Heading up the steep face, a cock merlin rose quietly from a granite boulder above my head. As he moved, flakes of ashy feather fell softly down on the crystalline stone. Piecing together the evidence, I found what little remained of a reed bunting amongst the blend of minerals, moss and young heather. On this south facing mass of sodden hillside, the only sound was the movement of clicking, gurgling water. On the steeper stretches of track, the water ran with a sense of rippling purpose, but where the gradient diminished, little curves of grouse shit lay scattered across the gritty indecisive deltas, where the coarse granite sand lay ripped and crossed with paths and pools of limpid peat water. The grouse come down to grit on this path where the water rakes over the peat and brings fragments of sparkling stone up to the treacly surface. Here and there a roe slot had become a water feature, and a hen grouse’s feather lay snagged across a tendril of cotton grass.
As I walked, the bag bumped heavily on my back, digging the cheap polyester straps into my shoulder. Carrying fifteen kilograms of quartz grit and a stack of grit trays, I paused for a moment as, from the depth of a black, mossy burn, a young hen grouse clucked quietly. She would have been almost within touching distance if only I could have known where to look, and the girlish monologue sounded strangely vulnerable and imploring. I sat on the stones and tried to pick her out from amongst the massed wreckage of brown tormentil, deer grass and bony heather stick. It was impossible. The voice continued to cluck, then she lost her nerve and burst out of the cover just a few feet away; chocolate brown and never once pausing to look back.
I walked to where she had lain and placed my hand on the soft impression in the moss, finding three sections of green shit, each one capped with a creamy yellow tip. I suppose this means that she had been on the heather, since there was very little else of value to be found on the hill beyond a world of fallen life, etched out in a kaleidoscope of browns, reds and caramels. Even the second batch of cotton grass flowers which sometimes follows in the back-end had turned stiff and dull, and the bonnie bobbing shapes of summer had become cynical, yellowing quiffs like an old teddy boy’s gelled hair. Down on the fresh burns, the new seedlings were assuming the browns and reds where the weather had reached them, and even the rootstock growth which flowered this year seemed to be turning its back on the world.
Stacks of washed-out ling flowers had shut up shop, each shoot festooned with a string of sleigh bell balls, almost as an insult to those giddy, extravagant pink days of September. Here and there, a single bloom of cross-leaved heath still sparkled purple, but this was a perverse anomaly in a sea of hibernation. Even the banks of asphodel which in July had twinkled like sunny galaxies were reduced to a pallid mat of fallen leaves and dry, vertical pods which looked like they would rattle if questioned. Stems of dry, burnt myrtle scratched and clawed at my gaiters with their fingernails, leaving agonised streaks of bleeding black to my knee. As I set up the first grit box, three snipe rose together from a pad of sphagnum where they had been crouching quietly, and a young hen harrier coasted idly after them. I watched its white rump far into the glooming distance, down onto the Solway where barnacle geese yapped and chatted. It was never really considering a serious attempt at the snipe, and was content to follow their lead as they headed out and lost themselves in the massive space between Galloway and the Lakes.
The weight of the grit in my bag soon started to fade and the stretching haul on my shoulder reduced after half a dozen stops. Two pairs of grouse rose from another grit line, and a trio clattered into the cold stillness as the first streetlights were switched on in Cockermouth and Maryport, sparkling like orange stars over the huge expanse of salt and sand. The lighthouses on the Isle of Man sprang to life as a raven passed by overhead, clocking luxuriously. Although I couldn’t see his face, I felt certain that he was fixing a beady eye on me. He turned at the last moment and swept up into the leeward face of a spruce plantation, pounding his crackling wings and coming to a sudden halt more than fifty feet up a ragged black fortress of softwood. As I walked back to the track, a series of dips and folds in the ground varied the temperature so dramatically that it felt almost as if I was walking through a sequence of rooms in some vast mansion, some heated and some with a dank chill redolent of the most heart-sinking dungeon. A descent of even ten feet brought the temperature crashing down so that my nose would drip and my fingers throb. Venus as little more than a creamy yellow spark seemed to mock me with the notion of warmth as I pushed home into the darkening.
Coming suddenly out of one of these numbing dips, I toyed with the idea of a roe doe as she wandered through a pool of creamy ribbon grass a hundred yards away. I even went so far as to work the bolt on the rifle. But the wind swung round into the Northeast for a few seconds and she was gone. I am strangely sentimental when it comes to does, and this beast won my heart in July with a kid at foot when I lay out in shirtsleeves and watched her for an hour before it was even six in the morning. Different days, those.
A field of golden plover rose sparkling into the darkness as I returned to the car, and amidst all those rushing bodies, only one bird had the decency to speak. The ghoulish inflection was enough to prickle the hair on my forearms.