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The most numerous marine mammals in Shetland waters are two species of seal - the Grey Seal and the Common Seal (also known as Harbour Seal). Collectively known in Shetland as 'selkies' the Grey Seal is also known as the 'haaf fish' (deep sea fish), because it prefers more open sea conditions, while the Common Seal is known as 'tang fish' (seaweed fish) because of its preference for more sheltered shores and islands. There is also a lot of folklore surrounding 'selkies' coming ashore having cast off their skins and been transformed into beautiful people, and many an islander would fall in love with a 'selkie' and go back to the sea with them. In years gone by Shetlanders hunted seals for their blubber, used for oil, and their skins which were used to make clothes; only occasionally would the flesh would be eaten. More recently seals have been hunted for their pelts. Most valuable was the skin of a pup, or the adult just after moulting, providing it had not been scarred.

Grey and Common Seals can be quite difficult to tell apart, although with practice it can be reasonably straightforward. Size is one factor distinguishing the two. Grey Seals are usually much bigger with a fully grown adult male or bull reaching 2.2 m in length and weighing 220 kg, the females reaching 1.8 m and weighing 150 kg. A fully grown male Common Seal only reaches 1.8 m and weighs 115 kg. There are differences in the colour and patterns of the fur, although these features are of little practical use as they vary with the sex, age, whether or not the fur is wet or dry and whether the animal is moulting its coat.

Probably the easiest way to tell them apart is the shape of the head. The Grey Seal has a much larger head with a high muzzle often referred to as a Roman nose, whereas the Common Seal has a low dog-like muzzle with a relatively rounded head and distinct forehead producing a much more appealing and expressive appearance. The nostrils of the Common Seal form a 'V' shape while the Grey's are much more parallel. 


Carnivora: Phocidae (true seals)
Grey Seal (Shetland name Haaf FishHalichoreus griseus

Common throughout the islands. A full survey of pupping sites in Shetland in 1983 found a total of 1000 pups and led to an estimate of a population of 3500 animals in total. Principal pupping sites are visited annually and the population is believed to be stable. Good places to see this species are at Sumburgh Head where they may be hauled out on the rocks at the base of the cliffs during the summer, or around Lerwick Harbour where they are opportunistic feeders around the fish processing factories on the shoreline. but Commoner in open water and less frequent in enclosed voes than Common Seals. Satellite-tagging studies have show that Shetland Grey Seals may travel long distances. Grey Seals give birth to their pups late in the year, around October, usually on beaches at the foot of cliffs, on small undisturbed islands or in sea-caves. When it is born, the pup has a white furry coat which it sheds after about three weeks. Until this time it has to remain on land and is suckled by the mother. Females tend to moult in February with the males later in March and it is at this time they spend long periods hauled out, although not at their breeding sites.

Common Seal  (Shetland name Tang FishPhoca vitulina

Common throughout the islands, The Shetland population was counted in 1997 using an aerial thermal image survey of the coastline and a total of 6,000 was counted. This is a minimum figure as only those animals hauled out on rocks were recorded, although this was thought to represent between 60-80% of the total population.Some of the largest concentrations are around Fitful Head in south Mainland, the isle of Mousa (where they are very easy to see), and the north Mainland coastline. Common Seals usually give birth to their pups in June. The pups shed their white furry coats during before birth and are able to swim immediately. The pup will continue to feed from its mother for about 4-6 weeks, at which point the female will become sexually receptive and will abandon the pup leaving it to fend for itself. Common Seals begin moulting during July and finish during September, females and young animals moult first, followed by males.

Ringed Seal  Pusa hispida

Vagrant: two definite records. One was shot on Whalsay in 1968 and another at Cullivoe, Yell, 30th-31st July 2001, which had been 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. In addition, an animal taken into care in Northumberland was released in Shetland in May 1991. 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.

Ringed Seal, Shetland
Harp Seal  Pagophilus groenlandica

Vagrant: seven records:

  • 1830 - Burrafirth, Unst, shot, October

  • 1864 - Baltasound, 'several', March

  •  c.1900 - near Fitful Head, no date 

  • 1901 - near Hillswick, 19th August 

  • 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 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.

Harp Seal
Hooded Seal  Cystophora cristata

Vagrant: five records.

  • 19thC - Quendale, killed, no date 

  • 19thC - Spiggie, killed, no date 

  • 1980   - Haaf Gruney, juvenile, July 

  • 1991   - Mid Yell, 24th-27th May

  • 1993   - Norwick, juvenile male, 5th February, taken into care later released

  • 2001  - Mangaster Voe, juvenile, 25th April taken into care and later released.

The two 19th 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.

Hooded Seal
Bearded Seal  Erignathus barbatus

Vagrant 17 records:

  • 1956 -  Walls, June, filmed and appears in the film 'The Edge of Britain'

  • 1977 -  Cullivoe, March

  • 1977 -  Burra, no date

  • 1981 -  Mid Yell, 8th April to 13th May 

  • 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, 9th April to at least the third week of June

  • 2005 -  Easter Quarff, 30th April to 3rd May

  • 2010 -  Mid Yell Voe, 4th January to 9th April

  • 2011 -  Baltasound, 24th March to 10th April

  • 2013 -  Mid Yell and Basta Voe, 3rd April to 10th November

  • 2018 -  Lerwick, 11th May to 18th July

  • 2019 -  Bridge End, Burra, 14th-16th November

In addition, an animal taken into care in Lincolnshire in June 1998 was flown to Shetland and released at Hillswick on 13th September. All records are believed to relate to different individuals. 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.

Bearded Seal
Carnivora: Odobenidae (walrus)
Walrus  Odobenus rosmarus  

There have been at least 14 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    -  Out Skerries, no date

  • c.1875 -  Papa Sound, no date

  • c.1895 -  Out Skerries, no date

  • 1920    -  Out Skerries, no date

  • 1926    -  Uyea, North Roe, male with tusks, September, later seen at Hillswick, Scousburgh, Sumburgh Head from 1st October 'for some weeks', and then Bressay, including a trip to Whalsay, until November

  • 1981    -  Gutcher and Mid Yell, male with tusks, July 

  • 1986    -  Fetlar, 29th June, male with tusks, later seen off Lunna Ness, 7th July and Papa Stour, late July

  • 2002    -  Hascosay, male with tusks, July

  • 2018    -  Out Skerries, male with tusks, 3rd-5th June

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.

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

Seals found stranded on beaches may 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 Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary, The Booth, Hillswick, Shetland. (01806) 503348, who will be able to advise or arrange suitable rehabilitation.

Written by Kevin Osborn & Mike Pennington Updated 26th July 2020

incorporating information provided by Shetland Biological Records Centre run by Shetland Amenity Trust

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