24th May 2018
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Toxic waste-dumping!

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It is interesting to see how much things change from year to year. In the Shetland Nature Festival last year 58 different wild plants were identified during the wild flower foray at Tingwall Loch, Lawthing Holm and the adjoining marshy area.

This year we managed 62, but a good number of the flowers we had seen in 2008 had finished flowering weeks before and were well into their seeding and fruiting stages. Even more unexpected was the fact that a few later summer flowers, which were in bloom last year, had not yet opened this year.

Botanical twitching was not the intention, but when you are com­paring one year’s performance with another, only lists will suffice, so we did end up with a list, and yes, there was a sense of satisfaction in beating the previous record of species. But as with any public outdoor event, there has to be a trial run and a risk assessment in advance. Our risk assessment turned up a few unusual issues, one in particular was rather sad, and another, downright disgusting.

Taking the disgusting one first, we found a large drum, empty and lidless, though the lid was sub­sequently found not far away. On the side of the drum, which had been chucked over the fence into the marsh, was the tell-tale orange diamond shaped symbol for some­thing dangerous.

Toxic waste-dumping, in Shet­land of all places! Environmental awareness is surely assumed to be extremely high here. Dumping not only into a conveniently accessible space beside a parking area, but actu­ally into a tourist-interpreted site of great botanical, ornithological and historical importance.

We took the offending item away for analysis and I will report back on any findings when they emerge.

The next item for risk was an access safety issue. There is an excellent gate, easy to open and close, but just inside it, all the way down a short, steep slope lie several large boulders, half buried and just perfect for ankle twisting. These act as stumble hazards, so caution is required.

Thereafter, apart from a couple of muddy ditches to cross, and one non-barbed wire fence to cross, it is straightforward. So, duty done, it was on to the plants themselves.

Starting at the parking area (which I couldn’t help noticing had recently been mown for the second time in a few weeks, completely unnecessarily and expensively) we found a useful number of common species usually referred to as weeds.

The following day, elated by a much bigger turnout of folk than last year, we followed the same route. The marsh plants began to turn up only feet from the car park, starting with a jungle of mare’s tail, meadow buttercup, marsh marigold, marsh cinquefoil, mimulus or monkey flower, lesser spearwort, marsh lousewort, marsh ragwort, ragged robin and northern marsh orchid. That was 20.

Marsh marigolds were seeding, with splendid star-shaped, green seed heads, all splitting along their seams, revealing quantities of tiny, gleaming seeds. Once empty, these will turn black and dry out.

We proceeded slowly, trying to step between the blooms where possible, so as not to leave a great trail of destruction behind us. We stopped often to hear the fascinating details of the plant uses, which Helen Moncrieff read from a marvellous book she had borrowed from Paul Harvey, Shetland’s biodiversity officer. I intend to get hold of a copy for myself as soon as I can.

Our list grew longer. Marsh bedstraw lit up dark corners with starry clusters of white, four petalled, minute flowers. Marsh forget-me-not reached up little green ladder-like stems of seed heads, with bright blue, yellow-eyed flowers at the tips. White clover was in full flower and threaded its way between everything else, creating waves of warm, honey scent. Meadow sweet added another, musky fragrance to the air and we breathed a cocktail of damp, warm, scented air throughout the walk.

We were at 30 species and still going strong. Helen was kept busy flicking rapidly through the pages of her reference book and discovering the amazing variety of ailments for which these plants had a cure in times past.

I did mention a sad item in the course of the pre-walk. A small group of common gulls began to create a racket at our approach. Shalders too joined in the fun and once or twice, I was dive-bombed by one gull in particular. At first I thought nothing of the antics, assuming that there were fledgling chicks about. Later we changed our minds. We continued towards the holm itself, under a hail of shrieks and gull dives and then in the grass ahead of us, Margaret spotted a bird in trouble. Momentarily I considered shalder decoy tricks, but no. It was a common gull, motionless in the grass, wings spread wide.

Only a slight movement of the head convinced us that it was living, that and the wide, alert eyes. It made no effort to move as we bent closer and it submitted to being lifted up and examined. Two very loosely dangling legs, probably broken. I took the gull into the shallows and held it down towards the water. Instantly it lowered its beak and drank copious quantities, scooping down and tilting the beak high, to let the water run down its throat. Then it resumed its still pose.

All the while, one gull, we assumed to be its mate, circled us and dived over us, calling frantically. There was no denying the state it was in. But the chances of recovery for the injured bird were probably nil. I wouldn’t attempt a neck wringing act, as I have neither the strength nor the skill or hands to do a quick, clean job. We carted the bird back with us and headed for Ron, the SSPCA man’s house. More next week.

Jill Slee Blackadder