HAS someone been very sick on your lawn lately? Well there was something messy and splatty yellowish and generally vomitious spread all over a lawn in Whalsay once and on a different occasion a lawn in Burra Isle. This year Hillswick seems to have been singled out for special attention.
Not far from the shore, among grass and seggies, a yellowish froth appeared. It spread itself over a considerable distance and looked absolutely revolting. Jan and Pete Bevington came across the great yukkiness and described it to me over the telephone. They had never seen anything similar before. There was nothing remotely like it.
Nature has many tricks up its sleeve and fungi and moulds are one of the weirdest. Fairy rings, fresh mushrooms and toadstools are one thing. They have a stem, very like a plant; they have a cap, a familiar umbrella shape, and they stay put, at least for a while. But this disgusting mess was something else entirely. It oozed and sprawled and engulfed. Nevertheless, it too was a cousin to the field mushroom and the scarlet wax cap of Shetland’s autumn coastal grassland for all that. It was a slime mould, and despite its resemblance to vomit, Jan and Pete discovered that it was actually surprisingly beautiful. You just had to look a lot closer. I was delighted to receive some close-up pictures taken by Sarah Ashmead, to prove it.
Clinging like hoar frost to branches, this alien apparition was a mass of pale, apricot crystal-like formations. Soft and spongy rather than glittering and brittle like frost, fingers rather than facets, they wrapped flower stem and grass blade in a waxy, insulating embrace and extended right through the surrounding vegetation. The individual clumps and clusters resembled pale pink furry creatures, creeping along the leaves, or sections of a rare coral on a stringy, green reef. I hadn’t had an inkling of this detailed, delicate structure from either the Whalsay or the Burra emergence. But maybe I had arrived too late.
All things have their season and the Hillswick slime mould was no exception. After the initial eruption of minute pink finger crystals, the entire organism began to disintegrate. Presumably the spores had been released, which was the reason for its arrival in the first place; so the structures were no longer required and they began to fall apart. The outer skin of those soft spikes melted away, or deliquesced, as the fungus experts call it, and the sticky insides leaked like thick spittle in all directions; but not for long. Within a few days there was nothing left to show for the disturbance to the Hillswick scene.
Fungi are extraordinary creations and there are still plenty around to reward even the most basic investigation, or at least there were before last week’s storms. White wax caps were thick in the ground near the Skerries public phone box, and recently puffed puff balls squatted alongside the road on the West Isle side of the approach to the road bridge. Orange peel fungus was to be found on the fringes of our cold bonfire site and tiny matchstick-sized club fungi were plentiful among the short grass. But though most of the fungi are harmless and many excellent to eat, there are always the rebels; nasty pieces of work containing dangerous chemical compounds and poisons. So look, sniff them, take pictures, but wash your hands carefully if you touch them, just in case.
Sometimes eyes and brain clash over a single witnessed event. Eyes say “it was”, but brain retorts “that’s not possible”. There was the man at the wedding in Waas. He nipped down to the pier for a breath of fresh air during the dance that followed the wedding feast, and saw a walrus hauled up there. He’d been at the whaling; he knew a walrus when he saw one. But, having a pretty good idea what the wedding guests would say about his alcohol level that night, he returned to the festivities and said nothing. A few days later it turned up in a different part of Shetland and collected scores more witnesses and got its picture in the paper. Helen Thomson was driving home to the Ness on Tuesday night, when a fox ran across the road in front of the car. Helen knows a fox when she sees one. She lived for a time in Bedfordshire, where she followed the hunt by car, giving a lift to an old man who could no longer follow on horseback. Many and varied were the foxes they spotted; young, old, male, female, large and small. But every one of them had pointed ears, narrow muzzle and that unmistakeable foxy gait. West to east, close to Brindister, the fox shot across in front of the headlights, and was gone.
Helen’s passenger saw it too, with a “whaat wis daat?” and she and Helen spent the rest of the journey to the Ness talking through the features of all the other animal possibilities, but none fitted that vulpine jizz. Also, Helen recalled two other sightings of a fox in Shetland, by people known to her. These both happened by Sumburgh airport. One of them told her colleagues and was much mocked, the other one decided not to risk telling. There have been many such sightings.
So what is going on here? Are there more foxes in Shetland just now? Is someone bringing them in, to control rabbits perhaps? Has there already been a whole dose of sightings down the years, with folk being too nervous, unsure, or too embarrassed about the possibility of being mocked to admit to them? Could there be an amnesty for fox sighting reporters then? Bring out your sightings and don’t mock those who do.
It is true that Shetland has no native foxes, but there have been introduced individuals over the years, some reported from the wild, others found dead, possibly killed deliberately and later dumped beside the road. I once had the exhilarating experience (it felt like an honour) of escorting a dead Arctic fox from Shetland to the National Museum of Scotland.
I had borrowed the frozen corpse earlier, in order to study and draw it and was captivated by its beauty. Wonderful silvery, deep fur and thick brush of a tail. Then on a Sunday a few days later, I collected it again, refrozen and triple wrapped in black bags tied firmly with a web of string. I sat beside the creature in the plane, then on a bus, imagining the hysteria there might be if the peaceful passengers around me knew what was inside my dark parcel. A final taxi ride took us to Chamber Street, where an alerted security guard leaped down the flight of impressive steps to relieve me of the exotic burden. The sad bit was trying to imagine how on Earth the poor beast was taken to Shetland in the first place. A drunken gift from Scandinavia to a Shetland bound crew perhaps? Someone knows. They know too how it met its end and how and when it was left, dead and cold on the vergeside outside the public toilets at Voe.
Jill Slee Blackadder