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Nature in Shetland

winner of a Shetland Environment Award 2004


Shetland Sea Mammal Group



Vagrant Seals in Shetland

Ringed Seal  Phoca hispida

There have been two definite records:

1968    Whalsay, shot, no date (Berry & Johnston 1980)
2001    Cullivoe, Yell, 30th-31st July, also seen at Loch of Gutcher a few days earlier

The skin of the first individual was retained and the identification confirmed. Other individuals were reputedly shot in the 1960s during culls of Common Seals, but this is the only acceptable record from that period. The second was seen swimming in fresh water in the Loch of Gutcher before reappearing at Cullivoe. This species, which is found mainly in the High Arctic but with an isolated population in the northern Baltic, is very difficult to separate from the Common Seal.

In addition, an animal taken into care in Northumberland was released in Shetland in May 1991.

Photo: The Cullivoe Ringed Seal - Terry Holmes

Harp Seal  Phoca groenlandica  

There have been seven records:

1830     Burrafirth, Unst, shot, October (Evans & Buckley 1899)
1864     Baltasound, 'several', March (Evans & Buckley 1899)
c.1900   near Fitful Head, no date (Venables & Venables 1955)
1901      near Hillswick, 19th August (Venables & Venables 1955)
1968      Ronas Voe, 28th April
1987      Catfirth, 31st January to 3rd February
1987      Hamnavoe, Yell, male, 7th-9th February, dead on the last date

The individual in 1830 was thought to be an escaped pet brought back from the whaling as it was very tame, although this is not unusual for this species. While referring to the 1864 records Saxby claimed that the species was actually regular on Unst during hard weather! The 1968 record only came to light following the 1987 records, when Mike Richardson of the Nature Conservancy Council in Lerwick was given a convincing verbal description, which he considered reliable. The 1987 records coincided with an exceptional influx into southern Norway, apparently linked to food shortages. Normally, this species remains around the edge of the Arctic pack-ice.

Photo: the 1987 Hamnavoe, Yell Harp Seal - the late Bobby Tulloch

Bearded Seal  Erignathus barbatus

There have been eleven records:

1956     Mainland, no location or date, filmed and appears in the film 'The Edge of Britain'
1977     Cullivoe, no date (Tulloch 1988)
1977     Burra, no date
1981     Mid Yell, no date (Tulloch 1988)
1986     Ronas Voe, 18th March
1987     Weisdale, 6th to at least mid-February
1987     Burra, 22nd March into April
1988     Bressay, 30th November
1988     Burra, 29th December
1993     Mid Yell, mid May
2000     Mid Yell, intermittently from 9th April to at least the third week of June

All records are believed to relate to different individuals. The first Burra record only came to light at the time of the second record, when Mike Richardson of the [then] Nature Conservancy Council was shown a close range photograph taken ten years earlier at the same locality! This species breeds closer to Shetland than the other vagrant seals, but it is not usually as migratory. It is therefore surprising that this is the commonest vagrant seal in recent years, especially as this species' main food is shellfish.

Photo - the Cullivoe, Yell Bearded Seal in 1977 - the late Bobby Tulloch

Hooded Seal   Cystophora cristata  

There have been five records:

19thC    Quendale, killed, no date (Evans & Buckley 1899)
19thC    Spiggie, killed, no date (Evans & Buckley 1899)
1980      Haaf Gruney, juvenile, July (Tulloch 1988)
1991      Mid Yell, 24th-27th May
1993      Norwick, juvenile male, 5th February, taken into care and rehabilitated

The two nineteenth century records were probably in the 1870s or 1880s, and both were seen by men familiar with the species from their trips to the Greenland whaling. The 1980 juvenile was only a couple of months old, and should still have been on the Arctic pack-ice, where this species spends most of its life.

In addition, an animal taken into care in Suffolk was released in Shetland in October 1989.

photo - the 1991 Hooded Seal at Mid Yell - Pete Ellis

Walrus  Odobenus rosmarus  

There have been at least 13 records:

1815     Fetlar, shot, summer
1815     Fetlar, another, seen, summer
c.1828  Baltasound, summer
c.1840  near Uyea, North Roe, no date
1857     'North Isles', no date
1870     Skerries, no date
c.1875  Papa Sound, no date
c.1895  Skerries, no date
1920     Skerries, no date
1926     male with tusks, Uyea, North Roe, September. Later seen at Hillswick, Scousburgh, Sumburgh Head from 1st October 'for some weeks', and then Bressay, including a trip to Whalsay, until November (all the above records from Venables & Venables 1955)
1981     male with tusks, Gutcher and Mid Yell, July (Tulloch 1988)
1986     male with tusks, Fetlar, 29th June: later seen off Lunna Ness, 7th July and Papa Stour, late July
2002     male with tusks, Hascosay, July

In addition, Walrus remains have also been found in Jarlshof excavations in early Bronze Age levels and there were two unconfirmed reports from Sumburgh in 1976. The 1981 animal, nicknamed 'Wally', became a media celebrity as he took a grand tour down the east coast of Britain, before being flown back north. The 1986 individual was the most impressive however, as it was an adult male with 40cm long tusks.


Photo - the 1981 Walrus at Mid Yell (with small tusks) - the late Bobby Tulloch


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