A few years ago, I set out to find Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids in Shetland. They’d never been recorded here before, but it seemed there was a reasonable chance they had, at least once upon a time, occurred here given their range extends up the west side of Ireland and Scotland. I looked for suitable habitat and, after a few sites had drawn a blank, I hit the jackpot – a small colony of Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids in a fenced off flush in the corner of an otherwise unremarkable grassy field.
Of course, it’s not always that simple… usually, one can’t just decide to go and look for something in a place it’s never been seen before and have any hope of actually finding it. Just sometimes, though, it does work… and yesterday, the planets aligned and it happened again.
A few minutes walk away from my home is a good-looking area of enclosed land – fenced off from the common grazing, and untouched by sheep for decades now. It’s a fairly well-drained plot of land, supporting most of the usual Shetland hill suspects – lots of lichen and moss, some heather, Crowberry, various flowering plants like Heath Milkwort and Tormentil. I was walking past it today, as I have for years, gave it more of a calculating look, and said to myself, “that looks like it should have Lesser Twayblades in it…”
Five minutes later, I found my first flowering plant and, around it, many more flowering and non-flowering examples. Once I got my eye in, I kept seeing more and more plants. Slowly and carefully walking a 10 metre transect, I counted 250 plants. To put that in perspective, Lesser Twayblade is known from just a handful of sites in Shetland, and I’ve never found more than 40 plants at the best site I know on Unst. I ran home for my camera and, on returning, promptly found another patch of 50 more plants, including a dozen growing side by side in one small mossy area. Can you see them all?
They’re undoubtedly overlooked throughout Shetland – they’re tiny, barely two centimetres tall, and I’m sure my newly found colony will number many more than the 300 plants I counted in the space of an hour.
Four years ago a visiting locum doctor with sharp eyes found Whalsay’s first ever record of Lesser Twayblade at the other end of the island, three small and unhappy plants on the edge of a bog. I saw them then, but they’ve never reappeared there since – I even looked for them in the past couple of days, fruitlessly. It turns out what’s almost certainly Shetland’s largest known colony of Lesser Twayblades was on my doorstep all along…