My wife has gone to visit her parents in Cornwall, and as much as I mourn her absence, I do enjoy some time on my own. I like the freedom to mooch around and do precisely as I please, and I have been looking forward to a day or two of total, teenage independence.
However, this comes at a cost. My wife provides a crucial structure to my day that I am wholly incapable of supplying myself. I get so deeply involved in my various projects that hours and days just slip by, and then I come round and find that I haven’t eaten or slept. I found myself in precisely this situation last night, when I set aside an hour or two to work on a painting I’ve been planning for a few weeks. I started at eight o’clock, and when I next checked the clock it was two thirty.
Pepped up on cigarettes and coffee, I didn’t feel particularly inclined to sleep, and having the run of the house, I decided to listen to Led Zeppelin II and ambled downstairs to make a fry-up. Half an hour later, having spilt ketchup all over the Shooting Times, I decided that it might be a nice night for a walk. I stepped outdoors and found that it was indeed the case, and the stars glowed off to the South as a vixen barked over the valley. In the North, there was already a streak of baby blue light, and I came to the conclusion that the only sensible option would be to go stalking.
Sure enough, I set off into the gloaming in that strange half-light witching hour when the best things happen. I passed a glinting cluster of glow-worms in the gloom, and badgers ambled idly down the tracks between the cow parsley verges. By four o’clock, I was 1,500 feet up a steep granite face, spying through the dew with my binoculars as the curly swirls of Solway slid away beneath my feet. It was low tide, and the blue light turned to golden cream in the gullies and ditches where shelduck waddled invisibly through the mud.
Some swallows trilled on the deer fence, and whitethroats added a crackling birr of song as if the morning was being played on an old 78 record. From the high ground, the Dee was smothered in silver mist and in an hour’s time, the Rhinns of Kells would catch the first of the sunshine. For now the hills crouched in purple half-light beneath the fading stars, and I began to find one or two roe in the quiet, sodden gullies where the dew still condensed itself onto every leaf and sagging drift of cotton grass. As the summer goes on, some of these cotton grass heads fail to disperse and they slowly stiffen and turn yellow until they look like the nicotine stained hairdo of an old Glasgow teddy boy.
I stepped too far and found a young buck, who stamped his foot and glared at me in outraged fury. He turned and ran over the brow, coughing out a bark with every bouncing step. He turned and roared his discomfort, and the sound bounced back and echoed at him so that his rage turned to confusion. For ten minutes, he barked and chuntered until a doe distracted him and strode away on stiff legs to follow her, thrashing the burnt heather stick with his antlers.
Bucks and does are still doing their own thing, and only the younger bucks are making any attempt to hold ground or bother the does. It is always fascinating how reclusive mature bucks can be. They keep themselves to themselves until the rut begins, at which point they come swanning out of the woodwork to seize the glory. The over-enthusiastic youngsters which have fretted and pouted since the end of June are cast ignominiously to one side as the masters take over, but many of the best bucks are almost invisible for fifty weeks of the year. For now it seems that there is a huge gender imbalance in favour of does, but this will not stand long and they will all have a partner soon.
A few grouse showed themselves here and there; a pair with four well-grown young, all with wet wings in the dew so that their take-off was loud and wheezing. There were a couple of barren pairs and a hen with a very small squeaker, but a proper count will tell more of the story at the end of the month. I don’t hold out high hopes for the season, but there are some good news stories further North and South.
After a long walk, my moment came during a chance encounter with a buck inside a woodland enclosure within which roe are verboten. He got up almost at my feet on the other side of the fence, bolting like a hare through the rich purple bell heather flowers. I dropped down to the peat, worked the bolt and waited for his inevitable pause. It came when he was eighty yards out, turning full broadside like the design on a paper target. Even if I say so myself, the shot was perfect – a loud, resonant smack made him rear up on his hind legs, then wander a few yards before falling suddenly down on his face like a puppet with cut strings. As I drained his chest a few minutes later, I found the top of his heart reduced to blackcurrant jam.
He had an interesting head, rather splayed and wide, with flattish antlers and top points which seem to meander outwards. Inside, he was as fat as butter, and I dug around for his kidneys – the finest and most exquisite jewels a roe can provide, particularly when devilled. It was six thirty when I suddenly felt a tremendous press of exhaustion and remembered that I hadn’t slept. On quaking, wobbly legs, I hauled the carcass home and headed to bed for a few hours.