I think gaiters must be an acquired taste. I always used to wonder what on earth gaiters were actually for, and proudly went without them until one day in my early twenties when I secretly experimented and became a total convert. I then wore canvas gaiters everytime I was going to spend a day out on the hill, and when people pointed out the fact that I appeared to have gone back on my gaiter-ban, I pretended that they must have been thinking of someone else.
Anyway, canvas gaiters thoroughly let me down last weekend when I was trying to stalk a roe buck through thigh high heather. Nothing “swishes” like dry heather on canvas, and I sounded like hail on a tin roof as I tried to sneak around a huge pile of granite boulders and into a good spot. No wonder the buck didn’t hang around, although it can’t have helped that Scoop decided that she needed a clearer view and shuffled into plain sight. On the whole, she’s quite good when we go stalking and she usually stays where I put her, but sometimes it’s just too exciting and she has to get a tiny bit closer at the cost of my hour’s painful crawling through the heather. Still, if I don’t take her, she’ll never learn, and she is getting better.
In response to the canvas betrayal, I was considering buying a new pair of gaiters made out of slightly less sonorous material when I was given a pair of “MacGaiters” – neoprene things with velcro sides and no under-heel strap. Most importantly, they were red. And not the sort of red that blends into the background like a fox in dead bracken – the kind of red that you see flash across your life as you step into the street unknowingly and almost pass beneath the wheels of a routemaster bus. It’s a “striking” colour. But the emphasis should be on the fact that I was given these gaiters for free, and since I never turn anything down, I decided I was going to give them a go on the hill this afternoon.
I must say, I rather imagined that as soon as I stepped outside they would peel straight off my legs like a rancid banana skin (revealing my legs like rancid bananas beneath), given that they only attach by a strip of velcro and a simple hook. In fact, they were on in a matter of seconds when I am used to taking ages to build gaiters around my legs. Once in the heather, I was satisfied to notice that there was hardly a rustle to be heard. Over the past few weeks, I’ve got quite good at getting up that hill, and while I don’t sail through the corries like a highlander, I can now cover the ground quite briskly enough to make the trip fly by.
I flushed a pair of red grouse, then watched a peregrine sail high up overhead. I worried for a moment that I was working for him, but the grouse I put up appeared to be of no interest to him. If he had managed to catch one, I would have been certain to have picked it off him and taken it home. I nearly caused a pile-up on my way into work the other morning when a sparrowhawk and a woodpigeon tumbled into the road and I had to act quickly in order to stop the car and disentagle the hawk from what became my dinner.
By its very nature, burnt heather is not a very discreet walking surface. It crackles and pops, even when you lift your feet high, but at least the neoprene was relatively quiet as I dropped down into a little gully full of waist-high myrtle bones. Myrtle has leaped back into prominence since the fire, but there was not enough fresh, watery undergrowth to take the twiggy crackle out of the scorched branches. I was crunching and cursing, but at least it wasn’t the fault of my gaiters this time.
By total fluke, I spotted the buck before he had had time to really panic. He stood up, and the movement just drew my eye. Eighty yards apart, we watched each other fixedly. Sweating and with condensation blooming on my glasses, I tried to peer through the binoculars. He was certainly a buck, and a pretty huge one too. But then he moved his head and revealed that he only had one horn. But what a horn it was – a left horn that was tall and fine with long ivory tips and an odd little bend to the right at the extreme end. As far as I was concerned, it was game on. I don’t put much value on the size of horns – I just really like venison and I know enough to understand that in the management of deer, anything cosmetically unusual or defective is usually best off in the freezer. In principal, the buck had already been divided into a number of small plastic bags, but in practice, he was still very much alive and somewhat suspicious. Many’s the slip twixt cup and lip. With a sinking heart, I realised that I was crouching in the centre of about an acre of truly rank burnt heather and myrtle. Any attempt to move in order to get a shot would result in a symphony of crackling. As if he knew it, the buck began to walk slowly away with a doe behind him.
For the next hour, I followed him for a mile up the side of a forestry block until I got too close and he finally winded me. With a simple hop, he glided into the forest with the doe hot on his heels. Seconds later, there was a triumphant series of booming barks from the trees. I sat down and watched the sunset over the Solway. If I was a better stalker, I might have produced some trick which would have turned the tables in my favour, but part of me was relieved not to have had to carry a bloody great roe buck on my back two and a half miles back over the hill to the car.
I suppose MacGaiters are nothing new and that anyone who reads this will probably already have made their mind up one way or the other whether they like them and will put no sway on some specious “review”. For what it’s worth, I think that they are good things, and after a five mile walk though burnt heather, they are even starting to look reassuringly black.