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Nature in Shetland

winner of a Shetland Environment Award 2004


Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary



Shetland's only Wildlife Sanctuary is based at the Booth in Hillswick. The Booth has been a hive of industry for more than three centuries. The first official records go back to 1698 when Adolf Westermann, a merchant from Hamburg, Germany, registered the building as a bd, or trading post. It was here that all manner of goods were traded between the north European Hanseatic fleet and the local folk of Shetland. Trading, of one form or another, has been continuous at the Booth ever since those early days.

You could say the Booth was the womb from which the whole community of Hillswick was born. It became a magnet drawing people from far and wide, and over the years this led to houses, shops and several businesses springing up in the area. Visitors began to come and enjoy the outstanding natural beauty of this remote part of the isles, and in 1907 a large wooden hotel was built overlooking St. Magnus Bay, to accommodate them all. By the mid 1970's the only trade going on at the Booth was over the bar of Shetland's oldest pub. Then the oil boom arrived bringing wealth and new blood into the community. In 1976, the year that work began on the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal, Jan Bevington took over the premises.

For the next decade Jan was kept busy running the pub and raising three children single handed. Then one summer's evening in 1978, she found a young Common Seal washed up on the beach directly in front of the Booth. It was tiny and barely alive and Jan brought it in and looked after it in her front garden, setting up a children's paddling pool for it to play in. Rosie the seal drew much attention from locals and visitors alike. Word rapidly spread throughout the isles and that summer six more sick seals were brought to the Booth to be cared for and released back to the wild. Jan soon realised there was a need for a haven for these animals and the Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary was born.

photo right - Jan feeding rescued seal pup

Over the next few years all kinds of creatures were brought to the sanctuary - ranging from Hedgehogs to Herons - but Otters and both Common and Grey Seals predominated. In October 1991, after severe storms, almost 100 Grey Seal pups were left stranded on the shores of nearby Ronas Voe. With help, Jan saved 45 of them although the sheer number of animals involved meant that many had to be flown south to other sanctuaries.

Meanwhile the oil boom was trailing off and trade at the pub declining. Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary had to be run on a shoestring basis as Jan sank more and more of her time and effort into looking after the animals brought to her door. Support for the Sanctuary was sought from the oil industry and the local council, pointing out the threat to local wildlife posed by having Europe's largest oil terminal based in Shetland. Little happened until the 5th January 1993 when disaster struck. An oil tanker, the Braer, went aground at Garth's Ness in the southern tip of the isles, spilling 85,000 tonnes of crude oil into the sea. A huge rescue operation for Shetland's wildlife was put into operation. Animal welfare groups and volunteers from all over the world descended on the Booth, which became the response centre for oiled seals and otters. With financial resources now available and along with a small army of volunteers the facilities at the sanctuary were quickly scaled up to receive victims of the spill. In total 37 seals and 7 otters were treated as a result of the spill and almost all of them survived.

The Braer disaster had a colossal impact and changed life at the Booth for good. That October Jan closed the ailing pub business to devote herself entirely to caring for wildlife. She needed some form of income to keep the sanctuary going, so the Booth became a charity and the pub became a caf/restaurant serving vegetarian and vegan food in exchange for donations. These changes have not been achieved without a struggle, but gradually a new way of life is emerging at the Booth. Two kindred spirits, Sam Oliver and Pete Bevington, are now helping Jan realise her dream. Plans for seal pools and an environmental information centre are in the pipeline.

In addition several new ventures are being hatched to complement the sanctuary.

  • a LETSystem (Local Exchange Trading System), based at the Booth, generating cash free trade amongst its growing membership throughout Shetland.

  • a modern day trading post in an adjoining store, recapturing something of the spirit of former days at the Booth.

  • the Dolphin School for Shetland Roots and Culture, reviving ancient traditions in an old Victorian school building just along the road. Here traditional Shetland music, arts and crafts will be brought to life and integrated with modern culture to help bridge the growing divide between the young and old.

As you can see, Rosie the seal brought much more with her than anyone could have imagined at the time.

What to do if you find a stranded or injured seal or otter in Shetland

Occasionally, seals and otters may become entangled in fishing gear and may suffer shock, which can kill them. You can help by taking appropriate action: When seals become entangled in fishing gear offshore, it will take patience and time to release them. It is best done at the surface of the water so that the effective weight is less. If a seal is caught in a trawl or drift net do not lift it out of the water on to the deck if it appears to be active and alert, as it may suffer respiratory collapse or cardiac arrest. Never tow a seal to harbour if this can be avoided. Always ensure that all net and line has been removed from the seal before releasing it. Be particularly careful if you decide to handle an injured otter as they have very sharp and powerful teeth, ideally they should be quickly placed into a darkened box where they will quickly calm down.

Seals found stranded on beaches are sometimes already dead, but may just be injured. Look for wounds such as those made by boat propellers or sharks. Young seals in particular may be exhausted, disorientated or shocked. If you find a seal in this condition contact the sanctuary, who will be able to advise or arrange suitable rehabilitation.

Photos - Common Seal (left), Grey Seal (right)

Contact: Jan Bevington, Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary, The Booth, Hillswick, Shetland  Tel. (01806) 503348

The Hillswick Wildlife Centre is a volunteer organisation and relies on donations to continue its work. If you can help all donations are gratefully received. Donations may be made to the Sanctuary or paid directly into its bank account: The Clydesdale Bank, 106 Commercial Street, Lerwick, Shetland. Bank Code: 82-66-08, Account Number: 30241156

The Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary is a registered charity No. SCO 20979


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