19th April 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

The mystery of our masses of mosses

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WHAT splendid moss weather we have been having recently. Nice wet, windy, chilly days with plenty of time for the water to seep down among the masses and masses of mosses of all kinds to which Shetland offers a wide range of suitable habitat homes.

Some kinds are extremely small, others long and thin, some short and fat, others fine and delicate. Many are exquisitely beautiful. Moss covers much of Shetland, but no one really knows yet just exactly where, how much, or how many different kinds there are for certain.

However, after this year the picture may well be a lot clearer. A party of experts in mosses (the study of which is called bryology) will be pooling their skills to scour these islands for as many different species and varieties of moss, or “bryophytes” as they can find.

If their efforts are rewarded in the way that, years ago, Bobby Tulloch’s quest for new records of fungi spe­cies, or Keri Dalby’s study of lichens were, Shetland’s biodiversity total may well have leaped up by several score, or even a hundred more.

Shetland is a perfect haven for mosses and they are so accessible that you could probably find a score within yards of your front door. They are one of the more primitive members of the plant world and have some fascinating properties, features and uses.

They have contributed hugely to the peat bank formations over the centuries; they are able to help control water flow and prevent flooding; they are immensely impor­tant in the complex story of climate change and they have been used in the past for preserving food, keeping wounds and even babies’ bottoms clean and free from infection.

The bryologists may be able to see more of Shetland than just mosses, and if they are lucky, they should manage to catch sight of puffins still at their nesting sites in the islands.

Being fortunate enough to live here, I have notched up a good few puffin spectaculars in terms of viewings over the years (even had one emerge from a burrow and peck my welly boot on one occasion) so I confess that when mum came up for a few weeks’ holiday recently, I almost opted not to bother climbing up the steep single track road to Sumburgh Head. It was just as well that mum’s enthusiasm swung my decision. What met our eyes was a scene richer and more overwhelming than any I had witnessed in the last 30 years of puffinning.

The small benches which have been constructed inside the perimeter wall, just a little distance east of the old fog horn, enable the visitor to climb up and look down over some truly dramatic cliff faces and offshore stacks.

We did this and then simply stood lost for words. Well over 30 puffins were disporting themselves in a totally unruffled, fearless way less than 10 feet away. They were so close that we could hear the grunting chatter and even the ruffling sound as they preened and shook out their tail feathers. They were totally unconcerned by our presence.

From this close point onwards the cliffs were bristling with the birds; hundreds, maybe even thousands. Lower down the slope, they were standing penguin fashion, almost touching, bolt upright, in black and white mass effect, across the whole cliff side almost down to sea level.

Here and there a swaabie sat rudely among them, bent on sticking to nature’s rule about survival of the fittest. We saw more than one dark fluff ball of a chick tweaked out of its burrow and chased down the slope to a crunchy end.

Higher up there were puffins constantly in motion, busy with every conceivable activity. There were puffins sitting, standing, taking off and landing, turning, groaning, scratching, nuzzling, shuffling, watch­ing, pecking, peering, perch­ing, stretching, scrabbling, shivering, sleeping, sliding, flapping, falling, gliding, growling, staring, yawning, preening, marching, warning, bal­ancing and bobbing, bending, bow­ing, kissing, nodding, diving, twist­ing, toddling, chuckling, guarding, tilting, wobbling. These birds are utterly irresistible. But now to a different kind of flying creature.

Why on earth they were named “Sexton” beetles I can’t imagine. Maybe a church historian out there could help to explain. Maybe it has something to do with their habit of burying dead animals. Sexton beetles don’t turn up very often in Shetland, but there seems to have been an increase in sightings lately. The beetles are fairly large as insects go and are very striking in appear­ance, being glossy black, with two bands of bright scarlet right across both wing cases.

A Sexton beetle turned up in West Burrafirth a few months ago but the most recent was one found in
North Nesting, which demonstrated some very odd behaviour when it was caught.

The beetle made a grating, rasp­ing noise as if trying to repel its attackers. The sound was surprising, but didn’t manage to stave off capture on this occasion. However, it could easily have startled a bird or other would-be predator.

I have had an alarm call from one reader whose willow trees are under attack from “small black caterpillars” and who says that several trees have been completely stripped. She said that other folk she knew were suffering from the same problem and she wondered just how wide­spread the caterpillars were through­out Shetland. Maybe you could get in touch, if you, or someone you know has had a small black caterpillar visitation and who is concerned about the possible fate of their willow trees.

And while on the subject of little black “nasties”, beware pests on imported bunches of flowers. A Lerwick family recently brought some home, only to find the chrysan­themum stems very sticky. Closer inspection revealed thousands of black fly, coating the leaves and flowers, all of which were covered in the sweet, sticky secretion which black fly, like their relations, green fly and white fly produce.

If you do find any, try to get them all into a transparent carrier bag or container and take them along to one of the agencies in Shetland who could confirm their identity. At all costs don’t throw them away outside, as within days Shetland could be heading for a problem with possible new pests.

Apart from capturing and con­taining the creatures, it is also really important to tell the shop where the flowers they were feeding on were purchased. There are systems in place for reporting such discoveries and the shop staff will almost always reimburse you for the cost of the item.

Imported plants have been respon­sible for many of Shetland gardeners’ problems over the years. Some say that the cabbage white butterfly was introduced during the war; another wretched accidental import was the New Zealand flat­worm; a monster “worm” that eats other worms. In some parts of main­land Britain these strange creatures have eradicated the local earthworm population to such an extent that quantities of earth worms have had to be reintroduced.

Jill Slee Blackadder