16th July 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Sounding off: Gone tomorrow?

Paul Harvey explains why one of Shetland’s unique flowering plants is currently threatened with extinction.

Imagine discovering a group of 25 bright yellow flowers on a rocky knowe at the bottom of your garden and being told that they were the only examples of their kind anywhere in the world. Surely this would be something to celebrate, even cherish and perhaps be a little nervous about – after all you would hold the future of an endemic species in your hands. By endemic, I mean confined to an area – in this case, Shetland.

Most islands or countries celebrate their endemics, some even build a tourist industry around them: the Galapagos and its endemic tortoises and finches, New Zealand and its kiwis, Madagascar and its lemurs, some Indonesian islands and their Komodo Dragons, South Africa and its fynbos. Granted, these are all more spectacular than Shetland’s suite of endemic plants, but nevertheless our hawkweeds are as important in terms of their contribution to genetic diversity.

Shetland’s most famous endemic plant is Edmondston’s Chickweed, found in Unst, where most folk are aware of its importance. It also features prominently on the itinerary of that majority of tourists who visit Shetland for its environment and wildlife.

So, back to those imaginary yellow flowers. Shetland has 16 species of endemic hawkweed belonging to a section known as Alpestria. They are difficult to tell apart but share large, yellow dandelion-like flowers and have stem-leaves, unlike some superficially similar species. They now exist only in places where they can escape the attention of sheep – rocky outcrops, cliffs, hay meadows and occasionally holms in lochs. They share many of these places with our few remaining native trees and shrubs, giving us an insight into what much of Shetland would have looked like before man arrived here with his domestic stock.

Hawkweeds are also of interest to researchers – their origins and how they evolve into different species are unclear, but the Alpestria section in Shetland provides a relatively simple system that could help us understand their reproductive mechanisms and investigate speciation using molecular techniques. Unlike most flowering plants, hawkweeds reproduce asexually, meaning, in theory, that offspring are clones of their parent. Whether new species occur through hybridisation or mutation is unknown.

Anyway, enough science.

Shetland’s most famous botanist, Walter Scott, has spent a significant part of his life studying and recording Shetland’s hawkweeds, and in recognition of this has recently had a newly discovered species named after him. Because of Walter’s work we know that most of Shetland’s hawkweeds are rare; two species are now restricted to a single site.

The global distribution of one of these – the Weak-leaved Hawkweed – is confined to just one small field in central Mainland. Here the species underwent a slow decline in response to sheep grazing, with as few as 13 plants present in the 1980s when it was feared that it would become extinct. The future looked distinctly rosier, however, by the end of the 1990s.

In 1994, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) designated this area as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 (W&C Act, 1981). The hawkweeds were then given further protection when they were added to Schedule 8 of the same act – meaning it became illegal to pick, uproot or deliberately destroy them. And about 10 years ago Shetland’s Alpestria hawkweeds became the focus of a UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) as part of the government’s commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which it signed up to in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

With grazing excluded the hawkweed started to flourish, and during the early 2000s upwards of 20 plants were flowering and setting seed annually. The corner had been turned and the plant saved from extinction. Or had it?

Further welcome news came from the Shetland Amenity Trust which, as part of the BAP and with the assistance of Walter Scott, had managed to build up a stock of all of Shetland’s endemic hawkweeds in its horticultural unit in Lerwick. This raised the possibility of planting hawkweeds back into their natural habitat, but unfortunately such plantings have produced disappointing results, with the hawkweeds rarely surviving long enough to reproduce successfully. This reinforced the need to ensure that the natural populations are protected properly.

In 2010, several folk noticed that the SSSI was now being grazed by sheep. In response, Dr Tim Rich, who is currently writing a monograph on the section Alpestria hawkweeds with Walter Scott, wrote to SNH seeking an explanation. He was told that the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) had replaced SNH management agreements as the main mechanism for supporting conservation land management on SSSIs. Apparently SNH were encouraging the tenant to enter the SRDP and hoped that the situation would be resolved satisfactorily in 2011.

Well, here we are in August 2011 and the situation still remains to be resolved. I visited the site recently to find the gate still open, sheep grazing the area and all eighteen adult hawkweed plants with their heads bitten off before they had a chance to set seed.

Let us think about what is happening here. In 1994, when the site was designated, SNH entered a management agreement with the tenant to exclude sheep grazing to give the hawkweed a chance to recover. Now, I am not privy to the commercial details of this agreement but I do know enough to do a “back of the fag packet” calculation based on the site area (0.5 hectares or 1.2 acres), ewe subsidy (through headage payments, which prevailed at that time) and lamb sales. I reckon this resulted in a payment of around £250 per annum to the crofter in compensation for not grazing his land. So through his management agreement with SNH which terminated in 2008, he would have received a total of around £3,500. I can only assume that proposed payments under the SRDP aren’t quite so favourable, so in protest the tenant has opened the field to sheep. Net result, some £3,500 of public money goes to waste as one of Shetland’s and Scotland’s endemic plants is once more on the slide to extinction.

This raises a whole series of moral and ethical questions which we could debate at length, but that is not going to save our endemic hawkweed. The most deplorable aspect of this debacle is that the Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspectorate Directorate (which administers the SRDP) and Scottish Natural Heritage (the body charged by our government to safeguard Scotland’s natural heritage) cannot sort this issue between them. They could apply legislation under the W&C Act, 1981, or come up with a new agreement with the tenant in question. I wonder what percentage of the combined annual budget of the SRDP and SNH £250 represents?

These grinding bureaucracies will no doubt tell us that they can’t fit the crofter into the scheme, or that he only qualifies for a limited sum of money. Therein lies one of the core problems – the inflexibility of a national system which takes no account of local (Shetland) priorities, and needs. This is a great shame when so much progress has been made between the agricultural and environmental sectors here in Shetland. If monies for agri-environment programmes could be distributed to, and ring-fenced for, schemes developed by Shetland-based agriculturists and environmentalists then I am confident these situations could be averted and schemes of real worth for both agriculture and the islands’ environment would emerge.

At the moment, however, our taxes continue to contribute indirectly to the Weak-leaved Hawkweed’s slow decline towards extinction. If this concerns you then please contact the chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage at their Inverness office (the local Lerwick staff are very supportive of hawkweed conservation) and/or Tavish Scott, your MSP, urging them to find a speedy solution to prevent the extinction of one of Shetland’s precious endemic plants.

Note: For the avoidance of doubt, the hawkweed referred to in this article has the scientific name Hieracium attenuatifolium.