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).


Mousa Biosecurity Trail

Guest blog from Holly Paget-Brown, Biosecurity for LIFE

At Biosecurity for LIFE we are working hard to raise awareness of the threat of invasive predators and put in place systems to prevent their accidental introduction to islands. In particular we are focusing our efforts on 42 specially protected islands that are designated for breeding seabirds, including 7 in Shetland. Biosecurity is the practice of protecting places from the threats to wildlife posed by introducing new diseases or types of plants or animals that do not naturally occur there. Seabirds often choose to nest on islands with no land predators and are particularly vulnerable to introduction of predators such as rats, stoats, mink, and feral cats. Biosecurity for LIFE will work to ensure that the UKs important island seabird populations are provided with safe places to breed and build long-term resilience considering the other significant threats. It will also aim to ensure that island communities are engaged and central to the implementation of successful biosecurity measures.

What better way to learn about the environment and island biosecurity than being a warden for the day?

On Mousa in Shetland we now have our ‘Be a Warden’ trail set up and open. Here children (and of course adults!) can have fun learning about biosecurity and getting hands on with an RSPB warden’s duties for a day.

When you arrive on the island you can pick up a backpack with tools you’ll need and a map for your walk around the island.

As you go around you can look out for the native seabird and plant species present on the island that it’s important to protect from invasive species. Mousa is special as it is home to thousands of European storm-petrels as well as many other seabirds such as great skuas and Arctic terns.

The warden’s pack you can take around Mousa with you. Photo by Holly Paget-Brown

One of the key reasons European storm-petrel flock to Mousa is because it has no mammal predators living on it! This makes it a safe place to breed. Storm petrels nest in the Broch on Mousa and in other areas such as on the stony beach (photo at top of page by Holly Paget-Brown). It is important to keep Mousa free from invasive mammalian predators  so our special native species can continue to thrive.

Keep an eye out for the surveillance that’s out on the island and see if you can spot any rodent teeth marks on the wax block in the ‘warden’s box’. This is a useful tool used on many islands to help monitor whether there are any rodent species present. The smell of the chocolate wax attracts them and they leave distinctive gnaw marks which can help to identify if they’ve reached an island.

You’ll learn about some key things to remember when you’re on Mousa and other seabird islands:

  • Don’t disturb the wildlife
  • Stay on the path
  • Take your rubbish home with you
  • Rats and mice like to hide in bags and boxes: check your bags for stowaways before getting on the boat
  • If you see an animal that shouldn’t be there, report it!
  • Don’t climb on the stone walls, there may be storm petrels nesting in there
  • Inspire others to do the same

So if you’re on Shetland why not take a trip to Mousa and find out more about biosecurity and our incredible native species!

As well as when on Mousa, keep an eye out on other seabird SPA islands in Shetland for invasive predators and follow the other key biosecurity guidelines you’ve learnt on your visits.

The map to follow around Mousa with a few things to look out for along the way. Photo by Holly Paget-Brown

Mammalian predators aren’t the only non-native species in Shetland, there are many in the marine environment as well. As you walk around Mousa or if you’re ever close to the seashore or out for a swim, why not keep an eye out for some of our non-native and indicator marine species. Take a look at the Shetland Community Wildlife Group’s guide to species of interest here: Identification Guides | Shetland Community Wildlife Group.


Introduced animals in Shetland

Guest blog by Paul Harvey, Shetland Amenity Trust

Yesterday we considered a few invasive plants that have the potential to wreak havoc among our native plants, today it’s the turn of animals. Let’s start with land mammals. There was no land bridge between Shetland and the British mainland or continental Europe after the last ice age some 10-12,000 years ago. It is therefore highly likely that all of Shetland’s resident land mammals, yes even the Otter, were introduced to the islands by humans. Some of these were unintended consequences of human activity but some were by design. Bats do of course occur naturally, albeit rarely, as they can fly but alas it seems that we have insufficient volumes of flying insects in our short, cold summers to enable them to colonise the islands. They could yet do though on the back of global warming, and currently breed as close as Orkney.

