Wednesday 27 July 2011

Westray flowers, Part 2

Not far from the cottage we were renting, the Admiral and I discovered a gem of a pasture. One evening, we had headed out to the north coast of the island, principally to see if we could photograph a sunset, but with a Plan B of exploring along the storm beach.

The sunset was too cloudy, but we were fortunate enough to briefly see half a dozen Orkney Voles, which ran between boulders, across the turf. Working our way along the coast and through a swathe of Campion, we reached a geo (a narrow inlet bordered by steep cliffs), that was fenced off, sensibly preventing us from risking life and limb. With our planned route back to the cottage now in tatters, we looked at the map for alternatives. Rather then bimble across 3 fields, we chose to cut back eastwards and pick up a track used on the outward journey. The light was starting to fade as we set off again across a pasture, but a small white flower caught my eye... Grass of Parnassus. Even before my exclamation of surprise had died away, we also found a Scottish Primrose, the diminutive pastel jewel in Orkney's floral crown. Somehow, I thought, we have to find a way for Our Lass to reach this spot, despite being on crutches.

As the Hooded Crow flew, it was only 500m from the cottage to the pasture, but to walk it on firm paths would mean a detour of over a kilometre and then negotiating a grass meadow, ripe for hay making. I couldn't see how it could be done. Although her stamina was growing day by day, it was still only a few weeks since her operation, and we did not want to jeopardise her recovery. The distance would just be too much, but even without that, an uneven field covered in long grass wasn't the ideal surface for Our Lass to tackle.

As the days until the end of our holiday became fewer, our frustration grew in inverse proportion. I wasn't too keen on risking the hire car on the stony track, especially as it had fairly low profile tyres. However, as time was running out, I threw caution to the winds. That just left the knotty problem of the bumpy field. This was solved serendipitously when Westraak, the local wildlife tour company, drove passed the cottage, along the track and through said field. Flattened grass, wide path, sorted!

So what was all the fuss about?

This is Grass of Parnassus, Parnassia palustris, and we had never seen it growing in such profusion as here in this small pasture, within a stone's throw of the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, I don't recall ever seeing it in clumps before, only single flowers.

Here's the Scottish Primrose, Primula scotica, which, although confined to a small area of the pasture, was presenting well, especially considering that our ID book stated "don't hope to see it in late June or early July."

To prove that Our Lass made it to this fantastic piece of maritime heath, and also to give some scale to the primrose, the below photo features both beauties. Our Lass is the one holding the camera...

Not content with her adventure off piste, Our Lass then went one better and found several specimens of Frog Orchid, Dactylorhiza viridis, which had just started to bloom.

The Eyebright next door showed how low growing these orchids were in this harsh environment.

Various islands in Orkney have just the right conditions to support this wealth of maritime heath flora. The farming techniques are still those of years long past, and though they are inevitably more mechanised, they are still sensitive to the needs of Nature. The farming fraternity is often criticised for its close relationship with agri-business, but at least here, in these northern isles, the balance is more wildlife friendly. Amen to that.

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