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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our first school holiday project is a bit of an art and science project combined. You will need to hunt on the beach to collect your seaweed specimens, like a true nature explorer! Bring them home and carefully lay them out to create your preserved specimens that make beautiful artwork.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
As restrictions on water sports continue to be eased, we would like to share the Skatespotter Project, led by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). Common or Flapper Skate (Dipturus intermedius) are considered critically endangered. By using unique body markers individuals can be identified from photographs, allowing us to gain new insights into these fascinating fish. Jane Dodd leads the project for SNH and has shared with us how the project was set up and the results from Shetland so far.
In 2016 Steven Benjamins, a researcher at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) received around 400 digital photos of Flapper Skate taken between 2011 and 2016 from Ronnie Campbell a skate charter skipper operating out of Oban. Steven was able to identify around 250 individual skate with several recaptures by recognising the spot patterns on their backs (Benjamins et al 2018). These 250 skate became the foundation for Skatespotter, an online database of flapper skate photos submitted by charter skippers and anglers. Anglers upload their photos to the website and they are checked against the existing catalogue of photos by staff and volunteers at SNH and SAMS. New recaptures are added and if the skate can’t be matched to the catalogue it is added as a new fish. The majority of the data so far is from the Argyll area where both sexes appear to spend most of their time in a small home range, females even more so because they are recaptured more often. We have 2 females who have been captured 17 times, Di000031 was captured 17 times between 2014 and 2020 and Di000369 was captured 17 times between 2016 and 2019.
In January 2020, Skatespotter was updated to include skate captured in the Portpatrick area and in the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. So far 39 skate have been submitted from Shetland since 2019 and there have been no recaptures but we remain hopeful that as the number of photos in the catalogue grows and time goes by we will edge closer to a recapture. We have noticed that so far Shetland skate are a bit more spotty than Argyll skate. Most Shetland skate have very symmetrical patterns of spots or whorls on the wings made up of small spots on a background of very small spots whereas Argyll skate usually have a simple symmetrical pattern of large spots on a plain background. On a couple of Shetland skate the spots have spread creating a complex pattern of lines and squiggles.
If you are keen to get involved please have a look at our Skate Handling Best Practice Guide before heading out to fish. In addition to the photo, you will be asked to provide the general location where the skate was caught, the date and time it was caught, its gender and size. The best photos for identification are taken from above and include the whole skate including the base of the tail, further advice on taking good photos of skate for photo ID is available in our Guidance. You can upload your photos to Skatespotter here. We are also interested in receiving reports of skate strandings. The vertebrae and measurements from stranded animals will help with work aiming to more accurately age skate and determine at what age they start to breed.
Can you help spot marine non-native species on your local beaches?
For a few years, the NAFC Marine Centre UHI has been keeping check of the number of marine non-native species arriving in Shetland. Non-native species are those which come from elsewhere in the world and have become established here, usually transported on hulls of boats or ballast water. In the past, species were also transported with shellfish aquaculture when novel species were brought into and trialled across Europe (back in the 1960-1980s). The NAFC has been monitoring ports and marinas, as this is usually where species enter first.
Download our NNS ID Guide here…
The NAFC has found that compared to elsewhere in the UK, Shetland has relatively few non-native species, perhaps reflecting Shetland’s cooler waters, making it harder for some species to colonise. However, non-native species can compete with native wildlife and smother aquaculture structures which have caused economic impacts elsewhere in the UK.
Very few non-native species make it into the ‘wild’ (beyond man made structures such as pontoons), but there are some exceptions that establish there first. That is why we need your help, we are keen to hear from anybody who spots anything odd. The NAFC has produced a leaflet to help you to spot non-native species but the two we’d really like people to watch out for are the Orange-tipped Sea Squirt (Corella eumyota) and Wireweed (Sargassum muticum), both originally from Japan.
