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Signs of Autumn

Changing seasons

Changing seasons

With all the chaos and confusion around moving house and going on honeymoon, I realised that I had not been up to the Chayne for ten days – my longest absence in six years. Heading up the hill for a quick spin and a mouthful of fresh air, I felt as happy as the proverbial pig, despite the rain and low cloud.

The hill has slumped into deep orange, and the bracken lies like the wreckage of some awful disaster. Down in the hollows by the broken stones the myrtle is mouldering and the final shreds of colour are being washed off the bony asphodel rattles.

The last few migrant wheatears have now been replaced by stalwart squadrons of Scandinavian redwings and thrushes. The rushes are dying and the doe and her twins which all summer have glowed in autumnal tones are now chocolate brown silhouettes of their former selves. The tell-tale chins flit ghost-like behind the naked rowans where the blackbirds rake out the odd berry still hanging.

Although it was only a quick walk, I found that I had stopped for half an hour to watch three harriers hunting down through the bog – ringtails hanging at waist height into the wind, turning back after each questing sweep to start again at the top. A pipit was found and dismantled, but the grasses are empty now by comparison to their rustling abundance in August when every tump and twist concealed a vibrant scrap of meat.

In the absence of pipits, there are now scores of snipe in the long grass. Having followed the moon, these dainty wanderers are busily staining the black chowder soil with blotches of white shit. The ground has taken a long time to soften after several months of baking. A film of mud lies on the peat like skin on a shin, and where the water has pooled long enough to sog and soak, there are some signs of narrow-beaked riddling, particularly around the cowpats which have attracted hosts of greasy-capped toadstools.

And with a twist of maddening fate, the dog pushed a fox out by my feet and they ran together almost within touching distance. The villain parted the grasses with his nose, ears pressed back into his mane. The two ran past me and up the track towards the birches while I stood behind and swore lustily and at length. I even bent down to pick up a stone to throw, but dropped it again.

Much has changed during my absence, and I must get back to work.

Roaring Wester Ross

Looking down ***

Looking down ***

After a fantastic honeymoon in Wester Ross, we returned from the distant North and hit the ground running, trying to catch up with work and the maddening minutiae of moving house. There has been time to type up a few bits and pieces of notes from the trip, including this block of text from an ascent of Beinn Dearg:

Two eagles circled together over Gleann na Sguaib. One had cruised over in the stillness from the soaking bones of Creag na h-lolaire and it was soon joined by a second bird. They turned together in total silence, long black fingers swept upwards at the end of each massive arm which sailed in the wind like a child’s bedsheet. Through the binoculars it was possible to see their talons bunched up like fists beneath them, and as they turned again and moved back towards Loch Broom, a tiny crow like a gnat wheezed carefully behind them at a respectfully defiant distance.

But the aerial performance was soon overshadowed by a far more demanding presence. For three days we had endured the constant thunder of roaring all around the cottage by the shore at Letters, and when I had gone down to water’s edge to watch the divers sleekly pouncing, the overture had almost become oppressive. Several stags were bawling on the hill above Leckmelm, and the sound found it easy to rumble through the intervening half mile of water and stone. By night under the moon they had roared on until it was possible to identify individuals from the comfort of my bed, and it seemed as though the noise made the curtains tremble under the stars.

In amongst the beasts on the steep sided glen, the noise rolled back and forth between the scree and the heather, lingering among the yellow birches and battling the rattle of the burn as it tumbled in strips of foaming white through the stone. For a timid lowlander used only to the surly yap of a roe, this opera was more than a little intimidating. Some of them drawled with a lazy, almost bovine moan, but others were infinitely more sinister – deep, schisty bellows drawn from some raw vein of intolerance. Silhouettes flitted around the saw-toothed horizon – heads and ears distended by wrist-thick bars of horn which were invisible to the naked eye but which resolved into fearsome tools through the binoculars.

Crowds of hinds browsed uneasily between these fretful monsters. Grey calves jostled between them and turned to look down at us as we laboured up the path far below them. This path would ultimately lead us up to the cloud strewn summit of Beinn Dearg, from where all of Wester Ross would lie prostrate before us. But until we gained that height, we were intruders from below, inspiring sneers and curled lips from those who held the higher ground.

Once we stopped to watch a stag with his party of hinds. Dripping with peat and piss, he fretted back and forth amongst his harem, singling out individuals and working frantically like a deranged collie dog. His nearest rival called and he could not resist a wild, drawn-out response. The hair on his neck had split into a row of sodden dags, leaving gaps like the gills on a dogfish. A beat after he was finished, the sound reached us – a torrent of torment and exhaustion. Clouds of steam and vapour looked sulfurous as they rose from this vision of hellish, ked-infested fury.

