The wildlife ignoramus comes to Shetland

by Tom Morton -

When I first arrived in Shetland, some 38 years ago, I was barely interested in wildlife and birds not at all. I knew the difference between a starling and a robin, just about. I could tell a killer whale from a dolphin, because one was called Namu (from the 1966 movie, not the later and inferior Orca films) and the other Flipper, from the Australian TV series. As a child, I was obsessed with both Flipper and what I thought of as his near-cousin Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, though it turned out, sadly, they were unrelated.

There were and are no kangaroos in Shetland (though there are, oddly enough, feral wallabies in Scotland, on an island in Loch Lomond). Dolphins, porpoises, killer whales and other sea mammals abound in the seas around our coastline, and it can get to the point where you kind of take sightings for granted. I remember once having the eminent BBC naturalist Simon King in my car, during one of his first visits to Shetland, and he became so excited at a report that a pod of orcas had been seen off Eshaness that we ended up rushing around Northmavine in a frenzy of binocular-brandishing and texting. We didn’t see them. I, frankly wasn’t too bothered. I have a slight issue with killer whales. It’s the prefix ‘killer’. I do a lot of sea kayaking in the summer and the thought of being surrounded, all of a sudden, by a top-of-the-food-chain group of ultra-predators whilst paddling around the entrance to Hamar Voe is a mite disturbing. The father of a friend, out on ‘da eela’ (inshore fishing) in a small, open Shetland model boat once found himself amid an orca pod and it’s fair to say that it left him somewhat concerned. Yes, I know they’re not known to attack human beings, but what are you supposed to do if one takes a nibble at your neoprene wetsuit? Shout ‘leave me alone, I’m not a seal, honestly’? Perhaps that would work. They are supposed to be highly intelligent creatures. Maybe they speak English. With a Shetland accent.

There were, and are, no kangaroos in Shetland. though there are wallabies on an island in Loch Lomond

My early education in The Ways of Shetland began with an introduction to the word ‘twitcher’ , which I had never even heard previously. This was because a group of said uber-birdie-folk gathered with their monoculars, cameras and notebooks outside our garden in Voe which was, at the time, one of the few patches of forest in Shetland. To be honest, it still is. There had been a report. Of A Bird. Who knows what rare straggler it was? This was in the pre-internet days, when information on rare feathered sightings was relayed through groups in staged telephone calls. But then, as now, wealthy enthusiasts would charter aircraft to add something particularly tasty (not that they would ever eat it) to their life list.

Gradually, I gained enough knowledge to tell the difference between a puffin and a ‘Norwegian Blue’ parrot (‘beautiful plumage’). The cat dragging a whimbrel onto the doorstep as a gift was enough to necessitate a swift burial (of the bird) in order to prevent said feline’s assassination by our more ornithomaniac friends. But there were moments when seeing a wild creature for the first time brought an overwhelming thrill, a sense of wonder.

The slinky slither of an otter as it slipped through the garden towards the sea took my breath away. Suddenly I was thinking back to the film, Ring of Bright Water, and that itself provoked a reading of Gavin Maxwell’s amazing books, set in Arnisdale on the Scottish west coast. They are beautiful animals, but no-one who has read the hideous story of how the late TV naturalist Terry Nutkins, at 15 an assistant to Maxwell, had two fingers bitten off by the pet Maxwell otter Edal, would ever touch one. Recently, I met an elderly Shetlander who used to hunt them for their skins.

“We would fill our wellington boots with ash, so they couldn’t bite through into our legs,” he told me. Something with jaws capable of crunching a crab shell like fudge is to be treated with great respect, even if it does look like a sleekit meerkat.

We would fill our wellingtons with ash, so they couldn't bite our legs...

It’s easy to idealise, anthropomorphise Shetland’s wildlife. Most of them are anything but cuddly, though. And sometimes, they can frighten, and leave you with a sense of awe.

That was my experience with certainly the biggest animal I have ever encountered. A number of years ago in Burra, a blue whale became disorientated, trapped, then stranded. I was alone on the beach, watching this vast mammal surface, and I felt suddenly diminished, as if I were shrinking, tiny and insignificant. Weirdly, I felt the same way just a last week, when there was a shrieking in our garden, then silence. Looking out from the porch, I could see a female sparrowhawk regarding me balefully as she tore lumps out of the blackbird she had just killed. Predator. Raptor. Killer. Another piece of the Un-Human, completely indifferent to my existence, and utterly superior.

I still know very little about birds, fish and wandering wild animals. I have my favourites, though. Rupert the Redshank will be back soon, and the Whooper Swans are always a treat to watch. I love the Shetland names like dunter (eider) maali (fulmar), leerie (manx shearwater) and scarf (shag). Call me an infant, but even saying the word ‘shag’ makes me laugh. Grey herons (haigrie), the gangly Steerpikes of the avian world, are somehow a delight, and spring has not arrived properly until the tirricks (arctic terns) return from their annual sojourn in the Antarctic.

One event, though, in 1993 made me realise how much I felt for Shetland and its non-human inhabitants. That was the wreck of the tanker Braer at Garths Ness in the South Mainland.

I had recently left Shetland to live and work in the Highlands as a national news journalist. My newspaper chartered a private plane and I flew into Sumburgh in a force 11 gale to cover the story. I watched as the Braer, helpless and abandoned, came ashore, its fuel tanks already ruptured and the air a filthy, moving mass of hydrocarbons. Next morning, it was calm, and the south mainland coastline was thick, toxic, jellied and black. I stopped the car at the Sand of Hayes, and realised that the the slow, treacly waves were laden with dead fish and birds, hundreds, thousands of them. Old Douglas DC3 aircraft swooped mere feet from the surface, dropping detergent to no obvious effect. Distraught friends wept at the sight. For once I could identify some of the dead and dying birds, and that made things worse.

An enormous effort saved a few oil-damaged birds, otters and seals. A scouring hurricane cleared away the worst of the pollution. Now, you wouldn’t know the Braer had ever happened. But anyone who was there knows the terrible cost.

And now, every time I see a bird, an otter, a whale, a dolphin or a seal, I’m grateful it hasn’t happened again, and that I’m here to see Shetland and its native wildlife for the most part clean, pure and healthy. I count the cost. And I name the species. Whaap, bonxie, peerie maa. I’m still learning.