Changing Islands

Framing the Story
In the second-half of May I'll be showing pictures at Oxford Artweeks.

I've regularly visited - and sometime bought at - other peoples exhibits at Artweeks in past years, but this is the first time I've committed to doing my own show.

One of the challenges in putting any collection together is finding a theme.  At one level it's tempting to go with 'Really Nice Pictures I Have Taken' or 'Nice Places I've Been To', but while these might satisfy the photographer or artist putting the exhibition together it doesn't really do much for the visitor pitching up to see the pictures.

As I've been pulling together images for the exhibition, and based on experiences at the Jam Factory I'm going to have images in a range of sizes from 6 x 9 inches up to A1 (23 x 33 inches), I've been thinking about themes or stories that are going to mean something to people coming to look at the images

A while ago I decided that the broad theme was going to be "Islands", but within that I keep coming back to the idea of change within the various islands I've visited over the last few years.  On many of the islands I've visited there is a tension between traditional activities and change.  

On South Georgia the change at this point is all about habitat restoration. 

Orca - never a whalers target, and still
common around South Georgia
The island of South Georgia was discovered (probably) in the 17th Century, but it didn't really make it onto the radar until the early 19th Century when it was regarded as a resource to be exploited - over about 100 years sealers and whalers did their best to kill pretty much all the (mammal) wildlife either on the island and in the waters around it.  And the reality is that they didn't stop until it became uneconomic to carry on. 

Once the exploitation stopped the whalers (who were the last to leave), just abandoned the islands and went back home.  In recent years the push has been to help the indigenous wildlife recover.

The fur seals, who were driven close to extinction, have now reclaimed the islands and the beaches, and the penguins have also recovered very significantly.  The whale populations haven't recovered, and despite the recent move to out-law commercial whaling in the Antarctic (under any label) it's unlikely that the whale population will ever recover to the level it was at in the early part of the 20th Century.   On land, however, work is underway to return the island to close to its original state. 

Abandoned whaling station, Stromness Bay
Several of the whaling stations have been cleared completely, others have essentially been 'made safe', and the process of rewilding is happening.  

Rats were introduced pretty much as soon as ships reached the island, and over many decades had caused great damage to ground nesting birds (in SG, trees are pretty thin on the ground, so ground nesting is a big deal).  Over the last few years a project has been under-way to spread poison across the island to attempt to eradicate the rat population. There is limited window to do this work, which is only logisically possible because the island is currently divided, by glaciers, into manageable zones. Once global warming has forced the glaciers to retreat from the coastline, rats would have run of the island and any attempt at eradication would have been fruitless.  

Reindeer, Ocean Harbour on South Georgia
The second big project was to tackle a rather larger introduced species, reindeer.  In the early 20th Century Norwegian whalers introduced reindeer to provide meat at the whaling stations.  The landscape suited reindeer well, and when the whalers finally left in the 1960s the reindeer remained, and until recently roamed freely across the island.  At one level there was probably a temptation to leave them alone (killing 'Rudolph' is a harder sell than announcing that rat eradiction is underway), but the increasing population was doing significant damage to the endemic plants so it was decided that it was the right time to cull the herd and allow the island to recover.

I'm interested to see how far it's going to be possible to return South Georgia to its original state - there are relatively few places in the word where this is even possible, South Georgia might be one of them.

Up Helly Aa, Lerwick
In the Shetland Islands change has been a pretty common theme over the centuries. The islands, unlike South Georgia where there is no resident human population, have been populated for over 6000 years, and over that time have seen many changes.  It's not clear what how rapid the changes were for the first 5000 years, but over the last 1000 they have been significant and accelerating.  The Vikings undoubtedly 'encouraged' some changes (still celebrated in Up Helly Aa each winter).  There was a fairly serious tussle between Norway and Scotland over ownership and Hanseatic traders were a big deal across the North Sea throughout the 17th Century, including allowing Shetlanders to become traders for the first time.  

After 1707 there were still more changes. The blocking of Hanseatic trade brought significant depression to Shetland, as did the constant switching of land ownership and the occasional suggestion that Shetland should return to being a part of Norway.  

Shetlanders have historically relied on the sea as, at least, a major part of their livelihood and that continued right through until the mid-1960s when the final few Shetlanders stopped doing the regular trips down to South Georgia for the whaling, and oil became a major aspect of Shetland life.

Oil brought huge changes to Shetland.  It brought many incomers to the islands, the population jumped by about 5000 in a relatively short period of time, and many of these incomers (Sooth Moothers, since they arrive on the ferry through the South Mouth of Bressay Sound) and their families have stayed.  The oil also brought huge amounts of development to the islands, from roads, to health centres, to leisure centres.  

Camouflaged accommodation barge, Lerwick Harbour
At the moment there is further wave of construction work underway to develop infrastructure around gas extraction in the North Sea off Shetland.  That's brought a mini-boom all of its own.  A new hotel has been built up near the new gas plant, and it feels like every harbour is filled with floating accommodation for the construction teams.  

Not everyone is happy about the huge influx of temporary workers, but any anxiety around this is as nothing compared to the tensions around the proposed development of wind farms on Shetland. 

Burradale Wind Farm
There are a limited number of solitary wind turbines around the islands  mostly powering single houses or farms, and one slightly more substantial wind farm (with five turbines) at Burradale just outside Lerwick.  The tensions surround a proposal to build a wind farm with over 100 turbines about 15 miles north of Lerwick.  This proposal has divided the island community and is being chased up and down the Scottish legal system at the moment.  The other energy source that being explored, to take the place of oil and gas, is wave power.

Plenty of power in the Shetland Waves
Shetland has plenty of wind, it's probably the weather feature that the visitor first notices when the car door gets ripped from their grip.  The other natural, renewable, resource that Shetland has in abundance is wave and tide power. There is due to be an experimental wave turbine tested off the west side of Shetland, it certainly won't be as obvious as the wind turbines are but it is based on experimental technology. In the last couple of days I've also read about a suggestion that a hybrid bridge-tidal-turbine could be constructed across Bluemell Sound between Yell and Unst at the northern end of Shetland.

I think it's fairly inevitable that as oil and gas production ramp down we will see renewable resources come further to the fore.  I wouldn't like to bet on whether that's going to be based on wind or water, but whichever it is, I'm guessing it's going to involve more change on Shetland.

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