Lisa Humphray recently spotted an Orange-Tipped Sea Squirt in Scalloway harbour, while turning over rocks on the beach. This is only the second time it has been found in the wild in Shetland and indicates it is spreading beyond marinas and harbours. We’d be really interested to hear if anybody else finds it, as it would help us to understand how fast it is spreading around Shetland. It loves living right at the bottom of the shore and under rocks. At marinas it’s found under floats and buoys.
The second species we’d like you to look out for is Wireweed. It has been spotted twice in Orkney but hasn’t yet managed to become established. It can drift long distances in the current, so could easily make it to Shetland too. In Orkney it was found in the ‘wild’ rather than at a marina. Once established it can grow rapidly, clogging boat propellers and smothering our native animals.
We also don’t know if either the Orange-tipped Sea Squirt or Wireweed can survive Shetland’s wet ,windy and cold winters, so year round and year-to-year data is really important to understand how a species is establishing and spreading, particularly as the climate changes.
For more information have a look on the NAFC Marine Centre’s webpage on non-native species here.
Now that we are fully into spring and the sun is shining, the butterflies have started to appear back in our gardens and wild areas. There are just five species of butterfly commonly seen in Shetland.
The Large White (Pieris brassicae) is our only resident butterfly and has a bit of a bad rep with the veg growers due to its caterpillar’s choice of lunch! The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) and Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) butterflies are all migrant species, the Red Admiral and Painted Lady are regular visitors to flowers in our gardens, with the Small Tortoiseshell being rarer.
Over recent years there has been an increase in the number of sightings of the Peacock (Aglais io) butterfly, another migrant species which is now recorded in Shetland every summer potentially due to the effects of climate change.
There are however 15 species detailed in the Shetland Butterfly ID Leaflet although many of them are very rare, you may just be lucky enough to spot one!
As all but one of the butterflies seen in Shetland are migrants, they can appear each year in very variable numbers, so we need your help to gather accurate records of the butterflies in our islands, both resident and visitors.
If you have any questions you can get in touch with the Shetland Community Wildlife Group via our Contact Us page.
Sightings records can be emailed to SBRC with photos if you have them (this is important for evidencing the rarer species). If you have more time, we would love it if you could carry out a short survey in your garden or on a set walking route once a week, or as often as you are able.
We are teaming up with the fantastic and very experience Orkney Field Club (OFC) for this project. It is one that everyone across Shetland can get involved in in their own garden/allotment. We would like you to tell us about sightings of the invasive NZ Flatworm (and indeed earthworms) to find out more about their current distribution and abundance in Shetland.
The NZ Flatworm is an invasive, non-native species that is spreading rapidly across the UK with serious consequences on our native earthworm populations which are predated by the NZ Flatworm. They arrived in Scotland in the mid-60s and have been in Shetland now for a number of years but we do not currently know the extent of their distribution or in what numbers and that is why we need your help. We would like as many records from all over Shetland including the outer islands to see how far they have spread. Negative records are also very important as this indicates areas that may not yet be populated.
If you are not familiar with the NZ Flatworm, here is a description taken from the 2013 OFC bulletin by B. Boag and R. Neilson of the James Hutton Institute, Dundee:
“New Zealand flatworms are usually found during the day, often curled up like a Swiss roll, under pieces of wood, stone or polythene lying on bare earth. They are relatively flat compared with earthworms, are pointed at both ends and covered with a sticky mucus. They can vary in colour but usually have a dark brown upper surface with a lighter beige speckled border which extends to cover the ventral surface. Flatworms can also vary greatly in shape from long and narrow (up to 15 cm) to short and relatively fat. They produce egg capsules which look like small, shiny blackcurrants.”
The NZ Flatworm and its eggs may be found under stones, plastic and wood etc. We would also like you to record the numbers of earthworms you are finding in your ground as their lack of abundance may be an indicator of the presence or absence of the NZ Flatworms.
We will be sharing data with the OFC to get a full picture of the distribution and abundance around the whole of the Northern Isles region. We will also share your records with the Shetland Biological Records Centre.
Whilst you are enjoying a stroll along the beach or rock pooling with the kids, why not take a few minutes to look a bit closer at the seaweed. The first thing you may notice is the array of different colours: reds, browns and greens and the many varied shapes.
