OK commuter: a Shetlander's journey to work

by Jon Dunn -

Some 15 years ago I was living in the south east of England, running like a hamster in his wheel, all frantic activity and seemingly no actual progress. My every day was bookended by a commute that involved traffic jams that ground in and out of the outskirts of London. For a frustrated naturalist it was torturous – a slow motion drive along a sterile artery, the only wildlife I’d see being the crows that hopped and dodged amongst the cars, sidling their way nearer to the remains of unfortunate badgers and foxes.

I traded all of that in for a new life in Shetland, placing myself in one of the great landscapes of northern Europe. I was a step closer to living the dream but, this being real life and not the movies, I still had to get to work – I may have swapped London for Lerwick, but I still needed to make a daily commute.

A new home

I’d chosen my new home with care – if I was to live in Shetland, I was going to do it properly. This naturalist was going to live surrounded by nature… and that meant a home at the far end of Whalsay, an old croft house perched on top of a peninsula pointing across open sea towards Norway beyond the distant horizon. I would be able to see porpoises from the kitchen window, wake up to find migrant birds roosting on my windowsills, disturb an otter sleeping in my peat shed on top of my winter fuel.

That, though, would come at a cost. A small price to pay, but the daily commute would be a relatively long one – a short drive down the island to catch a ferry, half an hour at sea, and then a further half hour journey down the spine of Shetland and into Lerwick. Friends left behind in England rolled their eyes. “So you’re commuting three hours a day? How do you cope with it?”

And there’s the thing – there’s nothing to cope with, apart from the occasional cancelled ferry when the winter storms prove too much (and that’s the perfect excuse for an enforced night out in town). But let’s not dwell on those rare days.

My daily commute has been an adventure from start to finish, a daily safari through Shetland’s wildlife that never fails to deliver and sometimes serves surprises that shape the day entirely.

For the travelling naturalist, much depends upon the time of year. The sunrises and sunsets of spring and autumn can be spectacular, rendering heather-clad hills a sea of flaming russet and bathing lochs in soft apricot light… but these times of year are when migratory birds make landfall on our islands too, and one never knows what will fly up from a roadside ditch or perch on a nearby fencepost. My eyes are drawn, irresistibly, by movement…

After 15 years, I can cross Whalsay and chart my progress by a roll call of rare birds of seasons gone by. Some were beautiful, and some were more subtle; some were the first of their kind on the island; and some brought twitchers rushing up from the British mainland to see them, chartering planes to bring them to Shetland. (And now I wonder whose commute is the more extreme!)

Their names roll from my tongue as I pass through the island – collared flycatcher, red-flanked bluetail, Arctic redpoll, steppe grey shrike, American golden plover, blue-winged teal, citrine wagtail… They are a kaleidoscope of birds, my birding history, and all seen on the way to or from work.

They are also, of course, the exception rather than the rule. Rare birds are, by definition, rare. What of the daily wildlife? How special is that? Those sad, flattened badgers of my past are just a distant memory now, the sorrow of their passing exorcised by dynamic, vibrant birds and mammals seen daily for years.

Throughout the long weeks of summer I pass through the breeding and feeding territories of birds that birdwatchers from the British mainland come here hoping to see. Whimbrels, red-throated divers, the countless seabirds… an oystercatcher nesting on top of a fence post. The likes of these are my new normal now.

Sea mammal companions

Common and grey seals are my regular companions as I pass by rocky shores and sheltered voes; otters are a little less reliable, though barely a week passes without one being seen, either fishing in the turbulent water stirred up by the ferry as it docks, or a slouching, loping surprise running across the road or through the grass towards the shore.

And then there are the unpredictable ones, the wanderers who stop the ferries in their tracks, folk piling out of their cars and the passenger lounge to catch a glimpse of them. No commute in south-east England features killer whales quartering the shore, a pod of pilot whales spyhopping in open water and watching us ill-equipped mammals crossing their natural habitat, a humpback whale surfacing languorously in the near distance to take a breath before slipping back out of sight, Risso’s dolphins shepherding their new-born young in sheltered waters.

But occasionally, a Shetland commute does just that.

And even though those moments may be few and far between, there’s ample compensation in the long days of summer, for then Shetland blazes with colour that needs no sunrise or sunset to paint it. In June and July many of our fields and roadside verges erupt with a profusion of wildflowers, like an Impressionist painting made real at a landscape scale. Marsh marigolds mark the lines of old field drains in gold tracery. Red campion glows from within, impossibly carmine, while northern marsh orchids stand as royal purple spires at the very edge of the road.

Stop a moment, on your way to work – and it’s hard not to, sometimes – and those flowers are revealed as alive with insects. Shetland bumblebees are unmissable, growling buzz-saws blundering through the carpets of clover. Look closer, and you may see other travellers too – silver-y moths and painted lady butterflies, long distance migrants that have come here all the way from Africa. My daily commute, that three hour round trip, suddenly seems tame by comparison – but the wildlife that I meet is never anything short of wild and wonderful.

About Jon Dunn

Jon Dunn is a natural history writer, photographer and experienced wildlife tour leader based in Shetland, but with strong links in mainland Europe and North America that see him travelling widely in search of memorable wildlife encounters.
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