Potentially the most serious of these introduced land mammals for our native wildlife is one of the most recent and was indeed deliberate. In the 1980s, a few folk thought it was a good idea to introduce ferrets to control rabbit numbers. Well, that turned out well. The ferrets flourished, bred, started to revert back to animals that look much more like their polecat ancestors and seem to have had little impact on the rabbit population. They almost certainly have, however, contributed to the declines observed in some of our ground-nesting native birds and also help themselves to domestic ducks and poultry when the opportunity arises. If you are in any doubt as to how successful this introduction was then just look at the number of polecat x ferret road kills in autumn when the animals are starting to struggle to find food. It is unlikely that this species could ever be eradicated from the Isles now even if someone was to throw a six or seven figure sum at the task.

Stoats were also introduced deliberately, or so the story goes. Some time before the 17th century they were apparently brought in and released by the King’s falconer to spite some local folk who had refused to give their levy of hens demanded as food for his young falcons. They too will feed primarily on rabbits but I’m sure are not averse to a clutch of birds’ eggs or a brood of young birds if they happen across them. They, though, seem to have reached an equilibrium in Shetland, are rarely seen in comparison to the burgeoning population of ferret x polecats and seem to present less of a threat to our native birds.

Stoats (photo at top of page by Jim Nicholson) were supposedly introduced over 300 years ago but their population has not increased as markedly as the polecat x ferret which was introduced just over 30 years ago.

Another guilty party is our much-loved Hedgehog. I love hedgehogs too but only where they belong and that does not extend to Scottish Islands! Here they do untold damage as they stumble around munching any eggs that they come across. They have been known to devour practically the entire contents of an Arctic Tern colony here in Shetland. The problem is our ground-nesting terns and waders have just not evolved to co-exist with these alien mammals.

Hedgehogs (right) although cute can cause havoc for ground-nesting birds when they are introduced to offshore islands like Shetland.

Photo by Jim Nicholson

Most of the mammals I have mentioned to date have not been introduced (or at least successfully introduced) to our outer islands, which is a blessing for their native birds. One alien mammal has, though, been introduced to every island with human inhabitants and perhaps leads to more controversy than any other. The good old domestic cat. The problem is some of these cats become feral and then breed with other domestic, or feral, cats and before you know it there is a significant population of ‘wild’ feral cats. Seabirds really have no defences against those feral cats that choose to make their homes on the slopes of our seabird colonies. Why wouldn’t you move onto a cliff with an endless supply of cheap food. Radio-tracking has shown that even our beloved pet moggies – go far, far further from home than we realise after the hours of darkness. Who knows what dastardly deeds they get up to? The impact of cats is well illustrated by the story of Noss National Nature Reserve. Cats once roamed the island under the auspices of bringing the local rabbit population under control. Scottish Natural Heritage came to an agreement with the owner to remove cats from the island and since then Storm Petrels have started to breed there.

Pink-barred Sallow moth – Photo by Jim Nicholson

Some moths like this Pink-barred Sallow (above) have probably arrived in Shetland as eggs or larvae on introduced plants but they do not appear to have an impact on native species and add a nice splash of colour to the islands.

What of other animals? There is no doubt that a whole variety of invertebrates have colonised the islands after being brought here as eggs or larvae among plants. Many of these may well be harmless and some e.g. moths add extra colour to the scene but others are more sinister. The boom in horticulture in Shetland has certainly made the island a prettier place to live but it is also responsible for introducing the New Zealand Flatworm the length and breadth of the isles. This species was first introduced to the UK in the 1960s. It lives on earthworms covering them in its digestive juices to dissolve them before sucking them up. Earthworms are a vital part of a healthy soil and the fear was that the flatworms would destroy earthworm populations and therefore soil fertility. Although the flatworms do reduce earthworm numbers it seems that without human interference they are not good at getting around so remain largely restricted to human-altered habitats. Thus far they have not had quite as disastrous an impact as first feared.

