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Nature in Shetland

winner of a Shetland Environment Award 2004


Endemic Vertebrates of Shetland



There are no species of vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds or mammals) which are only found in Shetland, although there are three subspecies of two species of birds and three subspecies of one species of mouse. In addition, there are several distinctive Shetland breeds of domestic animals.

Shetland Wren Troglodytes troglodytes zetlandicus Shetland Wrens are slightly larger and darker than the Wrens found in the rest of Britain or on mainland Europe. They also have louder and more varied songs, which are thought to be an adaptation to help males get heard on boulder beaches, which are one of the favoured habitats in Shetland. When population levels are high birds also breed 'inland', along streams or around areas of bushes (the latter being the typical habitat in the rest of Britain). Shetland Wrens breed throughout the islands except on Out Skerries, where they only breed occasionally, and on Fair Isle, where there is a different subspecies. The only estimate of the breeding population is from the beginning of the 21st century, when there were estimated to be between 1,500 and 3,000 pairs. 

Adult (two left) and juvenile Shetland Wrens on Unst - Mike Pennington
  • Fair Isle Wren Troglodytes troglodytes fridariensis Fair Isle Wren is not as dark as Shetland Wren, but it is still darker and larger than Wrens found in the rest of Britain or on mainland Europe. The song is also distinct. As it is only found on Fair Isle and nowhere else in the world, the population is tiny, varying between 10 and 50 pairs, nearly all breeding on boulder beaches.

  • Shetland Starling Sturnus vulgaris zetlandicus The Shetland Starling is only very slightly different to the Common Starling which breeds over most of the rest of Europe. It has a slightly larger bill and the juveniles are usually very dark. Shetland Starlings breed throughout the islands although birds breeding on Fair Isle are the least distinctive. The only estimate of the breeding population is from the beginning of the 21st century, when there were estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000 pairs. [Birds from the Outer Hebrides have been included in zetlandicus, which would mean this race is not endemic to Shetland, but the most recent analysis concluded that this treatment was not valid and that only Shetland birds should be named zetlandicus.] 

    Shetland Starlings - Mike Pennington

    Shetland Field Mouse Apodemus sylvaticus granti, A. s. thuleo, A. s. fridariensis This mouse is normally known as the Wood Mouse over most of Britain, but is more appropriately known as the 'Hill Mouse' or 'Field Mouse' in Shetland. Like all terrestrial mammals in Shetland, mice were brought to the islands by humans; in this case accidentally. It was once thought that mice arrived in Shetland with the Vikings, but it is now known that they were here long before this. Shetland Field Mice are larger and darker than mice found in the rest of Britain or on mainland Europe. Shetland Field Mice breed on all islands inhabited by humans. The named subspecies are A. s. granti described from Yell, A. s. thuleo from Foula and A. s. friadriensis from Fair Isle. The races found elsewhere in Shetland are unknown - it is likely that the Yell race breeds elsewhere but it is possible that new races are awaiting description on other islands.

    Photo  from Unst by Mike Pennington

    Shetland Breeds
    Domestic animals are subject to more selection pressure than wild animals as they are deliberately selected by man to show certain traits. Nevertheless, the breeds of animals found in Shetland do show adaptations to the Shetland environment.
    • Shetland Goose - very unusually, the goose is always grey and white and gander is white
    • Shetland Duck - typically black with a white breast
    • Shetland Cattle - a  small tough breed, in several colour varieties but often black and white
    • Shetland Sheep - a small tough breed, in several colour varieties but usually white these days
    • Shetland Pony - the world famous small pony
    • Shetland Pig - long extinct, but probably most similar to a small Tamworth
    • Shetland Sheepdog - a debatable breed, the Kennel Club variety probably differing significantly from the dogs that were used in Shetland in the past
    Aspinall, S. & Aspinall, R. 2007. Fair Isle's Favourite Geodytes. Fair Isle Bird Observatory Report 2006: 128-131.
    Bowie, S. H. U. 2005. Shetland's Native Domestic Animals. privately published
    Johnston, J. L. 1999. A Naturalist's Shetland. T & A. D. Poyser, London.
    McGowan, R. Y., Clugston, D. L. & Forrester, R. W. 2003. Scotland's endemic subspecies. Scottish Birds 24: 18-35.
    Pennington, M. G., Osborn, K., Harvey, P. V., Riddington R., Okill, J.D., Ellis, P.M. & Heubeck M. 2004. The Birds of Shetland. Christopher Helm, London.


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