Archive for the ‘Natural World’ Category
We found a shrew on the drive the other day. Sadly, it was dead, though recently so. It looked slightly dented around the middle, fur a little ruffled, like something might have had it in its jaws, though there were no bite marks. I felt a pang of sorrow for its lost little life, such a perfect and gorgeous creature. I stroked its velvet fur a few times before we laid it to rest.
The shrew has secrets I didn’t know about: toxic saliva, -deadly enough to kill a rabbit- and powerful scent glands that give off an unpleasant odour, enough to cause a cat or fox to drop it, though sadly in this case, not saving its life. Apparently birds have little or no sense of smell, so birds of prey will be undeterred by this evolutionary defence mechanism.
The SPCA recently found an abandoned pine marten quite close to where we live, and a few weeks ago we saw a badger trundle across the road. I feel very privileged to live in a part of the country where these sightings are not uncommon. It’s easy to be impressed with these large, ‘sexy’ mammals, but we also get lots of little mammals in the garden: shrews, voles, mice and weasels, and I am equally impressed with their wile, and I am sure I will be impressed by the things about them I have yet to find out.
If you want to find out more about wildlife and share what wildlife you have seen look at ‘The Wild Outside‘ . The Scottish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals can be found by clicking this link. See BBC Nature for additional information.
photo from BBC archives
A similar latitude to Moscow, and closer to Norway than London, Shetland is a collaboration of about 100 islands, only 16 of which are inhabited. Described as a ‘subarctic archipelago’ of Scotland, it’s as far north as you can go, and still be in the UK. In reality it is a world apart from the UK, Europe, and even Scotland. The ferry crossing is 12 hours from Aberdeen to Lerwick, and can often be rough. It gives you plenty of time to adjust to a holiday in such a remote location, surrounded by sea and nothing else.
I think Turner, the artist, would have liked Shetland: a place of light, and water, always changing. It’s one of the charms of the north of Scotland, and is particularly applicable to Shetland where the light, and the sea, can change from one minute to the next. Stunning beaches and wide open skies characterise the landscape. There are hardly any trees, and the wild scarcely populated places can seem by turns both barren and captivating.
I was hooked the first time I visited. A long weekend, and a whistle-stop tour of some of the key visitor attractions, persuaded me I needed longer there, and finally, last September, I went back. I felt in-tune with the place instantly. The weather was stunning, and gave me plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the many spectacular sandy beaches, accessed from a rugged coastline. Nowhere in Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea, and if you’re a water-baby, like me, that’s a joyous statistic. The beaches are often described as ‘empty’, though that’s not strictly true. Wildlife, particularly birdlife, is abundant in the Shetlands Isles, and it’s difficult to go anywhere without experiencing something of that richness of life. Birdwatchers are in their element with puffins, bonxies -the local name for great skuas- and gannets evident in larger numbers than anywhere else in the UK. Even if you’re not a bird watcher, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the scale of some of the colonies. Noss is home to 150,000 gannets in the height of the breeding season, and a spectacular sight at any time, with birds clamouring for cliff space, or diving for food. Puffins are riotous little birds, with their own charm and character. I watched them for ages, and I’m no ‘twitcher’!
The shore is home to seals a-plenty, and it’s not difficult to get reasonable shots, if you’re a photographer, or even if you’re not. Shetland is also the place to see otters. The islands are one of the otter’s main strongholds in the UK, with numbers up to about a thousand. You can see them during the daytime here, helped by the extra hours of daylight in the summer.
Further out at sea you might see dolphins, and even whales. One of the main whale migration routes is 40 miles west, out on the edge of the continental shelf, and it’s possible to charter a boat to this area, although chance sightings of whales are possible on any boat trip, and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a breach on one such trip.
There’s plenty of impressive coastline to see, if you’re sea legs aren’t great, and Eashaness, on the northwest tip of the mainland is the result of crashing waves making their mark with saw-toothed stacks and a jagged coastline. Dramatic scenery like this is not uncommon in this part of the world. There are more soothing coastlines, and quiet sandy beaches, Meal Beach on Burra, is one such place where I spent a pleasant morning in the sunshine, seeing 2 dogs and 4 people in the whole time I was there.
Another are of the coastline worth exploring is the tombola at St Ninians Isle. Reputedly the most spectacular example in Britain. I hadn’t seen one before, didn’t even know what one was. It was strange walking across the strip of sand and shell, sea pressing on either side.
If wildlife and coastline isn’t your thing, then perhaps Shetland isn’t the destination for you, although there is plenty of history, and, my other main interest, food. Shetlanders have to be pretty self-sufficient, and seafood and grass-fed animals are very evident on menus. There are plenty of local delicacies and some excellent cafes and restaurants. I stayed on an organic sheep farm, and both their wool and meat could be bought locally. On a trip to Yell and Unst, we were offered lobsters for our tea, by a local fisherman who we met on the ferry. He refused to take anything for the catch.
The friendliness of Shetlanders should be legendary. Despite the TV programme ‘Shetland’ giving the impression that a murder is committed every week on the islands, in reality, there’s little crime. People know each other, and there’s a genuine sense of community. People will still speak to you, visitor, or islander, and even children waved at us as we drove past in the car!
