverflies….

…with this new ID guide by Rebecca Nason

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

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

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

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

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


Summer Holiday Project #2- Make a Wave with Marine Litter

This week will take you back to the beach to do a beach clean, great for helping nature by removing plastic from our seas and coastlines BUT dont throw it away, you’re going to need it for this weeks art project.

We will be using the marine litter to create a piece of wave art. You can get as creative as you like experimenting with different shapes, colours and textures. It is amazing the varity of man-made items that end up on our beaches!

Download our Make a Wave with Marine Litter leaflet to get started.


Why Record?

Paul Harvey- Shetland Biological Records Centre

Kathryn Allan- NAFC Marine Centre UHI

This is a question that we often get asked – why are you bothering to record that? What’s the point? Put simply recording the wildlife around us helps build up our knowledge of the environment – what is where and how might this be changing. Shetland’s socio-economic well-being is tied heavily to its environment – fishing, aquaculture, agriculture and tourism are all dependent on a clean, thriving environment. Recording helps us to monitor the health of this environment and can act as an early warning system if, and when, things start to go wrong. It can often be done relatively cheaply using so called citizen science – as hundreds of folk enjoy getting outside and many of these contribute by sending in their wildlife observations or posting them on social media.

We’ll try and outline a few examples of why recording can be important. Some species are common and widespread and some species are rare and localised. The only way we can ascertain which is which is through recording. The Bog Orchid is a tiny but attractive wee orchid that, as its name suggests, grows in damp, acid bogs. It is a rare plant in Shetland and indeed throughout Scotland and was known from only a handful of sites in the islands. A small group of folk out looking at and recording flowers came across a previously unknown site for the species in the Catfirth area. And what a colony it was, numbering several hundred plants and making it the biggest colony in Scotland. It so happened that this area was earmarked for a housing development but following discussion with the Council the developer changed the plans slightly meaning the site could be saved and Scotland’s largest Bog Orchid colony remains for others to enjoy. Without recording, this site would have been lost.

Bog Orchid (Copyright Jim Nicholson)

The Curlew is a relatively common bird in Shetland. Yet elsewhere in the UK the Curlew population has plummeted such that it is now on the Red List of Birds to watch. Every year since 2002 about 60 Shetland residents head out twice in the spring with maps to record breeding birds in a one kilometre square close to their home. These data are collated and have allowed us to establish population trends for our more common breeding birds. This has told us that the Curlew population in Shetland is holding its own; unlike elsewhere in the UK it is not in sharp decline. This also suggests that existing crofting/farming practices in Shetland are currently well suited to maintaining Curlew (and indeed other breeding wader populations). Many of these waders – Curlew, Lapwing, Redshank, Snipe, Oystercatcher are present here in nationally important numbers. Now more than ever the taxpayer is looking for greater public benefits from agriculture and it is likely that rewards for farming in an environmentally sensitive manner will increase in the future. So here, volunteer recorders have provided the data that allows environmentalists and farmers to make strong arguments that the existing agriculture in the islands should be supported because it already yields considerable environmental benefits.

Curlew (Copyright Jim Nicholson)

Global warming is on almost everyone’s lips these days. Can we show it is happening here in Shetland? There has been much talk of the adverse impacts of a rise in sea temperature on Shetland’s seabirds and this is likely to impact on fish stocks too but things are very complicated in the marine environment and it’s not always easy to make direct links. A few island residents however have been recording large insects – bumblebees, butterflies, moths and hoverflies for starters – and this has revealed some big changes as a result of climate change. Insects have good powers of dispersal and can reproduce very quickly and in large numbers so are often one of the first groups to respond to environmental change. In the last few years, the recording undertaken by these folk has revealed that two species of bumblebee and several species of moth have, or are in the process of, colonising the islands.

In our marine environment, previously unseen non-native species (NNS) coming from elsewhere in the world can become established in the isles due to the change is sea temperatures. The NAFC Marine Centre UHI has been monitoring ports and marinas for a few years as this is usually where species first enter on the hulls of boats or ballast water. Once established they can be very difficult, if not impossible to eradicate. These non-native species are troublesome as they can compete with our native species for food and space and smother aquaculture structures causing economic impact. To be able to assess if these species have made it into the ‘wild’ (beyond man made structures) we need everyone’s help to submit records of species they find whilst out on our beaches and coastlines.

The many individuals that record wildlife here in Shetland are also helping to put the islands on the map. Thanks to these efforts Shetland is now well represented in new publications about Scotland’s or the UK’s wildlife. This helps establish patterns and trends farther afield than just our islands, and can also illustrate just how important the Shetland’s biodiversity is.

Finally, it is important to say that watching and recording wildlife should also be about fun. If this can be done as a group then the accompanying banter can certainly add to the atmosphere(!) and learning can become so much easier. It seems that nationwide, the recent pandemic has encouraged a lot of people to get out and reconnect with nature and that can only be of benefit to us as individuals by boosting our mental wellbeing and to society as we struggle to overcome the many environmental challenges that we will face in the future.

Local recorders have ensured that Shetland is properly represented in national atlas’ in recent years helping to complete the national picture.

So, we’d be delighted to receive any records of wildlife and plants that you can make. All we need is an observer name, date, location (preferably a grid reference) and your record will be added to the Shetland database

For a list of current projects that you can get involved in visit our Projects page.



