Sometimes you have to make the best judgement you can and get on with it

I’m finding it hard to concentrate just now. The Shetland Field Studies Group found an unidentified non-flying object on last Sunday’s walk which looked tantalisingly like a Viking longhouse site and I can’t wait to get it verified – or otherwise, as the case may be. But for now, it’s back to that bog.

We were half way along the route from the Tingwall car park with the interpretive sign, to the Law Ting Holm itself. We had notched up 30 species and were still counting. We were well into the marshy area when we reached 40, but as well as wet-loving plants such as cuckoo flower, (or ladies’ smock), angelica, marsh bedstraw and cotton grass, there were a surprising number which thrived in dryer places including yellow rattle, tufted vetch, eyebright, lesser willow herb, ribwort plantain and meadow vetchling.

On the pre-walk we came across a magnificent hedgehog, charging steadily across the moss and tussling through the tussocks, but there was no sign of him the following day. Lesser spearwort lit up the dark runnels with splashes of gold, but the spectacular yellow iris show was over, and only the forest of tall leaf spears and swelling seed heads remained. In slightly dryer places devil’s bit scabious heads were visible and would be wide blue open in a few days. The air was heavy with the scent of meadowsweet, augmented with the tang of water mint, bruised by our passing feet. We found marsh pennywort, soft rush, woodrush, pond weed and shoreweed at the fringe of the loch.

Brooklime and marsh forget-me-not provided discreet sparks of blue along the wetter channels. We reached slightly dryer meadow habitat and as the ground began to rise towards the holm, white clover and hawkweeds were in full flower. Different sedges and grasses made a delicate forest of stems; flea and star sedge, crested dog’s tail, annual meadow grass, Yorkshire fog grass, sweet vernal, wavy hair grass, mat grass and purple moor grass. On the higher, rocky ground we found sheets of bird’s foot trefoil, with pockets of red clover, yarrow and ladies bedstraw.

There were a few creeping thistles and patches of silver weed. Down at the water’s edge, the shaggy frills of a rather special moss was found. This one has a history of being used, crammed into chimney cracks, to stop adjacent surfaces from catching fire. The loch was very calm and still, but the solitary common gull, still waiting for her mate somehow to materialise, was anything but calm. As we passed by on the return leg, she rose up, wailing, and swung close overhead. I wondered how the injured gull back home was faring.

How close have you ever been to a common gull? I recall my state of ignorance about seabirds when I first came to Shetland in 1980. It was Bobby Tulloch who began to convince me that I could begin to make sense of the swirling mass of grey, white, black, yellow billed, pink billed, speckled, half speckled, birds which thronged and shrieked through the air above Shetland’s harbour, sea and loch spaces.

Bobby had, among his countless skills, two remarkable qualities which helped me begin to get a handle on Shetland’s wildlife. Firstly, it never mattered how daft or simple your question was. Despite his phenomenal knowledge, he was as excited about seeing someone, friend, neighbour or total stranger, grasp a new fact about a bird, as he was about finding a new one himself. He always took the time to explain and encourage you to keep watching, exploring and learning.

Secondly, he had a brilliant way of describing things, using the familiar ideas to help secure the unfamiliar. He helped me learn my basic seagull recognition rules by starting with herring gull and common gull. The former he said “has a really mean and nasty look in its eyes”, and the “common gull has a beautifully innocent, almost angelic expression”. I never forgot those guidelines and as we drove our injured gull to Tingwall (see last week’s Wildernnews), it looked calmly about with those lovely dark eyes, pure white face and never registered the slightest alarm or distress. Sadly, this only served to underline how weak and sick it was.

I remembered that as we had left the marshes, the partner bird became desperate. It circled and circled over us, dipping almost low enough to touch us, screaming and calling in great agitation, following us almost back to the car park. It felt awful, taking its mate away, but to have left it lying there, injured and helpless would have felt worse. Two other common gulls were sitting on adjacent fence posts not far away and when they saw the distressed gull circling, for a while they joined in. The following day was the flower foray and the same three gulls approached, called and dived just as they had the day before.

Just our luck, Ron was on holiday. We headed home and made a shelter for the gull outside. With some persuasion, we managed to get the bird to drink, but it refused all but a scrap of proffered food. Maybe when a creature is injured beyond help, refusal of food is a natural way of shortening the period of suffering. Needless to say, the night after the flower walk, it did die. So then what? I often boil and clean the heads of dead birds found on the beach, once I have checked their legs for rings. But the idea of cutting through that snowy neck and dismembering the bird which had sat so patiently on our laps in the car, did not appeal.

The memory of the distressed mate still haunted us. Whether it was right or wrong, what we actually decided to do, was to return the gull to the very place we had lifted it from. So it was back to the car and back to the Tingwall Loch. We were spotted the minute we went through the gate. It was extraordinary. We were still 100 yards from the Holm, but the distant white speck on the fence post lifted, cried out and made straight for us.

Carrying the dead gull, we approached the place where we had found it lying and ducked every time the gull swooped down at us. The other pair of common gulls was not in evidence this time. We set the gull down; wings outstretched, just as we had found it, and then retreated. From a distance, we watched. First the bird flew in great circle, diving at us as it passed, and then dipping low over the dead bird each time. After a while it alighted on a post near its dead mate, and called over and over again. Then it rose and resumed the circling, the diving and the dipping. We had to leave.

Whatever the cynics say, there seemed to us to be not the slightest doubt of the anguish of the partner. We simply hoped that to see the bird, where it had first collapsed, now dead, would in some way make more sense, than to have it just vanish. Anti-anthropomorphists would have a field day with this, but I don’t care. There are occasions when there are no clear guidelines for how to resolve a situation. You just have to make the best judgement you can, and then get on with it.

Jill Slee Blackadder


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.