JUNE won’t wait. Grab it while you can and enjoy every fog, rain and wind free particle of it. You may have a problem making choices as to where, when and how. Unless you have unlimited time and money, you will have to decide on a few special places and fit them into whatever times you can manage, but it will be well worth it.
You will need to memorise as much of the intensity as you can, in order to furnish autumn and winter evenings with sharply focused recollections of sounds, sights, sensations, smells even. They will ward off the blues and whet your appetite for more next year.
A beach? A certain stretch of cliff tops, a dramatic feature, a remote ruin, whatever you opt for, make it extra special. Take a blank jotter and write down images and thoughts or descriptions; a poem perhaps?
Photographs, video footage, a sketch or even a painting if you feel like it; even better, share the trip with a friend; take someone who hardly ever gets out and about; take a bairn or three, take granny, but make it happen. Simmer Dim is not to be ignored.
Shetland nights at this time of year are to my mind one of the natural wonders of the world, at least when the skies are clear. To sit in open air stillness under the green bronze bell of the Simmer Dim sky as midnight comes and goes, is as mind achingly amazing as a stunning display of the Merrie Dancers, an eclipse of the moon or a flight across the Great Himalaya. Midsummer strikes tomorrow!
Sadly, this June so far has favoured the foggier, smushier weather, with all the inevitable flight cancellations and delays that go with it. But early risers will have caught many crystal clear dawns and there may be more in store, so don’t despair. In any case, July can be Simmer Dimmer too.
Wild campers get the best effects. Waking up to bird song and the roll of surf, peeping out through the tent flap gap on a mist carpeted expanse of heather, breathing in the cocktail of peat, wild flowers, salt sea air and watching curlews and golden plover at their morning forages; these are impressions to savour for the rest of your life.
Many of Shetland’s less visited beaches will offer more chances of wildlife watching than the more popular ones, where local birds and otters will have learned to be extra cautious. But better still, rather than simply having a there-and-back beach visit, try walking between beaches or road ends.
Go in convoy with friends. Leave one vehicle at one road end, parked considerately out of the way of
later visitors, or crofters, then retrace your route and make for the next nearest road end along the coast. Walk all the way back to the first beach and enjoy the cliffs, high or low, the unfamiliar sea views of stacks or offshore islands and keep a sharp eye out for otters.
A Tingwall man did precisely this recently, between Footabrough and Burrastow. He took home not just the memories of the best otter sightings he had ever had, but the pictures to go with them. He and his friend had reached a place called Littlure. This must surely be among the best and most picturesque spots in Shetland. The setting is exquisite, with a combined configuration of sheltering headlands, curves, high and low ground, ruined settlement and beach to delight the eye. It also had delighted the eyes of the local wildlife too.
A keen eye and quick wits combined to produce a wonderful sequence of shots. First the tell tale dark blob in the water. He watched closely. When it vanished and reappeared a little further away, leaving a trail of slowly bursting bubbles along the route, he knew for certain that it was an otter and instantly made use of the otter’s vanishing dive time to place himself in the best position for observing whatever followed.
Fortunately the wind was blowing towards him, so that the otter would not catch his scent and scarper.
Knowing that otters have poor sight, he was reasonably sure that if he kept still, it wouldn’t
see him, but knowing also that they can rapidly see things move or change against a familiar horizon, he kept as low as he could. Camera in hand, he simply took shot after shot, as it surfaced repeatedly, drawing ever closer to where he was crouching.
The otter, crab clenched between its jaws, at Littlure.
The otter came up with a crab. It wrestled with it, bit it and began to approach the shore, swimming with head held high, crab in jaws, ready to climb out onto the beach and finish off the meal in comfort. Our Tingwall photographer was just feet away. Only at the last moment did the animal realise that it was being watched. The camera caught that sudden horrified look of realisation. The next frame shows just a splash, and then nothing but sea. It was one of those intense, potent wildlife watching experiences which never loses its freshness; Shetland is famous for them.
Amazing sightings don’t have to be limited to extra wild, remote corners however. Peat roads have been carved out of an ever-increasing area of Shetland, bringing many of the more remote parts within reach, but stunning wildlife watching can be found even among relatively built up places, as long as you follow the wild rules. An early start is crucial. Otters have been seen snuffling around back doors even in the heart of Lerwick from time to time at dawn. Dusk can be fruitful too, but less likely. Just keep alert, carry your camera everywhere and eventually the rewards will come.
Rewards are everywhere just now for those who enjoy wild flowers. “Sookie flooers” are plentiful in places, the bright claw shaped pink clusters of florets around a short stem. These flowers were known by bairns in hungrier days, as their bases, when tugged free, were full of nectar. They are sweet, but resist the temptation to pluck and suck, as they are particularly vital to the nectar dependent insects at this time of year.
In pride of place on the insect list has to come the Shetland bumble bee. This giant, ginger bee is this week’s celebrity and there are a whole range of flowering plants which can be encouraged into your garden, and better still, any roadside verge, bank or waste ground nearby.
Among others, plants which can be encouraged to help support the Shetland bumble bee include: Red clover, White clover, Birds foot trefoil, Tufted vetch, Meadow vetchling, Sea pink, Spring squill, Red campion, Yellow rattle, Sheep’s bit, Devils bit scabious, roseroot, Kidney vetch, Yellow flag iris and Marsh thistle.
Next week, I will report on some excellent wildlife-aware gardeners, whose sensitivity to the needs of local bird and insect life is reflected in their gardens and wild flower displays. If you know of good examples, please let me know.
Jill Slee Blackadder