Having a girlfriend who is an extremely keen ski enthusiast, I found myself on the road to Glenshee yesterday morning. I’ve been over the top of Glenshee several times before but never really had cause to stop and look around, so as my girlfriend and some of her friends went off to organise skiing equipment, I got up onto one of the chairlifts and headed out onto the open hill for a walk. Despite all the clanking and hooting which appears to be part and parcel of skiing, it was actually very easy to get away from the neon-clad masses and out around the southern side of Meall Odhair onto a long ridge called Leacann Dubh. From there, I settled into the heather with my binoculars and waited quietly to see what there was to be seen.
The snow was shimmering with heat, and it was comfortable to sit in a shirt without a jumper where there was shelter from the wind. As the landscape gradually settled after my initial intrusion, small signs of life started to appear. Blobs of snow in the heather resolved into white hares, and grouse began to poke their heads warily out of the undergrowth like wine bottles.
I was surprised to see grouse moving around quite happily at such high altitudes. I was sitting at 875m above sealevel (or so my map informed me), and had hoped to spend the afternoon looking at ptarmigan. But despite beautiful springy carpets of pristine ptarmigan habitat, the only birds making use of it were red grouse – I had imagined that I would have been well within the domain of the little white grouse, but apparently they were even further up the great arching mound of snow above me. The conversational background noise of the red grouse contributed to the otherwise breathy silence of the hilltop, and although I considered the possibility of heading further up to find ptarmigan, my attention was held by an impressive abundance of mountain hares. Besides, a crest of ice had fallen abruptly down into Cul Reabhach, leaving monstrous blocks of angular and incongruous matter on the otherwise smooth, velveteen contours, and it made me think that perhaps the high peaks were a little out of my depth.
As I watched, these hares idly went about their business in the wincing sunshine. Some groomed themselves like cats, fastidiously weeding out knots and tangles in their clumpy winter coats. Others lounged luxuriously in the heather, rolling slightly over on their sides and stretching out their back legs like rabbits do on a hot day. I watched one hare carefully following another along a track with exactly the same mock-nonchalance that you see in brown hares who are about to box. From what I can gather, it’s much less common for mountain hares to box than brown hares, but I did think that I was in for a treat once or twice when the hare that was being followed so carefully suddenly stopped and turned round to glare at its idle suitor. When this happened, the following hare would pretend to graze the heather as if it were all just a coincidence and that the two just happened to walking along the same path totally by chance.
For a long time I watched a hare trying to sleep next to a red grouse cock. The bird was too far away for me to hear it, but from its posture it was clear that it was cackling gamely away to itself. The hare and the grouse must have been three feet apart, and it occured to me just how irritating the hare must have found its companion as it was trying to doze off. When I finally stood after a couple of hours, the hare took my startling appearance as its cue to tumble away over the snow. Its movement startled others, and within a few seconds there were ripples of activity all down the ridge. Hares ran together in parties of three and four, galloping stiffly up the steep faces and leaving small showers of grit and spindrift behind them. A hen grouse whose shrill giggle had been an almost constant backdrop throughout my afternoon rose up from thirty yards away and flew uphill, even higher into the land of the ptarmigan.
It is an odd thing about ptarmigan that you learn about them even when you don’t see them. Much of the magic of those birds is due to the landscape that they live in. It had been another failed attempt to spend time with them, but I still felt that a significant area of background had been uncovered.
I returned to Galloway by midnight to find the wind in the southwest and a huge amount of snow now gurgling coldly down the burns. Maybe we can now make a start on spring.