It was a cracking day to walk the hills yesterday, counting grouse on a moor near Ballintuim where blackgame are often found in greater numbers than red grouse. After a soggy morning on some rough ground where the dogs kicked up the odd blackcock, we headed further out onto the hill and began to sweep the second count area in the shadow of some rugged, rocky lumps which are so typical of Perthshire.
Roe deer rose up and bounced away over some of the rank undergrowth, and it was a revelation to come suddenly on an old boy at a distance of around seventy yards. Rather than dash off over the blue hills to safety, he locked me with a wide-eyed gaze and began to sink down into the heather like a hare. It was as if the moor was swallowing him up from below, and in a single fluid motion, he hid himself. Well, he thought he had hidden himself. Unfortunately, his velveteen antlers and the tops of his ears still stuck out of the heather like a beacon, but as far as he was concerned, he was invisible. I crept closer and closer, managing to take this picture (below), before he finally lost his nerve and bolted like a rabbit down into the white grass. I have never seen a roe consciously hide itself in heather like this, and while I’m sure I have walked past many which were lurking low like hares, it was fascinating to see the calculated decision to hide rather than flee.
Scoop kicked up greyhens from a stand of old, wet heather, and then we came upon one bird that was is terrible condition. She rose up very weakly, grinding her way over the cowberry with slow, ponderous wingbeats and settling again after two hundred yards. It is not often that you hear greyhens making a noise, but this bird “clucked” quietly as she fought her way out of sight. Having been impressed by the powerful and healthy condition of the other greyhens, it was quite striking to see another so lame and drab. A hundred yards further on, we found a scattering of very fresh greyhen feathers lying in the heather. On closer inspection, it became clear that the feathers came off the back and neck of a bird, and it seems like the hen we had seen had been whacked by a peregrine just an hour or two before we passed. For some reason, the peregrine had been unable to drive home its attack and the greyhen had got free, but it was injured and in shock. Usually, when you put up a greyhen it will often fly until it is out of sight, but the fact that this bird had flopped back into cover after two hundred yards demonstrated the gravity of the damage.
We covered the ground and headed back off the hill as the day started to wind down. It had been a 5am start leaving from Galloway to join in on this day of counting, but with such an abundance of black grouse lurking in the cover, any distance would have been worth it. I hope to be back before the end of this month to see some displaying birds, but as ever, the glamour and romance of the lek is just as intriguing as the often unexplored day-to-day business of black grouse.