The New Zealand flatworm – Photo from FERA, courtesy of GB NNSS

Humans have an unenviable reputation for casing untold damage to natural habitats through a variety of processes – but the introduction of alien plants and animals is near the top of the list. The ecology of some island groups has been fundamentally altered through such introductions – only 17 of the 50 or so honeycreepers that once lived on the Hawaiian islands remain, the others are extinct; habitat destruction, introduced mammalian predators and diseases associated with introduced mosquitos have all taken their toll. And of course, the loss of these honeycreepers, some of which were key pollinators of endemic plants, has led to the loss of some plants too. Here in Shetland we have been spared the worst of these excesses but we should remain cautious about the impacts of introduced animals on our native fauna.


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.


Monitoring marine non-natives at UHI Shetland

Today we’re exploring the species that get moved around across oceans and continents to be introduced to our coastal seas. As the world becomes increasingly connected by trade, there are more opportunities for species to hitch-hike attached to boats or within ballast water, or be accidentally transported for aquaculture, released from aquariums or as part of live food imports.

The species we find in the UK which are commonly introduced are those which are good at living or growing in man-made environments – i.e. they can be found attached to hard structures like boats, piers or pontoons.

Free-swimming species such as fish and jellyfish have caused big impacts in other parts of the world, introduced when canals like the Suez Canal connect two previously isolated water bodies. Hundreds of species have moved from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean along this pathway.

Marine species can be transported vast distances and no place is remote enough to escape the impact – there is increasing worry about the potential introduction of novel species to the Arctic and Antarctica on visiting boats. These environments could be especially vulnerable to novel species due to their isolation and unique habitats.

Becky (left) monitoring non-native species on a research trip to Svalbard in the arctic with colleagues from Wageningen University & Research (photo by Hans Verdaat).

Monitoring in Shetland

Rachel and Kate at UHI Shetland look at the fouling species in a Shetland marina

At UHI Shetland, we monitor key sites to detect the arrival of new species and track the spread of marine non-natives already present in Shetland. We do this every year by setting out monitoring panels in marinas and harbours as these environments are most at risk. Native and non-native fouling species that like to grow on hard structures settle on these plates. We remove the plates after 3 months or so and identify the different species. This gives us an easy way to look at what’s living under the surface without having to go for a swim.

We have been carrying out this monitoring over the last decade. There are records of 12 marine non-native species in Shetland which is far fewer than are found in the south of the UK, or in mainland Scotland, potentially as a result of the colder waters around Shetland.

However, we still have had a few introductions which have the potential to cause problems. For example, the orange ripple bryozoan, a type of animal where lots of individuals housed in box-like outer skeletons (zooids) which form a larger colony. It was originally from the northwest Pacific but has been found in Scotland since 2010. It is used to cold-waters and can come to dominate fouling communities that grow on hard structures, taking over space from native species.

Causing problems

The reason why we’re so keen to detect species quickly once they arrive is that it’s much harder to control the impact they have once they have become established and started to spread. And while many non-natives don’t cause any problems, others can harm both the environment and people.

Invasive species can cause problems for marine industries, for instance by growing on structures such as piers or slipways, by getting tangled in boat propellors, or by spreading disease or growing on aquaculture species. They can also change how we interact with the sea. The introduction of a jellyfish species Rhopilema nomadica to the Mediterranean meant more people were being stung on beaches, resulting in millions lost in reduced visitor numbers for the tourism industry.

Some changes might not have such big economic consequences, but can still change how people interact with the environment. The invasive wireweed Sargassum muticum has become the dominant species in rockpools in some areas of the south of England and on the Isle of Man, and because it floats and is very stringy and tough it means people are more likely to trip and fall over when exploring rockpools as it gets tangled around your legs.

The invasive wireweed Sargassum muticum dominating a rock pool by cutting out light for other species in the Isle of Man. This is one of the species we’re on the lookout for in Shetland.

Keeping an eye out

It’s important that we detect new arrivals quickly and it is challenging to monitor species over the long coastline so we also rely on members of the public looking out for key species or noticing unusual species while they are out and about. Species we are most concerned about include wireweed, Sargassum muticum, and the Carpet seasquirt, Didemnum vexillum. We have an identification guide that sets out key species we’re interested in hearing about if you find them on Shetland. Any records can be sent via the shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.org email address, with a note of where exactly you found something, a description and a photo.

