Having been working on blackgame throughout April and May, I have missed several prime opportunities to get out for a roe buck. The usual pressure has been relieved by the fact that I was given half a lamb as a wedding present in April, and I haven’t had an empty freezer to motivate me, but with the summer suddenly upon us in the last forty eight hours, it was time to go for a wander at 4am yesterday morning.
When the sun finally rose, it did so over the distant skyline of Langholm. Almost immediately, it vanished again behind a thin strip of cloud which ran all the way up the North Pennines towards Moffat and Annandale. The last stars had vanished into pristine clarity, and aside from the temporary shade to the East, it promised to be a perfect morning. Pigeons booed and swelled in the forest as I wandered beneath them; loud and roaring voices in the trees just a few feet above my head. And then the scrub before the hill, noisy with whitethroats and wheatears and volleys of cuckoo song between the bracken fronds and the washed out spread of bluebells. Green hairstreaks and small heath butterflies tumbled and rolled in the half-light, and the earth smelled musty and cool amongst wafts of gorgeous broom and gorse pollen.
Once on the hill, the cuckoos were metronomic; a constant rocking sing-song of three or four and more in the steep sitkas to the West. Females trilled in long, liquid phrases and the cocks fought over the greening myrtle, chasing one another around the willows and pausing on the dyke tops to wave their spooning tails like wands above drooping wings. They croaked and swore and rose high up to fight and tumble in the stillness as midges bled from the moss and tore into my skin.
There was a buck above me, half a mile away on the granite between glowing blobs of cottongrass. He carried his head low down at half mast and seemed an old boy, even at long range. As I watched, he was on the move, and his shadow stretched several feet ahead of him. By the time I was close, he had wandered three hundred yards and was pickily nodding his nose into the soft, dewy grass. He flicked his ear, turned suddenly and lay down out of sight in the rushes like a dog, giving me an excellent chance to crawl in close behind the lego-brick wreckage of granite and blaeberry. But I stepped too far and he seemed to see me through the brown vertical rushes, raising his head to glare and then bark. He rose and stamped his foot, then sprang uphill in a bound or two. For a second he stood broadside with a foreleg raised like a pointer, tatty in his winter coat, jutting out his white chin in fury.
The bullet struck him neatly behind the shoulder, and he lurched forward in a hard, rigid spring. He walked slowly for several paces like a forgetful old man, then stood, then fell soundly on his side. I held back and came to him a quarter of an hour later as steam rose from the wound and he lay in the shade with the folded, sleeping tormentil buds. Not a fine buck, or even a particularly beautiful one, but hallowed and revered nonetheless.
There is always time for a moment’s silent consideration on the death of a roe, and I ran my hands over his ears and down to his heels. I was concerned to feel his saddle shrunken and bony, and when he was unzipped there was hardly a scrap of fat inside. Some bucks in June are so fat that it’s hard to find their kidneys, but there was scarcely a streak of yellow in this whole carcass. Clumps of short red hair glowed behind his shoulders, but otherwise he was in his full winter coat, which came out in clumps like the glassy, hollow pins of a klipspringer.
I gralloched him and left him to drain on the grass, then climbed up on the stones behind me and spied for an hour with the binoculars as the Galloway hills resolved into full colour with the sun. Cairnsmore of Carsphairn seemed to glow in the light, and the heather-wracked face of Blackcraig of Dee led the eye from Millyea to Curlywee. A doe appeared from the higher ground with two tiny kids in tow. They suckled her and bucked happily in the sunshine, just a few days old and foxy red in the wobbling warmth. Their legs were too big for them, and now and again their antics made them tumble down into the moss, where they would lie in panting delight, licking their noses before struggling back up onto their stilts again. Their mother watched them with feigned indifference, almost rolling her eyes at their silliness, but every quiet sound was being recorded and analysed. She was as watchful as a hawk.
By seven o’clock, I decided that it was time to get back for work and stowed the buck into my roe bag. The creaking straps groaned and sang on the two mile walk back to the car, and the shape of an osprey circled past on trembling thermals thrown up by the hot peat.