Things are really looking their best this month, with gardens, verges and heather moorland all looking lush and starting to flower. This is a peak time for our pollinators so get spotting those bumblebees and butterflies and if you are up for a bit of a challenge take a closer look at the hoverflies, there are loads of great resources out there such as the British Naturalists’ Association website https://bna-naturalists.org/id-guide-hoverflies/ or why not request to join the Shetland Insect Group on Facebook where there are lots of local experts more than happy to help out.
In Focus- Shetland’s Wildflowers
This month is the perfect time to stop and appreciate Shetland’s diversity of wildflowers: the colours, the variety and the simplistic beauty. There are many wildflowers to spot in Shetland some UK natives, some alien invasives and even some endemics. Here I will touch on just a couple but for more information check out the Shetland Amenity’s post online here www.shetlandamenity.org/what-to-look-for-this-week-wildflowers or nose through a copy of David Malcom’s Shetland Wild Flowers Book.
The humble Dandelion (Taraxacum sp.) is of course not endemic to Shetland it is probably one of the most widespread wildflowers in the UK. It is disliked by most gardeners due to its voracious want to spread pretty much everywhere. But did you know that the Dandelion is one of the most important flowers for pollinators? They are one of the first flowers to appear in the spring providing both pollen and nectar making it a vital flower for our early to appear bees and hoverflies. For this reason, it is helpful to our wildlife to let them grow, at least during the early weeks of spring when there is very little other food around. Did you also know that using weed-killer on your dandelions can fatally poison our pollinators who come to feast on the pollen and nectar of sprayed flowers? So if you are going to use a weed killer please pull the heads off your Dandelions first or go organic and use a bit of good old hard work to pull them out, and the bonus is it’s free!
The next plant I want to showcase is the Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris), a UK native and one of only 2 carnivorous plants in Shetland, the other being Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). Common Butterwort is a small plant only a couple of inches across with pale green-yellow leaves in a very distinctive star shape spread flat on the ground and small purple flowers. Its leaves excrete a sticky fluid which attracts insects, once stuck the leaves curl over the insect trapping and digesting it. It can be found in damp and boggy heathland.
Oysterplant (Mertensia maritima) is native to the UK but is nationally rare so the specimens growing in Shetland are of national importance. It grows on shingly beaches where it grows in a low sprawling manor. It has succulent leaves, flowering June-Aug with small bell-shaped flowers, starting pink then becoming blue. The Oysterplant gets its name from the taste of its leaves and flowers which are edible and taste like oysters. Please however do not pick any parts of wild plants, Oysterplant can be grown in rock gardens and are available to purchase on many nursery sites online. In Shetland they can be found growing in the North Mainland at Ura Firth and Stenness and at Skaw beach in Unst.
Moth of the month- Dark Arches
Dark Arches (Apamea monoglypha) is common in Shetland and if you have ever had a large moth stuck in your house pinging off your light bulb it was most likely a Dark Arches. They are a large species of moth that can be quite variable in colour from a greyish-brown to dark brown or almost black. In Shetland they tend to be slightly smaller than average and a warm brown colour. The distinguishing features of this moth are the kidney shaped marks on each wing and the W-shaped mark near the outer edge of the wing.
They are in flight July-August preferring grassy areas such as gardens, farmland and grassy verges. The larvae of this species feed on Common Couch and Cock’s-foot grasses among others and overwinter in amongst the grass roots.
In other news…
July is one of the best months for catching a sight of one of Shetland’s best loved sea mammals, the Orca (Orcinus orca). Sightings of these magnificent cetaceans have been on the increase in the last 5 years with sightings being more regular and pods staying around longer. They can grow up to 8 metres long and weigh 6 tonnes and are a top apex predator. Orca are the largest member of the dolphin family and their black and white colouring helps them to hunt by breaking up their silhouette from above and below making them camouflaged from their prey. Bull (male) Orca have a large dorsal fin which can be up to 2 metres in height, there is usually one large dominant male in a pod of females, calves and youngsters. Individual Orca can be identified using photo-identification techniques as their dorsal fins all have a distinct shape. In Shetland, many individuals have been identified and given distinct numbers and names. Two of the most well-known being a bull Orca called Busta and a female named Mousa.
The pods that visit Shetland spend their time moving between Norway, Iceland, Faroe, Shetland, Orkney and the Scottish mainland depending on seasonal food availability. Around our coastline they will hunt for seals and porpoises but have also been seen to take sea ducks such as Common Eider (‘Dunters’ as they are known in Shetland) but will move offshore to hunt fish, following the North Sea shoals of Atlantic Herring and are often seen by our pelagic fishing boats. To catch the fish they have seen to work together as a co-ordinated group flashing their white undersides and blowing bubbles to corral the fish into a tight ball where they then tail slap to stun the fish before picking them off one by one.