Preventing the spread of invasive plants and animals is something we can all help with. If you are moving equipment or boats, paddleboards or snorkel gear between water bodies, and especially on/off Shetland you should follow “Check, Clean, Dry”. The GB Non-native Species Secretariat website has a lot of information on biosecurity in the UK, including information specific to the marine environment for industry and individuals.

Download our INNS guide here

Anyone interested in learning more about non-native species is welcome to come and see what we do at one of our events in Scalloway or Burravoe this week, and we’ll be running further training in the summer for anyone who wants to get more actively involved in monitoring. Let us know if you’d be interested in this by dropping us an email!

You can find out more information about the work we do on marine non-natives on the UHI Shetland website – click here


Welcome to INNS Week!

This week is the UK’s Invasive Species Week which aims to raise awareness of the issues that invasive species can cause and of the work being done to prevent their spread and reduce impacts.

So what is an invasive non-native species and why do we worry about them? Non-native species (which can also be called alien or introduced species!) are animals and plants which have been moved to new locations outside their native range. The majority of these don’t cause any problems but a few can have drastic consequences in their new environments, harming other wildlife or causing problems for the people that live and work there – these are known as invasive non-native species (or INNS).

Non-native species are moved by humans – either intentionally such as for food or as pets, or accidentally as hitchhikers on boats, equipment or with other organisms. For instance, people think the invasive wireweed Sargassum muticum (header photo) was introduced to Europe when it was used as packing material for oysters being moved from the USA to France in the 1960s. It’s now widespread across a lot of the coasts in the south of the UK, and a species we’re keen for folks to keep an eye out for on Shetland’s coasts.

Non-native species can be introduced into any type of habitats – on land, into rivers, or into seas. And species that are part of our native wildlife here cause problems in other parts of the world. For instance our native green shore crab (Carcinus maenas) which is a normal shoreline species in the UK has competed with native crabs after its introduction to the USA and is considered a pest. It’s always fun chatting to other non-native species researchers from across the world, as we’re often studying the same species but consider each other’s native species the problem – it gets a bit confusing!

Image by Sara Redstone, GBNNSS – Oak processionary moth caterpillars devouring an oak tree.

The environmental problems caused by invasive species can range from impacting individual native species to completely changing the structure of habitats. Where invasive species can cause the most environmental damage is to places where the native species do not have any natural defenses. One example of this is the introduction of predators such as rats or mink to islands with nesting birds which naturally have no land predators. The lack of familiarity with novel species can also cause problems for people as well. For instance, caterpillars of the oak processionary moth which was introduced to England in 2005 can cause rashes and breathing problems due to tiny toxic hairs if people disturb them.

Invasive species can also cause costly problems for people by affecting industries, for example the introduction of sea-squirts Styela clava and Didemnum vexillum have caused problems for aquaculture by fouling gear and increasing cleaning costs. In the Black Sea, the introduction of the invasive ctenophore Mnemiopsis leidyi (a small jellyfish-type animal) contributed to the decline of commercial fish stocks in the 1990s by competing with fish for food and eating small fish larvae. It’s hard to predict which species will cause problems so it’s best to take a precautionary approach and try not to move species around.

The invasive sea-squirt Styela clava fouling aquaculture gear in Canada.

Biosecurity

It can be very hard to control a species once it has arrived and begun to spread. The best idea is to stop new species from ever arriving, and to be especially cautious when we want to protect vulnerable habitats or where people’s livelihoods might be affected. We use the term Biosecurity for actions taken to protect places from the introduction of new non-native diseases, plants or animals. This encompasses a wide range of activities and behaviours we can take personally or which are built into how businesses operate.

As individuals we can do things like make sure our boots are clean of mud and seeds before travelling away and back from holiday, cleaning the gear we use to paddleboard, swim or kayak, or stowing food securely and checking for rats or mice when travelling on boats to smaller islands.

Coming up this week

This week we’ll be sharing some information about what non-natives are found in Shetland, and some of the research and work going on to prevent spread into and around the Shetland Islands. We’ll be posting a blog a day and sharing information and resources on social media, so follow along!

