21st February 2018
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It’s not easy keeping up with high-speed changes as nature moves at full throttle

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You will have to run to catch up and I’ve long since lost the race. Nature has gone into top gear and left me twofold, gasping on the sidelines.

I’ve lost count already of how many different birds we’ve seen this year, how many flowers are already out and what looked suspiciously like a tiny freckling of hairy bittercress seedlings over the vegetable plots a few days ago is already a forest of the perishing weeds, some of which are setting seed pods. We’ll never catch up at this rate!

Mad spring fever energy ripples through the isles and nerves are on edge. A friend described her relief and triumph, having delivered a breech lamb successfully, and then delivered a small, unexpected twin afterwards, also successfully. I was envious both of her expertise, and then of the fact that she was a “proper” crofter.

Mum and Dad had goats, Welsh sheep and several hives of bees when I was a toddler, but I remember hardly any of it. The most we ever had was a cat, a few stick insects and a hamster.

Later in the day my friend mentioned, more philosophically than she felt, I’m sure, that the ravens had already taken the tiny lamb. The mother had her work cut out guarding just one. All that work, effort, and thrill, gone in the snatch of a neb. But that’s spring for you.

New Zealand flatworms are still on the prowl. A Levenwick family are tiptoeing round their garden and leaving large, flat stone slabs lying on the grass and the earth every night, lifting them gingerly every morning and dropping any of the fat, shape-shifting horrors found into prescribed jars of water and vinegar to dispatch them.

Couch grass is burrowing madly in all horizontal directions, wherever it can get started, dockens are root diving vertically for all they’re worth, to undermine the efforts of all their plant neighbours and while small birds watch out frantically for the scheming approaches of certain bigger ones, cats in turn and watching out for small ones, drooling in anticipation. It’s all really wild, and depending upon where you stand, scary and highly dangerous.

Luckily for most of us in Shetland, life’s threatening, schem­ing, avoiding and defending are experiences of our prehistoric past. Death and killing for most of us is tastefully removed from view nowadays. We can eat our meat with relish and let others take on the challenge and responsibility for giving life to and removing the life from the animals we eat, preparing and packaging it all up neatly, preferably a long way away from where we live, so we don’t have to remember or think about the chaps behind the chops.

But the threats to life and limb were all too real during the last World War, judging by Shetland’s many defence sites across the islands.

Shetland Field Studies Group took a wander around the stark, gaunt remains of the battery on the Ness of Sound on Saturday and tried to imagine the place in its active days, with over ninety men worked here on the windswept peninsula. A brand, spanking new, invitingly interpretive panel, illustrated with prints from the past, awaits the interested walker at the beginning of the route which leads right round the ness.

The panel also shows a photograph of the splendid burnt mound (excavated so that the stone tank and wall bays are temptingly visible) on the far side of the headland, just above the Voe of Sound. What the panel doesn’t show or say however, is the barbed wire (double stranded in places) which makes the walk a potentially hazardous activity as the eroding banks and cliff tops are only feet from the fence. Also, you can’t actually get to the Burnt Mound at all unless you walk across a large field, or cross the barbed wire fence.

The highly dangerous sheer cliffs, slashes and chasms in the ground and lethally steep, slippery grass sections along the accessed route get no mention either. It was not for nothing that Sound parents in days gone by, forbade their youngsters from going there.

Fortunately on Saturday the usual pre-walks, risk assessments and individual meetings with knowledgeable local residents had forewarned our party.

Shetland has hundreds of miles of fabulous, sometimes terrifying coastline and as long as the hazards are explained and catered for, there is no problem. Most Shetland residents all thoroughly understand the problems and keep safe, but newcomers and visitors may not.

One idea mooted recently was that of a simple post, just a single slim post, painted black and yellow (nature’s danger colours), hammered into the ground at places where the unwary might not realise that a sudden drop was imminent.

Not everyone walks the banks, but increasing numbers are being encouraged to do so. Local folk are familiar with specific places where accidents can easily happen. Some geos cut deeply into the coastline and if you are walking along an even stretch, maybe in conversation and only looking at the ground immediately ahead of you, a sudden chasm can appear right in front of your feet, often with no fence at all.

Calder’s Geo at Eshaness is obvious if you start from the car park, but not from the approach from the east and north. A single black and yellow post, half way along on the south side would signal danger from hundreds of yards away on both sides. Once the access code core paths become more regularly walked, clear worn paths will become visible in the grass. These trails will naturally lead away from the more hazardous approaches to sudden dangerous features along the routes, but for some years an interim warning system could well be devised.

I have been told that the powers that be, whoever they are, avoid putting warnings into interpretive texts, because if something goes wrong, they are more likely to be sued, for not devising the warnings to fit that particular activity and location.

Is it really fair to lure folk to the isles with images of stunning wildlife and dramatic cliff scenery, avoiding any warnings to walkers at all, just in case the warning doesn’t fit their specific needs and choices and any resulting incident, but back to spring?

Despite the ferocious survival battles going on in nature all around us at this time of year, there are spectacularly beautiful sights to enjoy.

Wild flowers are racing into bloom and in places, they are growing so close, you can’t take a step without standing on them. Primroses festoon banks and marsh marigold is catching up with gold­en celandines. Blue/purple violets are starring more and more wild grassy places but spring squill blues won’t be far behind.

Moss campion has opened, each silvery pink, intensely sweet scented flower held flush to the cushion, without so much as half an inch of stem. To smell them, go down on your knees and fill your lungs with the scent, nose at ground level.

A bit of that wild has come into our garden and is proliferating. White celandines appeared a few years ago and when I reported them to a Shetland botanist I was advised to lift the clump to safe­guard it, as several such discoveries had apparently vanished sub­sequently without trace.

I resolved to look after my fostered celandines, hope to increase their number and after I had enough, return some to the wild again. This year I can now do just that. I have two well- filled pots of them, coming into flower.

Primroses are another wild flower that has been lifted from the wild into gardens, but in some places, especially in mainland Britain, has disappeared completely from many of its native habitats. Cowslips, violets and scores of other attractive wild flowers have suffered in the same way.

Finally, Frances Wilson’s bumble bee from last week. It woke, it drank, draining the honey water, refilling its energy levels and it flew. The day was perfect, local gardens full of flowers. Frances watched, delighted as it soared up into a warm sky and zig-zagged away to start a new colony.

Jill Slee Blackadder

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