Zetland (Shetland) Raptor Study Group

The Zetland (Shetland) Raptor Study Group was formed in 2015, initially with 11 members. The Group’s main aim was to improve raptor monitoring in Shetland, through better coverage of the islands and more coordinated and systematic recording. Raptors have been monitored on the islands for decades, by a variety of conservation bodies and individuals, but coverage has been highly variable from year to year. Becoming part of the Scottish RSG enabled Shetland to be part of the national scheme to monitor and support raptors effectively. 

Zetland, the former name for the islands, was adopted as part of the group’s name to ensure that, when abbreviated, no confusion would occur with the parent group, SRSG.  

ZRSG is the youngest of the raptor study groups in Scotland, and rather different from the rest because Shetland is notably lacking in breeding raptor species. The relatively limited supply of prey species (in particular, there are no voles in Shetland) and sparse tree cover are two key factors. In comparison, nearby Orkney is much closer to the mainland and in those islands the Orkney Vole helps support an abundance of breeding Hen Harriers, Kestrels and Short-eared Owls, together with White-tailed and Golden Eagles in recent years.

Systematic raptor monitoring in Shetland began in 1976, with Dave Okill and colleagues focussing on Merlins, Peregrines and Ravens, mainly for ringing purposes. With the arrival of Pete Ellis in the 1980s, and subsequently other birdwatchers, the scale of monitoring in the isles began to increase.

Nowadays, group members attempt to monitor almost 100 Merlin sites each year (achieving 70-90% coverage) together with around 50 Ravens, a handful of Peregrines and, since 2018, up to 30 Sparrowhawk sites. In recent years, very small numbers of Long-eared and Short-eared Owls have been found breeding. Other breeders in the past have included White-tailed Eagle, Kestrel (modern records from 1992 and 2012, but there are few records since 1900) and Hen Harrier (which may have bred before 1900). Shetland is of course also famous for its breeding Snowy Owls. A nest with seven eggs, found by the late Bobby Tulloch on Fetlar in 1967, produced five fledged young. Further breeding attempts followed, and young fledged successfully in every year bar one through to 1975.  

Among the regular breeding and migrant raptors, many have local Shetland dialect names: Merlins are known as Smirls/Smyrils or Peerie Hawks, White-tailed Eagles as Ernes, Peregrines as Stock or Muckle Hawks, Osprey as Fish Hawks, owls as Catyogles and Ravens as Corbies.

The Raven is treated as an ‘honorary raptor’ by SRSG, and is by far Shetland’s most common breeding ‘raptor’. They are found on all inhabited (and many uninhabited) islands. A project is currently ongoing to assess the total number of territories on the islands; it is believed to be around 300 territories, though not all of these will be occupied by a breeding pair each year. However, several areas have few recent or accurate data and more work is needed to obtain a final estimate. 

Despite breeding in Orkney for decades, the first breeding Sparrowhawks in Shetland were discovered only in 2018. By 2022 there were almost 30 known sites and that number is steadily increasing. In 2022, ZRSG began colour-ringing Sparrowhawk chicks with red colour rings, to help establish the movements of Shetland-hatched birds once they leave the nest.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Shetland was one of the last areas in Scotland to support White-tailed Eagles (an albino bird was shot in Shetland in 1918, although the last breeding birds were in Skye in 1916). Since 2010, increasingly regular sightings of several individuals of varying ages gives us hope that the Erne will re-establish its rightful place as a Shetland breeding bird in the coming years. 

Chair: Logan Johnson  ZRSG

Contact: zrsg.1@hotmail.com