Blog 8 – Human adaptation

The theme of this topic is really inspired by a conversation on the ferry between the Shetlands and the Orkneys. Usually, I like to imagine what the landscape or a village would have been like some centuries ago. But, what would the landscape be like if humans left altogether?

Northern Highlands

Bergen to Portsoy

Day 46 – 0 km – Being tourist for a day. With some other girlsfrom the hostel I went on a boat tour through the fjord.

Day 47 – 11 km – Cycled and walked through the city to organize everything. Laundry, reparation stuff for my bike, box for my bike, postcards…

Fjord boat tour

Day 48 – 21 + 9 km to Sumburgh – Someone broke and stole my lock, broke my stand, but as if in a comic, left my bike. Probably they didn’t realize I have two locks on my bike. And had the experience of flying with my bike. Ended the day bird-watching on Sumburgh Head in the Shetlands and sleeping in a “böd”.

Day 49 – 50 km to Lerwick – The Shetlands are beautiful! But there is – no other word will do – a shitload of wind. Falling (again) doesn’t help either, nor does the rain. Decided to skip the northern part of the route and stay in a hostel for the night and take the ferry the next day. And funnily enough ran into a cyclist I met a couple of times before!

Day 50 – 5 km to Kirkwall – It was a good choice not to cycle. It was wet and very windy. Went to the Shetland museum, went birdwatching in the harbour and visited some shops. Ended the day with quite a rough ferry to the Orkneys. In order to avoid seasickness: go birdwatching!

Day 51 – 91 km to Stromness – Together with the other cyclist (Martin) rode around Orkney’s west mainland. Started rainy, mostly sunny, ended rainy. Also visited some historic sites.

Day 52 – 56 km to Bettyhill – A nice ferry ride to mainland Scotland. The landscape started agricultural and ended (after rain…) with more heathlands and higher mountains. The campsite facilities were… hmm… interesting.

Stromness – Leaving the Orkneys

Day 53 – 77 km to Lairg – Said goodbye to Martin, as he headed west and I south. Took a shortcut through the valley of River Naver and entered the vast landscape of the northern highlands. Rainy, but beautiful day.

Day 54 – 94 km to Rosemarkie – A lot of down hill. Landscape turned very agricultural, with no more mountains around.

Day 55 – 65 km to Nairn – Half this route I’d done two years ago. Did some shopping in Inverness. Literally ended the day on the other side of the water from Rosemarkie.

Day 56 – 94 km to Portsoy – Wind in the back and go! Reached 3500 km today. Some coasts, some castles, some clouds, some sun, some up, some down. Lovely wave sounds to fall asleep.

Spey river viaduct
Cycled so far

Staying in hostels has made me somewhat lazy. It is so much more comfortable sitting inside, especially if it is raining and windy outside. Then again, stepping onto your bike is just very rewarding. A bit addictive. Staying inside also makes me long for home. Wherever that may be. It was quite tempting to take a ferry to Aberdeen, take a train and take the ferry to IJmuiden from Newcastle. My main goal had been reached anyway. I made it to the Shetlands. So I supposed it would be a lot harder to keep going in the UK. But the idea of actually reaching the Netherlands on my bike has now settled in my mind as the new goal. Since the rain has ceased, my mood has also improved. And in case of mental emergency, it is always good to know you’re not the only cyclist on the road going through similar struggles. My rhythm is also slowly coming back again, and with that also my motivation to write.

Orkneys in the rain

Before men arrived

Historic sites, old villages, landscapes that feel old or even very big trees always make me wonder what it must have been like many years ago. How was life in Pictish times? What would it be like to live in the time where castle owners were basically the head of the town? What would the landscape have looked like before human settlement? Luckily, many musea and history lessons can give a rough idea. Sometimes even signs along the road may give some more background information.

Ring of Brodgar – what would life have been like?

It is almost unimaginable. But 6000 years ago, whem men first arrived on the Shetlands, the Shetlands (and I suppose the Orkneys too) were a mixture of grassland, marsh, heath and stunted woodland. Peat started forming due to a changing climate, but the vegetation changed more through human activity. Nowadays, you find mainly grasslands, heath and peat. There is not a single tree in sight. But mankind can easily adapt. Instead of burning wood for fire, people on the Shetlands use peat. This whole change in landscape and switching to another energy source shows the impact mankind has on the environment, but it also reminded me if Easter Island, and in extend, the world as an island. Let me explain…

Marks of peat harvesting

A while ago, I read this interesting article about Easter Island. Like the Shetlands, Easter island was once forested. Most likely, rats introduced by the arrival of the first inhabitants stopped the regeneration of trees. Unlike the myth surrounding the island, agriculture was thriving when Europeans first visited. It was even more productive than when the island was forested, because the inhabitants were so innovative. It seems like this is found in mankind in general. We keep innovating. We keep finding ways to innovate our way of producing energy or executing agriculture. However, I do wonder if their is a limit to innovation, since wo do only have one earth with limited natural resources. Skipping over a long part of the story, eventually the inhabitants of Easter Island were mostly killed by an epidemic of some pox. It is not unthinkable that with the ongoing global biodiversity crisis, epidemics or pests might cause some serious problems too.

Shetlands – no trees

After men leave

Unlike my usual thoughts, a conversation on the boat to the Orkneys brought up the question: what would happen if we would not be here anymore. Imagine a disease would kill all mankind. Or in the case of the Sheltands an Orkneys, if one day men chose just to leave the island. Would the vegetation become more forested again? Would now locally extinct species return to those habitats? It is of course difficult to predict. Restoration projects on a small scale often take a lot of time to somehow remove the impact men had on a piece of land. An agricultural field is for instance much too nutrient rich to turn back into heathland. Soil compaction by grazers also changes the vegetation, and has a long-lasting effect. And then there are our buildings, products and rubbish. How long will that take to reduce… It is quite a nice mind game to imagine what a place would be like in the future if we would leave it alone now. Although on a side note, some buildings here have been abandoned for some time, so you get an idea what the future of other buildings would be.

Grasslands on the Shetlands

Adapted to human life

Although in time many species would benefit from the absence of humans, there are also species that have completely (been) adapted to our way of living. The “been” is for livestock. We have actively changed them to suit our benefits, but I will not focus on that here.

House sparrows (Passer domesticus, huismus) already show it in their name. They are so connected to our way of living. Every farm I pass, there is a new swarm of sparrows. They adapted to our houses for breeding opportunities. If we were not there any more, or if we drastically change our houses (which has been the cause for the decline in the Netherlands various years ago), their populations would reduce due to a lack of breeding sites.

House sparrow sandbathing

But did you know gulls would do terrible without us too? Some gulls nicely displayed why. Gulls use our way of living as their food provision. Eating scraps or stealing your chips (apparently staring them down helps in avoiding this), but also eating from our waste sites and eating fish waste from vessels at sea.

Another example of how species can change due to our behaviour also comes from the UK. People feel they should help birds by supplying bird food. They do this so much that the beaks of great tits (Parus major, koolmees) have become longer. And this has been changed at DNA level, not just as a phenotypic or plastic response.

Gulls aiming to steal my lunch

While I have won my battle with the gulls over my lunch, I still need to battle the rest of UK’s North Sea coast. I have adapted well to life on the road, but it is very easy to slack off. Next blog hopefully up within a week!

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