The sound still rang as we crossed into the world of ptarmigan. A pristine burn gurgled into placid stillness as it looped between the gnarled chunks of quartz and granite. Tucked in beneath the vertical faces of Cadh’ an Amadain, we were forced to call it a day by a darkening sky and the onset of some minute flakes of rain – what promised to be the first of many. We had covered six miles and suddenly felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the dripping cliffs above us. When we spoke, we did so in whispers. The horizon was divided by the monstrous bealach between Beinn Dearg and Meall nan Ceapraichean – a low slung trough in the high and breathless space. In the windows of bright sun, half of this world was bright and wincing while the other sulked in gloomy silence.

Somewhere up on the sheer faces, the sound of goats rang musically between the gutters. Searching for ten minutes, I finally picked out the blue roan figure of a billy goat wandering carelessly through a vertigo nightmare like a urine-stained satyr. I had to crane my neck so far back that I felt sure that if he had fallen, he would certainly have landed in my lap. I had to remind myself that goats don’t fall. I prepared to dodge, just in case.

Having come to within a few hundred yards of the peak, we looked back down to the sea. Cloud lay on the Minch and blotted out the shapes of Harris, but several of the smaller isles were easy to see as the wind picked up and carried snatches of rattling water back into this forgotten trough between horizontal and vertical.

Gruinard island squatted like a tortoise shell, and still the roaring of deer rolled over the white crumbs of scree overhead. There were more stags up there, with hinds like chamois gliding through the shreds of red grass. I watched one black hummel lie down on a cushion of lichen and grit, resting his frame on the sliding discs of stone. The budget which had been meant for antlers had been squandered instead on bulk and fatness like a luxuriant eunuch.

We turned for home as the ravens clocked the time, back down into the jungle of alder spoons and red pine stems.

Interval

never far off theme

Never far off theme

Worth a moment’s explanation for why this blog has been so quiet over the past week – alongside moving house, I have also been getting married. Huge thanks to all friends and contacts from this blog who sent on words of encouragement on Saturday, and now that the job is done, “my wife and I” are on the way up for a week in Torridon, where the stags are roaring fit to make the scree rattle.

The above picture was taken near the registry office in Glasgow where the deed was done – I may do many things on this blog, but let it never be said that I stray far from the theme. I’m usually nonplussed by graffiti, but certainly approve of this “street art” on Ingram Street.

The Mouser

It was a beautiful morning, and from the high ground it was possible to see for several miles in every direction, down over the shining grass where the blackgame poults are growing fatter and the sheep browsed idly over the wine red moss. On a day like today, there is a huge amount to be said for simply watching the world go by, and with a pair of decent binoculars, a vast stage of potential interest opens up at your feet.

I followed the progress of a red grouse hen for a few minutes before my eye was finally drawn to a fox over on the neighbour’s ground. The sheep bunched together when they saw him, and one of them stamped its foot at the trotting intruder. Six hundred yards away, I was too far off to hear them snorting, but I would have put money on the fox having to endure that petulant puff. He stood quite still and watched them for a moment, then put his nose back down into the grass and continued towards them. At last their courage failed them and they ran downhill as one, fighting to run on the same few inches of moss.

Backlit, there was little colour to the body of the fox, but the sun picked out a halo of orange and yellow to make his shape stand out from the glossy swirl of writhing grass blades. Armed only with my stick, I lay down in the rushes and kept a close eye on proceedings. As much as he seemed to be wandering aimlessly, this predator was balanced on a hair trigger of vigilance. The slightest sound would make him stop like a statue, cocking his radar ears and rotating them to get a better signal. If the sound came and vanished again, he would casually look up and around, ready to flick back into focus at the slightest rustle. Sometimes I felt as though this was a deliberate trick, like a quick-draw cowboy’s pistol – perhaps snapping back to the sound by reflex gave him a more accurate reading than holding the pose and making minute adjustments.

As soon as he had a fix, his entire body went stiff. Sunlight shimmered on the ridge of his spine and made the fringes of his tail glow golden. Once or twice he folded himself backwards slightly like a pressed coil, but more often the pounce would come from an innate pre-compression held wound in the posture. Springing clear of the moss, he popped up delicately so that when he came down, all his weight was in the front paws; elbows locked and punching from the shoulders. In perfect freeze-frame, he could have been suspended in a harness, fluid tail hanging immaculately behind.

At this range, it was too far to see what his success rate was. He paused fractionally longer after some pounces than others, but it was only when I had crept much closer that I was able to see how he was doing. With the wind precisely behind me and blowing towards him, I dropped down off the crags and wandered into the cool blue shadows where the dew soaked the drying autumn grass. The fox was still out of bounds on the neighbour’s land and I had no rifle on my back anyway, but as it had slowly worked its way down towards the march dyke, I couldn’t resist seeing how close I could get.