Tuesday – Marine non-native species monitoring at UHI Shetland

Wednesday – Introduced plants in Shetland – Guest blog by Paul Harvey, Shetland Amenity Trust

Thursday – Non-native mammals in Shetland, and a flatworm all the way from New Zealand – Guest blog by Paul Harvey, Shetland Amenity Trust

Friday – Keeping an eye out for rodents on Mousa – Guest blog by Holly Paget-Brown, Biosecurity for LIFE

If you want more information on invasive species in the rest of the UK, have a look at the GB Non-native Species Secretariat website!


Doing Less for Nature

By Rhiannon Jehu

I think that this year I’m going to commit myself to doing less for nature. No Mow May is a campaign started by Plantlife and is linked to their wild verges campaign that I mentioned in a blog last year and also to their Citizen Science project called #everyflowercounts Every Flower Counts | Plantlife.

The thinking goes like this:

  • People depend on plants and their products. Many of the plants we depend on, depend on insects to pollinate them.
  • We need to care for our insects so we can care for our plants, so we can care for ourselves and those we love.

However, as the UK population has increased, and agriculture has industrialised to try to feed us all, the number of meadows has reduced and the use of pesticides has increased. This means that people’s gardens are becoming more and more important as refuges for wildlife.

(c) Rhiannon Jehu

In the past it was popular to have a flat, green, single species, manicured lawn. There was stigma against not mowing, but councils and individuals are beginning to understand the benefits of an unmown lawn. If you spend 1 hour a week cutting your lawn your CO2 footprint will be around 293kg per year. Indeed, less mowing and allowing species to arise naturally gives your lawn the opportunity to sequester carbon – to become a better carbon store. Also, a manicured lawn takes a lot of effort to maintain – mowing, raking, weeding (or using weedkillers).

Gardens are often multi-purpose and vary in size. Some people grow vegetables, others flowers, some use them as children’s play areas, and all these different functions need to be taken into account. Plantlife and the RSPB both offer advice on managing your garden to make the most of it and share it with nature at the same time.

Cuckoo Flower
(c) Kate Allan
Heath spotted orchid
(c) Kate Allan

Plantlife suggest giving gardens a ‘Mowhican’ style cut – as with the hair style, cut some grass short and leave other areas long. Allowing two lengths of grass to grow maximises the diversity and quantity of flowers that will arise and this will increase the quantity of nectar your lawn produces and the length of time it is productive. ‘Short-grass’ plants like daisies and clover start flowering again soon after being cut, while areas of longer, unmown grass welcome a different range of flowers, in Shetland this could include yellow rattle, dead nettles (don’t worry, they don’t sting!), selfheal, cuckoo flower and even heath-spotted or northern marsh orchid!

The ideal is to cut the short grass once every month or so to a height of 1 or 2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) then strim all the grass in August or September and remove the clippings. Mow it a couple more times if needed and then let your lawn rest over winter.

Other ideas include rotating patches of long and short grass within your garden so there are always some areas in flower. Or leaving areas long and then cutting strips to areas like the washing line that you want to keep clear for easy and ‘dry footed’ access.

The RSPB describe more detailed ways of creating wildlife habitats in your garden Stop mowing your lawn for nature (rspb.org.uk) and have a range of gardening ideas for all the family Wildlife garden ideas (rspb.org.uk)

(c) Rhiannon Jehu

Dr Trevor Dines a Botanical Specialist at Plantlife said:

“Put simply, the less you mow the more bees and butterflies there will be in your garden.” And that works for me.


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A Celebration of Birds and Bogs

By Rhiannon Jehu

I find birds amazing, they can seem so small, so light weight, so vulnerable looking, and yet they survive in what to us feels like harsh extremes. The RSPB suggest that birds are probably the most researched and recorded wildlife on the planet. At the opposite end of the spectrum, wetlands have often been viewed by people as wastelands. However, they are essential not just for the survival of many of our much loved bird species, but also for our survival as a species. This month I thought that I’d write about 2 different events that have happened almost together this year –RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch that has been running since 1979 and World Wetlands Day which has been celebrated since 1997 and has just become an official UN event.


