Whooper swans are once again breeding on Spiggie Loch in the South Mainland after a gap of nearly a century.
The last successful breeding on the RSPB reserve took place at the end of World War I, and although the species has very occasionally bred elsewhere in Shetland in recent years, this year’s four cygnets are exciting news for the reserve.
The parent birds did not produce young last year, and this year hatched five eggs. However one cygnet disappeared, probably killed by predators.
RSPB Shetland warden for the South Mainland Helen Moncrieff said it was “fantastic news” for Shetland’s population of whoopers, which are amber-listed and a Schedule One species, meaning it is forbidden to go near the nest and take photographs without a government licence.
The whoopers will stay as a family until late winter or early spring before the cygnets start living independently.
The whooper swan is a large white swan with a long thin neck, which it usually holds erect, and black legs. Its black bill has a large triangular patch of yellow on it. It is mainly a winter visitor to the UK from Iceland, and can usually be seen from the second week in September to March. Numbers peak in late October or early November.
Breeding takes place in Iceland, and is uncommon in Shetland.
Some individuals which are non-breeders are in Shetland all year round, but they are commonest as migrants. However overwintering numbers have fallen in recent years.
The history of breeding whooper swans at the reserve began in 1907 when a wounded bird from nearby Loch of Clumlie was captured and released on Spiggie Loch to join another bird.
The pair first bred in 1910 at Spiggie raising three young, and breeding continued irregularly until the end of World War I, with any young usually departing the following spring.
But in the winter of 1919/20 the swans were shot by men returning from the war.
Two whoopers spent the summer in Dunrossness in 1949 and this was regarded as exceptional. They made excellent parents, and while the female was on the nest, the male was seen to chase greylag geese away aggressively for up to a mile.