It was an unexpected pleasure to be able to help with the BTO’s breeding peregrine survey on Friday when I headed up for a walk over the Door and up to the Clints o’ the Spout on Cairnsmore of Fleet. I’ve posted before about Cairnsmore of Fleet, but it was only on Friday when a free day opened up unexpectedly that I was able to take a good look at the fantastic piece of hill which lies on the border between Galloway and Wigtownshire. The usual means of accessing Cairnsmore is from the A75 near Newton Stewart, where the track takes you on a long pull up through the forestry and out onto a wind-blasted summit that is second in its flatness only to Corserine.
Approaching from the East, the hill presents a very different aspect, with massive heather-covered hill faces looming grandly out over Galloway. You could approach the seemingly tame peak from the West a thousand times and never know that a few hundred yards over the summit lies a tangled mass of scree and vertigo and the constant rush of tumble-down water. This is wild country, with nothing in the way of access tracks or paths beyond the little dints which the goats have been able to rub into the contours. The East face of the hill features terrible chasms and head-swimming cliff-faces where, until a few years ago, an eagle’s eyrie was nestled in against the sheets of black, dripping stone.
As I set off, a grainy sump of cloud scraped its way over the summit, grinding out spots of water into the moss and onto the lenses of my glasses. The dog discovered a greyhen’s roost heap, then flushed two pairs of grouse from the low face of Culcronchie before we turned and wandered up into a mass of red hinds and nanny goats with the smallest and most fragile kids at their heels.
Three quarters of the way up the near-vertical face of the Door, two peregrines appeared high overhead – almost so high as to be invisible against the heavy cloud. One turned back into Wigtown Bay while the other, a tiercel, rose still further and set off towards Kirkcudbright on swept-back wings. An unfit raven wheezed hoarsely behind it at a more manageable height, seeing the falcon off the premises and swelling with asthmatic self-importance.
Up above the Knee, where the hill vanishes to leave a breath-taking absence almost right at your feet, I settled down to eat my sandwiches and watch a group of twenty hinds which browsed easily through a network of peat hags. Although they were a few hundred yards out on the moss, I was perched so abruptly on high that I felt like I could have spat on them. Watching the dark backs from a thousand feet above them, it was easy to feel like some primordial raptor, watching for the moment to swoop. As the wind came and went, silence reigned over the huge half-cup, so that individual goats could be heard whining through the massive space. Three more ravens came rolling through.
Once down again and heading towards Meikle Multaggart, I found the remains of a grouse hen on a streak of bare peat. There was no questioning that a peregrine had killed this bird, but the evidence had been tampered with. A fox had carried the wings a few yards away and chewed out the meat from the tibia and fibia, leaving pink splinters of bone on the moss. Snip-marks through the breastbone belied the true killer, and standing totally alone in this massive, dripping amphitheatre of stones, I sat down and tried to imagine the falcon crouched down over its meal.
The drama had probably taken place more than a month ago, but the relative scarcity of grouse on the hill probably explains why peregrines tend to pass through without nesting these days. The heather is weakening and the molinia grass is simply biding its time, laying down layers of creamy tapestry beneath the sticks until some check or challenge turns the balance and the grass will reign supreme. There are no more blue hares here, and the black grouse are restricted to the far south of the reserve on a hillside which faces its own challenges.
More red deer rose up from the peat as I returned to the car, and a young harrier came turning in to investigate me as I walked in the gathering dusk. The bird passed a hundred yards down my leeward side, and the dog paused to gaze at it.
This is a phenomenal place, and roaming freely through the stones and the moss is enough to restore even the most dog-eared temperament. The silence and sheer solitude is outstanding, and there cannot be many places where it is possible to walk for nine miles without ever seeing another human being at any distance. The peregrines had lit up the day, and as I drove the few short miles home, I looked forward to seeing more.