21st September 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Leaping lambs and wriggling beasties abound

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The weather this week brought a real Mediterranean feel to the islands. Flowers are really starting to flower, birds to sing and no matter how often I have seen them before, I never fail to melt at the sight of young Shetland lambs leaping, galloping, bucking and dancing in the sun. They are the bonniest of any breed I have ever seen.

I recall with great nostalgia, my brief flirtation with crofting, with Billy from Billister, a tiny, ailing lamb rejected by his mother, and thrust into my arms by a North Nesting woman, whose name I regret having forgotten, years ago, as I returned from a walk along the shore.

Billy, our second caddie experi­ence, thrived and ended up star of the show at the Islesburgh Exhi­bition opening many years ago. He only piddled on the carpet once!

Later he went to Bressay and comforted a bereaved ewe and did well while he could. But the first real, hot, still, sweet spring day each year always reminds me of those early lamb-dancing days and this week has been spectacular.

Sun shone with real heat at times and birds were on the prowl for food. Thankfully, the warming earth and growing plants ensured a plentiful supply of live treats.

The underground world of Shet­land is full of beasties. Slugs invade the upper surfaces at night, burrow­ing down before dawn to hide among the leaf bases and crevices where dampness lingers and neither the lethal radiance of the sun’s rays nor the beady eyes of blackbird, starling or hedgehog can pry. Earth­worms slide and thrust their way through Shetland’s three dimen­sional coating of loam, favouring the sandier more lime rich places rather than the vast peaty moorland.

Grubs twitch and wiggle in the damp darkness and beetles scratch and claw their way along under the surface (and over it, when it’s safe to emerge). Gardeners grow famil­iar with certain larvae; the ones to leave where they are and the ones to throw to the nearest bird, or squish, if necessary. Now and again, an unfamiliar creature emerges, or is unearthed while delling a riglet and the spine does a little crawling dance to match the wriggler in the palm.

Several white, soft, legless oddities came to light when the last year’s kale stalks were being hauled out and their bed re-made for a change to pulses. One was pure white, but symmetrical, unlike the dreaded knobbly blind blobs of vine weevil larvae. Another was a grubby grey.

A bit later on, a different whiteish wiggler rolled out from his sub­terranean gobbling and curled up as tightly as he could. He had a rather snazzy polished brown shield on the back of each segment, and a fine pair of tiny pincers at one end. He reminded me of the insects made by some of the Nesting Primary school bairns at their School Grounds Day on a recent, gloriously sunny Sunday. But the bairns’ insects were rather special and you might know some who would like to have a go.

They need to find one daisy leaf, a ribwort plantain leaf and a small sorrel leaf. Find a couple of full length, dead grass stalks, a dry, bleached and brittle as possible and head back indoors. Now fetch a glue stick and a sheet of white paper. The insect is about to begin.

Stick the daisy leaf onto the paper, stem pointing downwards. Now stick the ribwort plantain leaf below the daisy leaf, just touching its stem. Finally stick the small sorrel leaf below the plantain leaf, but upside down; stem overlapping the plantain leaf stem. You now have a legless insect body-head, thorax and tail.

Now it’s time for legs. Snip grass stems into short sections, each about the length of the middle section of the insect. Stick three pieces onto the paper on each side of the middle section, the top ones pointing upwards a bit, the middle ones sticking straight out sideways and the bottom pair pointing down.

Now stick a second bit onto the end of the first leg section, bending each down at an angle. Lastly, stick a third section onto the end of the second piece of grass, this time pointing it back up again. Each leg should now look a bit like a “Z” or an “N”.

All that remains now is the feelers. This can be any of a whole variety of things: two matching grass blades, two tiny yarrow leaves, a couple of feathery tips of last year’s fescue. But whatever is chosen, both bits are stuck to the top of the leaf and angled slightly away from each other. Ecce signum! The finished insect. For extra fun, the bairns can now invent a name for the insect. The possibilities are endless.

Bairns across Shetland are getting into gardener mode now, as the fabulous weather which follwed the previous week’s gales, tempt teachers to steer the curriculum out of doors and into the Eco School direction.

Those schools which are on to their second and third flags are well established in many cases, with not only rapidly maturing little trees and secure fences against sheep and rabbits, but in some cases garden sheds and even little greenhouses or polytunnels.

I spent a few blisssful hours in Skerries school this week, at the already advanced school grounds work which was waiting for just such weather. There are advantages in small numbers of pupils, where gardening is concerned. Each pupil can have their own patch, or raised bed. Some might go for flowers, others vegetables. One might fancy a herb garden, another a tree nur­sery. But overall, Shetland seems to be raising a new generation of green-aware, young horticultural­ists.

Carla was excited to find that in one of her raised beds, seedlings from last year’s annuals were coming up. Ethan, Scott, Owen and Ivan decided to tackle new plots. Weeding out couch and creeping buttercup tested their determination, but eventually four clean, plush beds awaited the new arrivals of plants.

A selection of annuals, donated by a local gardener provided scope for new beds. More donations included Shetland kale seedlings, parsnips, carrots, strawberry plants, French parsley and garlic.

In between tasks, Ivan and Ethan had a head-over-heels race in the daisy-starred grass. Ivan came up with an 18 centimetre long daisy. Not satisfied, he went hunting and shortly after, came back with another, longer one. He measured it. This daisy was 22 centimetres long in the stem. He would be very interested to know if anyone finds a daisy stem longer than this one, so do get in touch if you do.

Jill Slee-Blackadder