Today’s blog is by Conservation Scientist, Rob Hughes, on the first, comprehensive report of breeding birds on the Shetland Islands

Shetland’s avifauna is largely known for its globally important seabird populations and rarer UK breeding species such as nationally important populations of red-necked phalaropes and whimbrels, however it’s commoner wader and passerine populations have received less attention.

Volunteers needed to take part in the national Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) on Shetland has been low, due to many of the randomly allocated 1-km survey squares being in remote areas. Therefore in 2002, the Shetland Breeding Bird Survey (SBBS) was established as a partnership between the Shetland Amenity Trust and Shetland Bird Club.

In the 18 years since 2002, an impressive 145 1-km squares spread across the isles have been surveyed, allowing Shetland population trends for 12 common breeding passerine and wader species to be estimated for the first time.


SBBS data collected by volunteers between 2002 and 2019 has revealed that oystercatcher, lapwing and redshank populations have declined at a similar rate to elsewhere in the UK. However, for curlew no population change was detected in Shetland in contrast to the declines observed in this species in Scotland and the UK as a whole.

Curlew are faring better with populations remaining stable on Shetland compared to the rest of the UK © Andy Hay (

Similarly, for passerines, declines of skylark and wheatear in Shetland were comparable to declines observed across the rest of the UK. However, there was better news for starling and house sparrow populations, which have both increased on the isles in contrast to declines at the UK level.

Understanding bird trends on a regional scale is important for many reasons and without SBBS coverage, incremental population changes may go unnoticed for long periods. Drivers of population change can be local as well as global, and it cannot be assumed that bird populations on Shetland behave the same way as elsewhere in the UK.

Shetland’s endemic subspecies of wren (Troglodytes troglodytes zetlandicus) population trends remain stable © Kristofer Wilson


It would not have been possible to generate these trends without the hard work of all the volunteer surveyors on Shetland. I’m also grateful to the co-authors Nina O’Hanlon and John Calladine from BTO and most importantly the coordinator Paul Harvey from Shetland Amenity Trust without whom the SBBS would have never started.

You can read the full report in the journal Bird Study here.

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