Having lived my entire life under the shadow of the largest hill in south east Galloway, it recently occurred to me with some surprise that I have never climbed it. Looking to rectify the situation as quickly as possible, I set off up the thick heathery slopes yesterday afternoon.
It was obvious that red grouse were present on the hillside, and more than once I stopped to pick up striped feathers and examine neat stacks of grouse droppings. Although Criffel is more than five hundred metres high, I quickly reached a height from which it was easy to see across the entire Solway mudflats and out to the tremendous peaks of the Lake District and Cumbria. Underfoot, the heather appeared to be in tremendous condition, although it is clearly not managed very intensively. Much of it is of a similar age, and almost all is longer than should be. With a little judicious burning, the slopes of the hill could show some serious increases in their ability to provide for birds and wildlife.
Above around four hundred metres, the heather started to thin out and allow dense clumps of blaeberry to poke through, and higher still, another low growing plant started to appear in tremendous quantities. Like cross-leaved heather (erica tetralix), the undergrowth appeared to be long, stemmy and criss-crossed with narrow green leaves. My first reaction was that I was looking at an abnormally large clump of cross-leaf, but closer inspection showed none of the characteristic cylindrical purple flowers. In fact, the entire plant was much chunkier and more substantial than the thinner, weedier heather strands, and it was quite obvious that I was looking at a plant that I had never seen before.
We walked from the summit down to the spur of Knockendoch, then wandered down through a ride in the forestry to the back of New Abbey. It was a perfect day, and with silver birches starting to turn on the high ground and rowans really going to town, the colours were fantastic. It was only when we got home that I realised that I had been looking at crowberry – the main staple food for ptarmigan in Scotland. Empetrum nigrum is also used by red and black grouse, and given the fact that it was so abundant on the top of Criffel, it shows that there is no real reason why it shouldn’t be on the Chayne as well…