By JOHN ROBERTSON
WOMEN in Shetland are producing more babies than any other part of Scotland, giving the islands its highest birth rate for 12 years.
The number of babies born in hospital jumped by 40 to a total of 266 in the year ending 31st March 2007, amounting to a birth rate of 65.2 per 1,000 women. It was significantly higher than Scotland’s rate of 52.5 but still a far cry from 30 years ago in Shetland when over 80 a year were arriving per 1,000 women.
In terms of sheer numbers, the harvest of 266 babies was the highest for seven years but the dwindling population of recent years actually made it the highest birth rate since 1995. It returned Shetland more to the level of the ‘80s and ‘90s, suggesting the community may have a rosier future than some demographic forecasts have led us to believe.
2006/07 was the second year running that Shetland had the highest birth rate in the country with the 54.6 recorded in 05/06 again considerably over the Scottish average of 50 for that year.
Island air appears to be good for breeding because the Western Isles was the second-most prolific health board area last year with 63.2 births per 1,000 women and Orkney was third with 58.4.
Shetland’s consultant in public health Dr Susan Laidlaw said there was anecdotal evidence to suggest that Shetland’s birth ratio is boosted by some islanders moving home when they are ready to have families. “They might leave when they are younger, for college, work or training, but come back because I think we recognise Shetland has quite a good quality of life for most people,” she said.
She agreed that the jump in numbers from 226 to 266 looked like more than just a statistical blip. “It is obviously different to previous years and if that continues over the next several years perhaps it is showing that there is families settling and having children in Shetland.”
She suggested a range of possible reasons why the birth rate was still considerably lower than a generation ago, including the trend towards smaller families and with mothers only starting to have babies at an older age they have less time so do not tend to have so many.
Better contraceptives and family planning also have an effect in reducing the number of unplanned children.
Baby numbers used to top 300 almost every year in Shetland until 1996 when numbers began falling, reaching as low as 216 in 2001 – when the birth rate fell to the lowest recorded point of 50.2 per 1,000 women.
Although the statistics are now a year and a half out of date the detailed breakdown has only just been released by the information services division of the NHS. The figures do not include home births and births at non-NHS hospitals. Statistics for places like Shetland are also prone to dramatic trends because of the small size of the population which can be misleading.