Papa Westray’s RSPB Scotland’s North Hill nature reserve hosts some breath-taking scenery and charismatic birdlife, with puffins lounging atop the cliffs of Fowl Craig, and the elegant silhouettes of Arctic skuas patrolling the heath.

A Papay puffin - Sarah Lawrence 

But it takes a much closer look to find one of the more special species to call the reserve home – the tiny Primula scotica, or Scottish primrose. These petite plants stand less than 5 centimetres tall; their beautiful flowers have five heart-shaped purple petals, each flower smaller than your little fingernail.

Each flower is smaller than your fingernail - Sarah Lawrence

You can find Papay’s most extensive Primula scotica colony behind the cliffs of Fowl Craig, where an impressive 8,090 plants were counted last year. The full colony count means all hands-on deck, as a team can be found creeping along the ground meticulously counting each plant – including the distinctive “cabbage like” pastel green rosettes of those that are not flowering.

Why put so much effort into counting flowers? Primula scotica are nationally scarce and endemic – being found only in the very north of mainland Scotland, and at several sites in Orkney. They grow on maritime grassland, where they are rather fussy; needing low-lying vegetation with moist but well-drained soil, and they can be found in very large colonies when the conditions are just right.

Many plants were lost throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries due to agricultural improvement, and they remain vulnerable to changes in land management and grazing: too little grazing and they risk being overshadowed by taller vegetation – too much and plants may be destroyed. On Papay, the North Hill Grazing Committee graze cattle at low levels through the summer and autumn months, which opens up the vegetation and allows maritime grassland species like the Primula scotica to set seed.

A giant among Primula scotica - at nearly 5cm tall - Sarah Lawrence

In the future, Primula scotica may struggle to adapt to environmental extremes caused by climate change – as the species has very little genetic variation – and young plants suffer high mortality during harsh winter weather. Without regular monitoring, it can take a while for changes in their population to be seen, since each plant can live for ten years or more. For now, it’s important to understand changes in their remaining colonies to ensure the vegetation management is working, protecting the plants for years to come.

In July, Primula scotica begin their second flowering for the year, and are at their best. There’s a real sense of excitement as you scour the clifftop in search of these purple jewels, which are best enjoyed while lying on the ground for a closer view! The species has its own representation in parliament – with Orkney’s MSP Liam McArthur being the Scottish primrose Species Champion – raising awareness about Primula scotica and ways that we can protect it. We managed to find Liam his first Papay primroses on a recent visit!

MSP Liam McArthur enjoying Papay's primroses - Liam MCArthur

If you visit Papay next year you may see the RSPB Scotland North Isles Assistant Warden creeping along Fowl Craig counting the annual Primula scotica transect, to see how the plants have fared! To see the flowers for yourself, visit Papay during their flowering periods of May and July – and they continue flowering well into August. You can join a free guided walk with the RSPB Scotland Warden on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the summer months, or join a Papay Peedie Tour with the PDT ranger http://www.papawestray.co.uk/tours.html.

For more information about guided walks on Papay you can contact me (North Isles Assistant Warden, Sarah) on 07860 927822, or Sarah.Lawrence@rspb.org.uk.

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