July Highlights

Things are really looking their best this month, with gardens, verges and heather moorland all looking lush and starting to flower. This is a peak time for our pollinators so get spotting those bumblebees and butterflies and if you are up for a bit of a challenge take a closer look at the hoverflies, there are loads of great resources out there such as the British Naturalists’ Association website https://bna-naturalists.org/id-guide-hoverflies/ or why not request to join the Shetland Insect Group on Facebook where there are lots of local experts more than happy to help out.

In Focus- Shetland’s Wildflowers

This month is the perfect time to stop and appreciate Shetland’s diversity of wildflowers: the colours, the variety and the simplistic beauty. There are many wildflowers to spot in Shetland some UK natives, some alien invasives and even some endemics. Here I will touch on just a couple but for more information check out the Shetland Amenity’s post online here www.shetlandamenity.org/what-to-look-for-this-week-wildflowers or nose through a copy of David Malcom’s Shetland Wild Flowers Book.

The humble Dandelion (Taraxacum sp.) is of course not endemic to Shetland it is probably one of the most widespread wildflowers in the UK. It is disliked by most gardeners due to its voracious want to spread pretty much everywhere. But did you know that the Dandelion is one of the most important flowers for pollinators? They are one of the first flowers to appear in the spring providing both pollen and nectar making it a vital flower for our early to appear bees and hoverflies. For this reason, it is helpful to our wildlife to let them grow, at least during the early weeks of spring when there is very little other food around. Did you also know that using weed-killer on your dandelions can fatally poison our pollinators who come to feast on the pollen and nectar of sprayed flowers? So if you are going to use a weed killer please pull the heads off your Dandelions first or go organic and use a bit of good old hard work to pull them out, and the bonus is it’s free!

Copyright Kathryn Allan
Copyright Rob Fray

The next plant I want to showcase is the Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris), a UK native and one of only 2 carnivorous plants in Shetland, the other being Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). Common Butterwort is a small plant only a couple of inches across with pale green-yellow leaves in a very distinctive star shape spread flat on the ground and small purple flowers. Its leaves excrete a sticky fluid which attracts insects, once stuck the leaves curl over the insect trapping and digesting it. It can be found in damp and boggy heathland.

Oysterplant (Mertensia maritima) is native to the UK but is nationally rare so the specimens growing in Shetland are of national importance.  It grows on shingly beaches where it grows in a low sprawling manor. It has succulent leaves, flowering June-Aug with small bell-shaped flowers, starting pink then becoming blue. The Oysterplant gets its name from the taste of its leaves and flowers which are edible and taste like oysters. Please however do not pick any parts of wild plants, Oysterplant can be grown in rock gardens and are available to purchase on many nursery sites online. In Shetland they can be found growing in the North Mainland at Ura Firth and Stenness and at Skaw beach in Unst.

Copyright Rob Fray

Moth of the month- Dark Arches

Dark Arches (Apamea monoglypha) is common in Shetland and if you have ever had a large moth stuck in your house pinging off your light bulb it was most likely a Dark Arches. They are a large species of moth that can be quite variable in colour from a greyish-brown to dark brown or almost black. In Shetland they tend to be slightly smaller than average and a warm brown colour. The distinguishing features of this moth are the kidney shaped marks on each wing and the W-shaped mark near the outer edge of the wing.

They are in flight July-August preferring grassy areas such as gardens, farmland and grassy verges. The larvae of this species feed on Common Couch and Cock’s-foot grasses among others and overwinter in amongst the grass roots.

Copyright Rob Fray

In other news…

July is one of the best months for catching a sight of one of Shetland’s best loved sea mammals, the Orca (Orcinus orca). Sightings of these magnificent cetaceans have been on the increase in the last 5 years with sightings being more regular and pods staying around longer. They can grow up to 8 metres long and weigh 6 tonnes and are a top apex predator. Orca are the largest member of the dolphin family and their black and white colouring helps them to hunt by breaking up their silhouette from above and below making them camouflaged from their prey. Bull (male) Orca have a large dorsal fin which can be up to 2 metres in height, there is usually one large dominant male in a pod of females, calves and youngsters. Individual Orca can be identified using photo-identification techniques as their dorsal fins all have a distinct shape. In Shetland, many individuals have been identified and given distinct numbers and names. Two of the most well-known being a bull Orca called Busta and a female named Mousa.

Copyright Rob Fray
Copyright Rob Fray

The pods that visit Shetland spend their time moving between Norway, Iceland, Faroe, Shetland, Orkney and the Scottish mainland depending on seasonal food availability. Around our coastline they will hunt for seals and porpoises but have also been seen to take sea ducks such as Common Eider (‘Dunters’ as they are known in Shetland) but will move offshore to hunt fish, following the North Sea shoals of Atlantic Herring and are often seen by our pelagic fishing boats. To catch the fish they have seen to work together as a co-ordinated group flashing their white undersides and blowing bubbles to corral the fish into a tight ball where they then tail slap to stun the fish before picking them off one by one.

Further reading can be found here:

uk.whales.org/whales-dolphins/species-guide/orca-killer-whale/

www.mba.ac.uk/killer-whales-north-atlantic

North Atlantic killer whale Orcinus orca populations: a
review of current knowledge and threats to conservation


Become a Skatespotter

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

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

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

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