During the stay-at-home phase of the early summer’s Covid-19 restrictions I mostly took my daily exercise pottering around on my Shetland croft – I knew I was blessed to have open space all around me and, as we’ve seen in Part I of my 2020 summary, it was an opportunity to look more carefully than hitherto at the wildflowers growing nearby. Amongst them were some pleasant surprises.
There are just a handful of other houses on the peninsula on which I live and we’re separated from the rest of the island by a large expanse of moorland or, as it’s known here in Shetland, hill. As a rule, I tend not to walk across much of it during the months of summer as I want to avoid disturbing the breeding upland waders that call it home for a few short weeks – amongst them a thriving population of Whimbrels, a bird that’s generally in sharp decline in Britain.
On one of my occasional daily walks off the croft I was skirting around the fringe of the hill, half-heartedly looking for late migrant birds. I was, perhaps, feeling a little frustrated that I couldn’t go further afield in Shetland to look for rarer flowers than those I was finding on the croft, and I wasn’t prepared to make tenuous excuses in order to bend the rules.
Looking at a small, sheltered area of the hill, I thought to myself that it looked like it ought to be good for Lesser Twayblades and, after just a few minutes searching, I found the first of what would prove to be many hundreds of flowering and non-flowering plants. This was a major discovery and represents, I think, the largest known colony of this diminutive orchid in Shetland.
Once lockdown eased, I was asked to survey potential sites for Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids on the Shetland Mainland. I found Shetland’s first record for the species a few years back, and we wanted to see if they existed in isolation. The existing small colony remained in good health, with some outliers found a little distance away and then, a few days later, I learned that more had been discovered up on Unst. This was tremendous news – it always felt likely there would be more just waiting to be found.
But back to my day out – having exhausted the potential sites marked on my map, I decided to treat myself to a wander along a burn that hosts Shetland’s only known population of Great Sundews. Round-leaved Sundew is ubiquitous across the islands, but Great Sundew is a rarer insectivorous proposition altogether. After weeks of mostly looking for wildflowers my eyes seemed to be in good plant-hunting condition – I found a number of satellite colonies that I was hitherto unaware of in the general area of the main, known colony, including one that for numbers and density far outweighed the original site. Not a good place to be a fly! Like those Pugsley’s Marsh Orchids, I’m quietly convinced there are other Great Sundews out there, somewhere in Shetland, waiting to be discovered in years to come…
A brief visit to the Central Mainland one morning was made to look for Bog Orchids – I’d heard a worrying report that the large colony found there by local biologist Rory Tallack some years back wasn’t doing well this year. Sure enough, numbers in the usually productive areas of the site were indeed a pale shadow of their former glories. As the site seems largely unchanged as a whole, it remains to be seen if this was a blip or represents a genuine decline. I suspected that sheep may have grazed a lot of the usual plants, as I certainly found some bitten off. This visit ended on a happy note, however, as I stumbled across almost 100 ‘new’ flowering plants in an adjacent area that had, hitherto, not been know to support any whatsoever.
Buoyed by that, I decided to make the most of being home in Shetland and started to look for some of the endemic hawkweeds that proliferate in some areas of the islands. Having never looked for them before, and with some of the literature rather vague on the precise flowering period for each species, I was to discover in fairly short order that, in 2020 at least, I was for the most part too late to the party – they’d almost all gone to seed.
Nonetheless, some plants were still in flower – Laxo Burn Hawkweed, arguably one of the rarest plants in Britain – only ever found on the banks of the lower stretches of one stream in the whole of Shetland and, even there, numbering just a few dozen plants. I know, hawkweeds look like straggly dandelions, but trust me – they’re special things…
In the meantime, while searching for flowering hawkweeds (and waiting for the delivery of another BSBI handbook that would help unlock their mysteries) I bumped into other, more familiar old friends – not least Grass-of-Parnassus, a delicate beauty that’s one of my all time favourite wildflowers. Their upheld, pearly white, complex flowers reward a closer look, and always seem to me to be a symbol of hope and promise. In this of all years, we could do with some of that.
With hindsight, I realise my botanising falls into some distinct categories: enjoying the plants I’m already familiar with; the serendipitous surprise of stumbling across something unexpectedly; and determined and focused plant-hunting, either to see something new or to survey existing populations. I enjoy all of those approaches, and am relieved that it’s not just the thrill of the chase or novelty that I find myself seeking – I’m happy too if I’m seeing common plants at their very best.
Shetland excelled itself in that regard this summer with the hills blanketed with snowy, billowing Bog Cotton and swathes of purple Heather, and latterly accented by patches of golden Bog Asphodel. As summer melted into autumn, those golden flowers gave way to coppery seedpods… and my mind began to turn back to birds, and the great autumn migration that lay ahead.