Suppose you love wild Shetland flowers. Suppose you love garden flowers too; you love gardening and think that community gardens and the new allotments initiative are brilliant. No problem! Everything in the garden is rosy! Or is it?
Suppose you love some Shetland flowers more than others, or rather certain flowers give you a bigger buzz than others, maybe because they are rarer, more unusual, more exotic looking, growing in a spectacular mass of colour, special in some way.
Now suppose that you find that a suitable space has been earmarked for a possible community garden or allotment site is also currently a site that produces more than its fair share of your most treasured and valued extra special wild flowers. What do you do next?
When things get tangled up, when the environment suddenly becomes illuminated in the conflicting spotlights of different interest groups, with different plans, requirements and in particular, different numbers and sizes of teeth to use when controlling situations, what is the best way forward? Who do you talk to and what are they able to offer by way of advice, solutions, or even just tea and sympathy?
In Shetland, as with almost everywhere else, as the “environment’ has crept steadily up the priority ladders of agencies, interests and governments local, national and international, things have become increasingly confusing.
There are voluntary organisations, born of local enthusiasts, some small, local and flexible, others large, well established and focused. There are independent agencies and organisations with “stakeholders”, mission statements, core aims and central policies. There are national government agencies, with staff, budgets, workloads and priorities; there are local council departments with individual staff with statutory duties, specific remits and budgetary limits; and there is Europe too, with far reaching directives and a whole new raft of sticks and carrots.
The humble patch of rich wild flora is at the mercy of a vast jungle, a battleground of complicated and often conflicting elements, all of which have evolved over recent decades, for the greater good on one or other aspect of the environment, its multifarious characters and their needs, be they bumble bee, bog or beach. When a member of the local community has a question, or maybe an urgent concern, it can be very difficult to know who to approach, what to ask and what to expect.
Over the next few weeks, a new list will be drawn up, summarising, in simple English, the details of all those whose work involves dealing with aspects of the landscape, their contact details, their specific functions and remits and when and how, as well as if they can help. A register or index of such information could be invaluable, as long as it is brief, up to date and really clear. No system is perfect, but you have to start somewhere.
But there are other difficulties. What makes flowers extra special in the wild? Would everybody be able to agree which flowers were special and needed protecting? Maybe rather than single wild flower species, specific groups of flowers would be more significant. I feel like having a go at listing possible “specials” in small batches. I’m sure trained botanists would disagree profoundly with my Shetland wild flower hierarchy, but that’s fine. Maybe others could have a go. I’m envisaging a points system – “Our village has 10 group ‘A’ plant communities” – kind of thing.
Perhaps a community council would find it easier to allocate areas for safeguarding if there was an idiot-proof system which enabled those less familiar with the wild flora of Shetland to assess the range of top notch habitat corners in their patch.
If it worked, it would be a relatively easy process to identify suitable sites for future development, community garden or allotment siting in a way which guaranteed the survival of the small, but vitally important jewels in the local biodiversity crown. There might even be league tables, though that’s perhaps going a bit far. Most folk would be well aware of the existence of a local broch site, puffin nesting area of sea cliffs, ruined castle, otter had, special rock quarry or beautiful sandy beach. But would many folk be able to direct a visitor to the nearest grass of Parnassus, field pansy, marsh cinquefoil or field gentian site?
There will always be those with a keen interest in the subject, but enthusiasts can sometimes discourage the beginner, by seeming to possess unattainable knowledge, which can be discouraging. Something accessible, designed to inform and celebrate, not compete and blind with science; that might work. But it probably needs to be designed from the grass roots, in order to work most effectively.
In days gone by, here as well as in much of Great Britain, schools had nature study lessons and there were still wild flower collection competitions in Shetland in the 1990s. Expert botanists and mainstream environmentalists would have a fit if the education department encouraged the widespread picking of thousands of wild flowers. But the older generation certainly got to know their campions from their celandines, their hawkweeds from their hogweeds.
At the end of the day, a garden, wild or tame, should be a feature to celebrate and take a pride in, without reservation. There is something essentially wrong about a system in which an environmental award can be won by those who with admirable effort have created a new and much used and admired garden, but which in the process have destroyed a piece of prime, exquisite, species rich wild flower habitat, a historic, relict treasure which has maybe taken several hundred years to build up its diversity. There has to be a better way.
So come on, all of those who have a feeling for, an interest in, a stake in, or a responsibility towards wild flowers in all the multifarious parts of your local corner of Shetland. How, on a local scale, can we identify, assess, record, and protect wild treasure even more effectively than we do at the moment? One thing is certain. As Steve Van Matre, the “Sunship Earth” pioneer used to say, “It’s not a flower blooming in a field. It’s a field blooming a flower.” Once the habitat goes, the life it has been supporting goes too.
Many years ago, the road through Mail in Cunningsburgh was altered, widened and the burn culverted. A huge project was set up to dig up and transplant all the carpeting mass of primroses which cloaked the banks and fringes of the existing area every spring. Scores of folk came to help, promising to care for the rescued plants and return them when the newly designed route was completed. The result was that a very few worthy souls ever bothered to return their plants. Most replanted ones died and the banks, although sporting a few of the “Mayflooers” in springtime, remained largely barren.
I’ll have to go, there’s a knock at the door. A bunch of local bairns has found something “scary”. They tell me it’s a “stick with legs!” I will reveal its true identity next week.
Jill Slee Blackadder