I came around above the wind and then tried to follow on behind his direction of travel, a circuitous passage heading West into the breeze. It was hard to keep my bearings, but half crouched and running up to the massive stone boulders of the dyke, I was soon within seventy yards of where the mouser was working. Little did I realise that he had also been heading towards me, and by sheer chance I happened to see him first as he jumped onto the stones and paused for a second just thirty yards away. He looked around behind him, then slipped beneath the rusting lines of barbed wire and dropped onto my side of the dyke. The movement had been silent, and now he was gone into the rushes at my feet.

Slowly, and with infinite care I pushed forwards on hands and knees until he was directly upwind, using the few seconds when he had his head down to close the gap even further, pressing myself into the dyke where the cool blue shade broke my outline and gave some context to my red t-shirt and blue jeans.

Breathlessly, I watched the ginger back emerge through the rushes and come straight towards me. He stopped, seemed to stare right into my face, then sat and itched his ear with a fretful, catlike flurry. My heart was roaring in my ears. He was seventeen paces away. I measured it later. He stood and stretched, then switched back to mousing. I watched his head turn and the ears come into focus. I had let my binoculars fall down by my side. There was nothing they could show me that I couldn’t already see through misted, sweaty spectacles. This was no idle town fox with a casual, devil-may-care attitude, but the kind of wild, heather-bred banshee that runs first and asks questions later. The proximity was electric.

A quick, snappy pounce and then I had the extraordinary experience of hearing him eating, crunching up a vole with a series of quick, passive munches. Ears went back, cheeks bunched and eyes closed briefly as he chewed. Within five minutes he had struck again, off to my right. I had a quick glimpse of a vole like a dark teabag hanging by its head from the white mouth before it too was munched up in two or three brief, bony slurps. There was no pleasure in the meal, just matter-of-fact ingestion.

There was a failed pounce, then a concerted effort for two or three minutes while a particularly difficult rodent was extirpated from its nest, requiring a little digging. This unfortunate creature was finally unearthed and despatched – internalised with the same quick-scissor action. Viewed from behind, I could see the whorls of pale hair either side of the tail’s base, and the white tail flag curled up and twitching like a leopard’s.

All this activity went on within a few yards, and when a merlin came hissing past overhead on set wings, I nearly leaped out from the cover of the dyke with surprise. I had been so set on the fox that everything else had faded away. Some linnets came over from behind, striving into the wind. It would have been possible to shadow this mouser all day, but having been brought back to the real world, I realised that I had things to do. It had already been three hours since I had first spotted him, and the time had flown by in a blur.

He was less than thirty yards away when I stood up, and as I rose, he sank into the rushes. He dropped so beautifully as a response to my standing that I almost wondered if he would stand again if I sat, as if we two were on a see-saw. I called the dog who had been patiently waiting further up the hill and she came barreling down with her tail flailing. At the first sight of the dog, the fox slithered out into the rushes like a snake on its belly, rising up when he was a hundred yards away and running like a fire in the wind.

When he pounced, he seldom missed, so his total tally could have been over a dozen voles in three hours of fairly laid-back foraging. In a good year for voles like 2014, the grass is literally wriggling with meat. For this fox, life is no doubt good, and made all the better by the fact that I had left my rifle at home.

Table Bird

Dark meat on the outside, white in the middle.

Dark meat on the outside, white in the middle.

Just as a follow-up on the previous post, the greyhen was absolutely delicious. It was obvious even when gutting her that she was going to taste very much like a red grouse, but the reality was a milder and rather more varied flavour. She was only a young bird so the meat was extremely tender and juicy, and having been cooked very simply with bacon and a couple of juniper berries, the flavour really shone through. No wonder these toothsome birds are so beloved by a range of flying and four-footed predators.

I knew that black grouse have two different kinds of breast meat, but seeing it “in the flesh” [ahem] was fascinating. The dark meat ran halfway into the breast, then suddenly ended above a small layer of white meat right in against the bone like a battenburg cake. This white meat was extremely flavoursome – something like a cross between grouse and wild partridge. Looking back through the long-lost shreds of GCSE biology which still lurk around my brain, I’m sure this variety in the meat can be linked to slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibres, and I must look into this properly when I get a moment. On the plate it was almost as big as a hen pheasant, and serving etiquette placed it in the grey area between allowing for “one each” and “one between two”.

Getting hold of black grouse meat carries with it a singly emotive undercurrent. If you’ve got a dead black grouse, then it follows that a black grouse has died, and that is seldom a good thing. But having tried one from the heathery hills of Aberdeenshire, I would be very interested to compare the flavour of this bird with one from Dumfries and Galloway, where heather is very much the exception and the birds spend most of their lives in a blend of myrtle, rushes and willows. It would be interesting to compare the two to see if the flavour varies, but it may be some considerable time before I can source a spare bird from this part of the world.

