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Four Seasons / Four Seasons – Summer 2015

A brood of four hooded crows - Photo: Lea Gardens

Four Seasons? Summer was a bit like Waiting for Godot with the dramatic element, if one can call it that, supplied by the climate. Or should that be weather?

Seeds refused to germinate in the cold, wet soil, courgettes under protective cloches turned grey and furry and rotted away, while healthy rows of lettuce vanished over night – down the gullets of Shetland’s slug population; a sizeable population at the best of times, undoubtedly swelled by a rain-aided swarm of newly-hatched sluglets.

This was the summer, where cattle had to be kept indoors long beyond their usual ‘release’ date, due to soggy pastures and vegetables, no sooner planted, bolted. Brassicas and leeks ran to seed and, according to a member of the Walls over-sixties club, even onions started to flower, something never seen in Shetland before.

All seasons bring the expected and unexpected, but this one presented me with what I hadn’t seen for a long time or never before, such as the springing up of miracle gardens and starlings making sandwiches.

This is my 39th season in Shetland and I have at long last taken a leaf out of natives’ book. I’m looking at the bright sight. Rather than the cold, wet and grey leaving me feeling miserable, I’m delighted at the prospect of less watering and not having to bother with a summer wardrobe.

And rather than bemoaning the lack of on the lawn sun-bathing opportunities, I was thrilled to find the cold temperatures reducing the frequency of cutting the grass. What’s not to like?

The maritime rope I use as a lawn edging in various parts of the garden used to look exactly like a reproduction of those ceramic pretend ropes Victorian gardeners used for the same purpose – until this year.

The lengths of rope not covered in bright green moss were, in early summer, smothered in a rather large, ugly liverwort – or so I thought. The liverworts turned out to be prothali – the first stage in the complicate reproduction of ferns. My edging ropes are now ferneries and, as if this wasn’t strange enough strange tufted, crested and tongued fern mutations have turned up all over the garden, including one where the fronds have been replaced by strings of something resembling green, lacy coins.

Rather unusual, yet entirely in keeping with an excessively wet and cool season. But what about those phenomena contradicting all perceived horticultural wisdom?

Plants far removed from their climatic comfort only fruit and flower during exceptionally warm summers in Shetland. The Moroccan broom (Cytisus battandieri) is one such plant. This evergreen shrub has been in the garden for just under a decade and produced its pineapple-scented flowers for the first time in this of all years.

The Chilean lantern tree (Crinodendron hookerianum) manages to flower at 60 degrees north most years, but has never produced a single seed – until anno 2015. This is an event worth of celebration, as a second generation plant with a Shetland provenance is bound to be a tougher than tough little cookie.

Thanks to extensive tree and shrub cover, Lea Gardens permanent and fleeting bird population managed to keep snug and dry and – it’s an ill wind that blows no good – the excessive precipitation must have brought more than the usual “crop” of worms to the surface, bringing forth the first ever third blackbird brood as well as a bumper crop of starlings – reared – if my observations are anything to go by – on a well-balanced diet.

Lea Gardens' rope fernery.

Having filled the bird table with bits of mouldy bread I watched a starling with a beak-full of worms alight to rummage and re-arrange. It flew off with the dangles of worms between two chunks of bread – a starling sandwich.

This has been a highly successful Lea Gardens breeding season, notably amongst mealy redpolls, Shetland wrens, robins and blackcaps, but what gladdened my heart the most was the return of my pair of hooded crows.

I know that many (perhaps most?) Shetland folk hate them because they peck out the eyes of moribund sheep. Viking Energy, aware of this sentiment I’m sure, has made them the scapegoats in their habitat management plan with Larson traps (outlawed in many countries) to be set on Shetland hills.

I find it immensely sad that in this day and age any animal should be judged solely according to whether it is useful to humans and their endeavours or not – a blinkered view in any case.

These crows fulfil an important role in the natural scheme of things. They are primarily carrion eaters – nature’s cleaners and hygienists, and opportunistic feeders in a secondary capacity. They are also highly intelligent birds.

Our resident pair was predated by blackbacks two years running, resulting in only one young, and none in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

The next two years they nested in a neighbour’s tall Sitka spruce. When that came down this January, they decided to try their luck at Lea Gardens once more.

They successfully raised a brood of four, aided in a small way by the supplementary food offered – grey mince, pies past their sell-by date and the odd egg.

I eventually gave up waiting for summer and decided to move to the Canary Islands, Southern India or Western Africa forthwith.

Then, as is always the case when I decide to dump Shetland, it tries to win me back with one of those rare evenings when the sky is banded in ochre and duck-egg blue and the horizon seems endless.

Rosa Steppanova