The British Isles are perfect for seaweeds, they just love it here with over 650 species known to grow along UK coasts and shallow seas.
MCS and the Natural History Museum launched the Big Seaweed Search to encourage folk to observe and record seaweed species in their area. They would like you to download their leaflet which details the 14 species to look out for and then submit your records using the recording form or upload the data straight onto their website.
Currently, very little is known about the abundance and distribution of many of our seaweed species.
The Simmer Dim is here, days are at their longest and Shetland’s wildlife is at its busiest, feeding and looking after their young.
Keep your eyes on the sea as you may well get a view of cetaceans such as Orca and Harbour Porpoises. Harbour Seals are pupping in June and may be spotted along the coastline.
In Focus- Red-necked Phalarope
The Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) is the last breeding migrant to return to Shetland, coming back in mid-May. In a recent study by Malcolm Smith et al published in British Birds, it was found that Shetland birds along with populations in Iceland and Greenland overwinter off the coast of Ecuador and Peru and not the Arabian Sea along with the Scandinavian population as was previously thought. They are rare in the British Isles with Shetland having the vast majority of the UK population, although they are much more common in Iceland and Scandinavia.
Red-necked Phalaropes nest amongst vegetation on the shores of fresh-water lochs and are unusual in that it is the male who solely incubates the eggs and looks after the young. It is a complete role reversal with the female having the bright colours and the male looking more drab. She doesn’t bother to hang around to help, she will mate, lay the eggs and then leave the male to it whilst she goes off to find another male.
Moth of the Month- Ghost Moth
Ghost moths (Hepialus humuli) start to fly during June and July and are a common species in Britain. They are so named due to the completely white males, females however are a yellow with orange marks.
The Ghost moth is a type of swift moth which have elongated wings which they hold almost vertically against the body when at rest. The adults have no functioning mouth parts so are unable to feed. They only live a for a short time (June to early Aug) where they will mate and lay eggs. The life-cycle takes two years to complete with the larvae overwintering twice before emerging as adults.
The Large White is currently the only resident butterfly in Shetland and are notorious for their caterpillars munching their way through your cabbages.
Both the Red Admiral and the Painted Lady are annual immigrants to the isles, sometimes seen in large numbers. They can be attracted to gardens with insect friendly planting, my chive plant seemed to be very good at attracting Painted Lady’s last year.
The Red Admirals in our garden congregated around the compost heap to eat the fruit waste so we spiked apple, orange and banana onto tree branches and were delighted with the number of Red Admirals that stopped by for a snack.
June is also the month where there are increased sightings of jellyfish. Moon jellies (Aurelia aurita) are the most commonly spotted, as they grow bigger and sometimes wind driven currents can cause them to accumulate in voes.
Moon jellies have an interesting two-phase life cycle, alternating between living on the seabed and swimming in the water column. When in the water column these jellyfish spawn (there are male and female moon jellies) and their fertilised eggs fall to the seabed. Once on the seabed they grow into small (1cm) polyps (which look a little like very small white sea anemones), which in January start to bud into new jellyfish which are less than 1cm in size. Between January and June, the jellyfish continue to grow before starting to reproduce, completing their life cycle.
There are around 100 species of jellyfish living either permanently or temporarily in Shetland waters and we would love to hear from you about any jellyfish sightings you have. As ocean temperatures change it has been suggested that jellyfish may become more common. Feel free to post any pictures you may have on our Facebook page or send us as email or Facebook message.
June is pupping season for our Harbour Seals, the smaller of the two seal species we have in Shetland. The Harbour Seal (Phoca vitulina) is known in old Shetland as ‘tang fish’ which translates to ‘seaweed fish’.
Harbour Seals give birth to a single pup which is able to swim and dive within a few hours of birth. They are suckled by the mother who produces a very fatty and nutrient rich milk which enables the pups to double their weight in the three/four weeks before weening.
Seals have been the subject of persecution in the past, especially the young Harbour Seal pups whose 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.