Greyhen Down

Full of gastronomic potential

Full of gastronomic potential

Having been up stalking and grouse beating in Aberdeenshire for the past couple of days, I returned home last night with an extraordinary and unforseen cargo. While beating yesterday afternoon near Fettercairn, a greyhen rose up from the heather at my feet with a clatter. As soon as she was up and going, she stuttered a few classic, grasping wingbeats, then the gears kicked in and she blasted back over the beating line, gaining height before flying straight into an overhead power line. I’ve written before about the danger of power lines, and the way this hen fell down made it clear that she wouldn’t be getting up again. Thanks to the headkeeper, I was allowed to take this bundle home with me, and after a great deal of deliberation, I have decided to eat it.

I’ll save some of the different feathers and write about them in due course because they are absolutely stunning, but having plucked and gutted the young bird this afternoon, I found the experience absolutely fascinating. I’ve spent so many hours watching these birds from all ranges, so to have an opportunity to inspect a bird in the hand was a real treat. The tail in particular was a real gem, and I have cut it off at the parson’s nose and dipped the meat in pickling vinegar like the old regimental outfitters used to do with blackcock tails prior to issuing them for military uniforms.

I am particularly delighted to be heading south to shoot grouse near Macclesfield tomorrow, and can think of no better escape from the misery of the independence referendum than a day in England. Having casted my vote, I now just have to hope that Scotland will come to its senses in time and steer us away from this appalling chasm of self-destruction. I’m tired of fretting about it, and I couldn’t take another day of campaigning and media saturation. Discussion in the beater’s wagon yesterday was full of passion and zest, but while the politicians crow about how great it is to see people “engaged in a debate”, much of what I have seen is division, conflict, bullying and xenophobia. It turns out that some of my fellow scots are fundamentally foul people, and some of the language and attitudes going around have been deeply unpleasant.

At least I have a cracking meal to look forward to on Friday night. There are not many Scottish recipes for black grouse, but a full report will follow afterwards…

Happy Days

A blackcock poult beside a pheasant at Raby.

A blackcock poult beside a pheasant at Raby.

Perhaps I am over-emphasising the extraordinary crop of young black grouse which has materialised in Galloway over the past few weeks, but for an obsessive enthusiast who has spent six years chasing rumours and vague sightings, this sudden avalanche of birds is almost accompanied by choral singing, beams of sunshine and a trumpet fanfare. The broods on the Chayne are fit and strong, and although I haven’t seen them in a few days, I find fistfuls of their juvenile feathers moulted out on the track where the powdery earth is perfect for dust bathing. I painstakingly check each shaft for signs of predation, but so far all have been dropped fair and square.

A friend rang this morning to tell me that he had found a large brood over towards Dalry; no more than ten birds with a grown cock amongst them. On the other side of the Ken, two small broods were phoned in by a pal on Friday who had put them up beneath the wheels of his quad bike, and the estate bordering the Chayne continues to show young birds in all stages of development, some little squeakers and others grave and well feathered. These birds have performed a staggering turnaround, and the change is nothing short of extraordinary.

The last, miserable dregs were wallowing on the brink during the wet summer of 2012, but life was blown into these embers during 2013. This life has exploded after a second long, hot summer, and I now head up to the Chayne expecting to see birds, rather than expecting not to. Previously, weeks would go by without seeing blackgame – now they are present on most walks, and if I don’t find them, the dog does.

As much as the weather has been instrumental, I flatter myself with the thought that I have played a part. One brood is using the wood which I have painstakingly redesigned, and I have stuck to my guns in terms of predator control. A boom year for rabbits has meant that stoats walk abroad in stunning abundance, and my trap lines have been extremely active over the past month.

It is difficult to quantify the fruit of my labours, but it is very unlikely that my sweat and tears have not resulted in a poult or two more than there otherwise would have been. I say this in very reserved terms, because I have already seen the first press releases from the RSPB and their fellows which seek to claim the credit for this phenomenal boom. An article from Geltsdale claimed that black grouse had had their best year “ever” in 2014 (*surely “since records began”? I hear black grouse did very well in 1347), and while mention was made of the sunshine, success was also attributed to management work undertaken by the charity. Inevitably, little mention was made of the two key drivers of black grouse productivity at Geltsdale: Knarsdale and Croglin, the shooting neighbours.

The last thing I want to do is denigrate this success – it is fantastic that black grouse are doing well across the country, but they are doing as well on unkeepered, unmanaged forestry ground as they are on the Chayne as they are at Geltsdale. Everywhere is booming, but we should not be under any illusions that we have somehow “cracked” the problem of black grouse decline. Without predator control, a huge number of these poults will never live to lek in 2015, and a wet summer next year will surely set the clock back to zero again.

Govan and Ibrox could have produced black grouse poults given the weather we’ve had in 2013 and 2014, and the biggest challenge is keeping enough birds alive so that they can weather a wet summer when it comes and then build again on the progress when the sun shines.

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