Shetland Guide Book
Flora - Wonderful Wild Flowers

Soon after the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, plants started to recolonise Shetland. The present vegetation of islands is the result of the interactions between the roughly 400 successful species, the underlying, mostly acidic, rocks, the climate and latitude and for the last 5,000 years, the impact of man and his grazing animals. Initial impressions are of very extensive peaty moorland stretching from one end of Shetland to the other. However a closer look soon reveals a diversity of plant life, and between May and August a variety of habitats put on a rich floral display.

FELLFIELD The high granite areas of the North Mainland, such as Ronas Hill, and the serpentinite areas of Unst have remained as fellfield, where vegetation is sparse, and much bare rock, broken by frost action, is exposed. The plants which do survive are arctic or dwarf varieties, of which there are 15 on Ronas Hill. The Keen of Hamar, on Unst, is the largest of several such areas on Unst and Fetlar and is home to the unique Edmondston’s Mouse-ear Chickweed, along with several other species which have adapted to the inhospitable conditions.

MOORLAND About 50% of Shetland is covered with a blanket of peat, in places many feet thick, which has formed over the last few thousand years. Such areas are mostly wet and deficient in nutrients, and thus only support a limited range of plants. These include Cotton grass, Bog Asphodel, Milkwort and Tormentil. The Sundew and Butterwort are insectivorous, and trap small flies on their leaves. In late summer the moors take on a beautiful mauve tint when the Heather blooms. In moorland areas where conditions allow soils to be more free-draining, different plants thrive depending on the underlying rocks, as the degree of grazing. In particular the limestone areas are very noticeable by their relative “green-ness”. These rich grassy areas can have an especially diverse range of plants.

CROFTLAND The traditional agricultural practices did much to encourage wildlife. For long many more cattle than sheep were kept, and they needed large quantities of winter feed. This was provided by hay meadows, which were only grazed early and late in the season, and were cut in August. Cattle dung is also not acidic, unlike sheep droppings. Although sheep have largely replaced cattle, except on the small number of larger farms, there are still many areas of old meadow, field boundaries, verges, burns, steep slopes and other places where even the Shetland sheep does not reach. These are havens for many species of wild flower including in Spring, Spring Squill and Primrose (Mayflower), followed by Orchids, Buttercups, Hawkbits, Clovers, Field Gentian, Eyebright and Vetches. A wide range of grasses may also be present. Damper areas which have remained undrained may have Irises, Spotted Orchid, Ragged Robin, Marsh Marigold and Cotton Grass.

COASTLINE Nowhere in Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea so in many ways the whole area is “coastal” in that it is all affected by salt in the air to some degree. The roughly 1450 miles of coast includes many habitats for plants. These include exposed shores and cliffs, sheltered bays and voes, salty marshes, sandy beaches and dunes and maritime heath. Lichens thrive even in the most exposed of locations, especially the yellow Xanthoria and hairy Ramalina (“Old Man’s Beard”) which are so prominent, and benefit from the clean air and water.

In summer the plants such as Thrift, Spring Squill, Plantains, short grasses, give colour to the clifftops, while plants such as Sea Rocket, Scurvy Grass, Oysterplant and Silverweed grow on more sheltered beaches. Sea Campion, Scentless Mayweed, Kidney Vetch, Vetches, Iris and Orchids often grow slightly inland, especially where protected from grazing. Shetland does not have the extensive machair areas of the Western Isles, but the beaches with sand dune systems at Sumburgh, Quendale, Spiggie, St Ninian’s Isle, West Sandwick and Breakon in Yell and Norwick and Skaw in Unst are the best example. All are full of wildflowers in summer, especially the ungrazed areas. Apart from those which are inhabited, there are over 80 small islands ranging from large holms such as Hascosay or Balta to isolated skerries such as the Ve Skerries or the Ramna Stacks.

Depending on the rock type, degree of exposure and whether or not there are sheep or nesting birds present, these islands have a varying range of flora. Some are very lush, while others are so exposed as to have virtually no plants at all. In most parts of the Shetland the shore is steep to, and not gently shelving as in Orkney. As a result of this and the limited tidal range, most beaches only have a narrow intertidal littoral zone. Shetland thus lacks the extensive seaweed resources of Orkney or the Western Isles, which have had such a beneficial effect on farmland in these areas.

LOCHS AND MARSHES There may only be a small number of large lochs in Shetland, but there are hundreds of small ones, ranging from small pools and marshy areas to “proper” lochs. There are no large streams, but many small ones, many of which drain into small areas of salt marsh at the head of voes. Small holms on many of the lochs, as well as inaccessible burnsides and craigs provide protection from grazing and in the latter cases shelter

There are small areas of relict “woodland” in these places, showing that some trees and shrubs can grow in Shetland. The range of plants in these places probably reflects the sort of vegetation which covered much of Shetland before the arrival of man and his grazing animals. This is confirmed by studies of pollen grains taken from cores of loch sediments. Many of the more acid lochs have Water Lilies, which provide a contrast to the browns and purples of the surrounding moorland. More nutrient-rich lochs often have Marsh Marigolds, Iris and Ragged Robin along their shores.

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