The Big Garden Birdwatch

The Big Garden Birdwatch is a very popular citizen science project – in 2021 over one million people took part across the UK with 78,000 people counting a total of 1.5 million birds in Scotland. The BGB data was combined with information gathered by 70 other organisations and used in the ‘State of Nature 2019 report’ which in turn is being used to advise and campaign for improvements in nature care. The BGB count is especially important because it has been taking place for so long that it allows trends and changes to be identified. Sadly, this means that we know that over the last 50 years, 40 million birds have vanished from the UK’s skies.

For me, doing the birdwatch is a social experience since we compare notes with neighbours and friends as to what we’ve seen and not seen. This year we saw sparrows, starlings and pigeons. The RSPB ask us to record the maximum number of each species we see with their ‘feet on the ground’ at any one time. This means no counting the flock of geese flying over-head, which can be very frustrating – a case of the ones that got away.

Sparrow looking handsome on a hawthorn. (C) Rhiannon Jehu
Starlings are amazing generalists – I see them at the table, on the beach and amongst the bogs and heather. (C) Rhiannon Jehu

The stats from 2021 show that house sparrows were our most common garden visitor across the UK. In Scotland this was followed by starlings but in England, blue tits came number two. Nationally, sparrow populations have dropped by 58% and starling numbers by 83%, since 1979.


Wetlands

So, where do wetlands come into the equation? The name wetland describes a wide range of habitats, saltwater or fresh, inland or coastal, natural or human-made. In Shetland, this includes our peatlands, blanket bogs, marshes, lochs and lagoons.

Blanket bogs (a type of peatland), form where soils are water-logged and acidic. Conditions are too harsh for many non-specialised species but mosses, especially sphagnums thrive. They can hold up to 20 times their dry weight in water meaning they reduce runoff (and therefore flooding) and hold water during dry periods, reducing the risk of droughts.

Sphagnums and other bog plants break down very slowly and thus build up (at a speed of about 1mm a year) to form layers of peat which can be over 8m deep (Blanket bog | NatureScot). However, though healthy peats store carbon, when they are degraded they release it back into the atmosphere. This means that caring for our bogs is massively important if we are to limit climate change.

(C) Rhiannon Jehu

There are over 30 species of sphagnum moss in the UK, but they are very difficult to tell apart.

(C) Rhiannon Jehu

The Shetland Amenity Trust, with funding from the Peatland ACTION project have so far helped to restore about 400 ha. of Shetlands degraded peatlands as part of a wider national target to restore 250,000 ha. of degraded peatlands by 2030. In Shetland, they are hoping to reach the point where we are restoring 1000 ha. a year. The RSPB in Shetland are also working hard to protect peatlands, employing a dedicated Peatland Officer who works to restore and protect peatland habitats for the benefit of Shetland’s bird species.  

Scotland’s location at the edge of the Atlantic means that it catches a lot of rain which the hard rocks stop from draining away quickly. This combined with agricultural practices has allowed bogs and thus peat to cover almost a quarter of Scotland’s landscape (1.8 million hectares). This is a significant amount of our planet’s blanket bogs which in turn support some of our rarest wildlife. So, whilst some people may view wetlands as not being very productive because we can’t grow many crops in them, globally, they are home to 40% of the world’s known plant and animal species and 30% of known fish species, with, for example, many birds using wetlands as rest & refueling stops during migrations.

In Shetland, the vast extent of peatlands is an important breeding area for wetland birds such as dunlin, golden plover and curlew, giving islanders plenty of opportunity to spot these birds while out and about.

Curlews breed on a range of habitats including moorland and bogs. For me, their song suggests the start of spring (almost)

(C) Rhiannon Jehu

I love watching for the birds that visit our islands and our gardens – even when they hide. Monitoring the wellbeing of individual species, as happens with the Big Garden Birdwatch, helps us to see and understand the long-term situation and can inspire action. However, individual birds trying to survive and reproduce need a wide range of resources and wetlands are incredibly valuable. Caring for them here and around the world is important if we want to give other species and ourselves the opportunity to survive and live well.

If anyone is interested in learning more about carrying out peatland restoration on their hill or apportionment then Sue White from Shetland Amenity Trust would love to hear from you. There are also some ‘how to’ You-tube guides to peat restoration by NatureScot: Peatland Restoration Techniques.



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.