It is not an idyllic place to live, I’m sure. The weather can be harsh as Atlantic storms batter the coastline, especially in the winter. In spite of the oil industry, employment is an issue, especially for young people. All the difficulties of rural life are multiplied ten-fold on an island.
There’s lots more to be said about Shetland, I’ve not even touched on the crafts, or the baking, or the Vikings, for example. You can find out more on the Visit Shetland website http://visit.shetland.org/]
When Debbie and I were talking about what might make a good choice of guest post topic for her blog, she mentioned her current interest in Japanese cookery. It’s a part of the world I am interested in, too, although my understanding of Japanese cuisine is in its infancy. But a lot of the plants we grow in the UK originally came from the temperate regions of the Far East, and so I thought it might be fun to look at some of the plants we can grow that have ‘Japanese’ in their common names. It might not be that they all originate from Japan; the naming of plants (with their common names, at least) is a murky business full of intrigue and confusion. Welsh onions, for example, don’t come from Wales, although they will happily grow in gardens there.
In the early days of my garden I planted Japanese onions. Some of the varieties of Japanese onions have Japanese-style names; others don’t. The difference between Japanese onions and regular onions is the time at which they’re planted. I chose them because it was autumn and I wanted to plant something in my garden. Japanese onion sets are put in the ground in the autumn, overwinter and produce bulbs slightly earlier in the year than their spring-planted relatives. There’s some suggestions that they don’t store as well as maincrop onions, but I’ve never had a problem with that. It’s quite hard to grow as many onions as you need in a year, unless you have an allotment or a very large garden. Some gardeners grow Japanese onions for an early crop, but give the majority of their space over to maincrop onions. Both can be grown from seed, as well as sets, and are readily available from seed catalogues and garden centres.
A plant that isn’t as well-known as is should be is the Japanese wineberry. It grows like a raspberry, and its berries are very similar, but until they are fully ripe they are encased in a calyx (like a shell) that keeps the birds from pilfering your harvest. The plants are very pretty, with dark green leaves on their scrambling stems, white flowers and their bright red fruit. They are quite bristly though, so don’t plant them right next to the garden path. Assuming any of your harvest makes it back to the kitchen (and one day I will grow enough to make that happen!) then you can use them in the same ways as raspberries, but they have a delightful flavour all of their own.
When people talk about growing quinces, they’re normally talking about Cydonia oblonga, a small tree that grows large, yellow fruits that are as hard as rocks. They’re sought after by foodies for making quince jellies and jams, or including in pies. Most people who grow the Japanese quince (Chaenomelesspecies) grow them for their ornamental qualities – they produce stunning blossom in the spring time. They’re also smaller plants, suitable for smaller gardens. A lot of people don’t know that they also produce edible fruit. One of the tastiest is said to be the popular variety ‘Crimson and gold’, and you can probably guess what colour show it puts on for you!
You’ve probably heard of the dreaded Japanese knotweed, a plant that was introduced for its ornamental value but has rapidly become invasive in the UK. If you’ve got it in the garden you need to be careful how you remove it – improper disposal of Japanese knotweed is illegal, and one of the ways in which it is spreading to new territory. Enquire of your local council what facilities they have for safe disposal, but there are people who go foraging for it to eat like rhubarb, so you could always try eating it into submission.
One you may not be familiar with is the Japanese prickly ash, which is one of the Zanthoxylum species used to grow Szechuan pepper. It’s a small, fragrant tree – and yes, it is prickly. Just one would give you more Szechuan peppercorns than a family could use in a year, even if you’re very big fans of Chinese 5-spice (for which it is one of the main ingredients). Not only does it give you the opportunity to grow one of your own spices, you can use it to play tricks on unsuspecting guests. One quick nibble of a Szechuan peppercorn will set your mouth vibrating for quite some time. It’s not unpleasant, but it is unexpected!
Other less familiar plants include Japanese parsley, or mitsuba – an annual herb that’s easy to grow, and for which seeds are readily available. Japanese ginger, mioga, is a little harder to track down (try Poyntzfield Herbs) but is a hardy plant that grows outside in the UK. It’s the flower shoots that are used (rather than the roots of regular ginger), and you do have to be wary of slugs, who find it just as delicious as we do. Japanese horseradish is wasabi, and you can grow that here too, although most of the wasabi we buy in shops is (apparently) regular old horseradish with a bit of green food dye. And, of course, there’s Japanese burdock, or gobo, which is a plant with impossibly long, edible roots.
I’m sure there’s plenty more I’ve forgotten, so if you can think of one you can add it in the comments!
Many thanks to Debbie for hosting a stop on my virtual book tour. Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs is my new ebook about unusual edible plants and the people who choose to grow them. You can find out more on the book’s homepage (http://emmacooper.org/jade-pearls-alien-eyeballs) and read a preview at Smashwords (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/414476). The book is being published on 1stMay, costs $2.99, and will be available in a wide range of ebook formats.