Blaeberry featured strongly over the weekend for two reasons.
1 – While taking a brisk walk around the woods above my house, I found what is unquestionably a three inch long section of pine marten shit. It was made up almost entirely of blaeberry seeds and skins, and the fall of cold rain on Saturday morning had bled some of that wonderful purple pigment into the pink granite hardcore of the track. Twisted into this fruit-basket of vegetable waste were two secondary feathers from a blackbird or an ouzel, and these had been bitten off at the shaft, confirming the culprit as an enthusiastic omnivore. They were just the right size and diameter, and this was the first concrete evidence I have found of pine martens in this part of the county.
After having treble checked the Vincent Wildlife Trust’s website with growing delight, I found that they have colonised the “hectad” (10km2 block) in which I live during the past two years, having spread from strongholds further West. This should be no surprise, since a great deal of the ground around my home is very wild, inaccessible and heavily forested, but I am delighted to know how near I am to such a fantastic mammals. I have grand plans to use trail cameras to get even closer, but part of me would be happy just knowing they are there.
2 – For no particular reason, I rolled out of bed yesterday morning and set off to explore a hill up beyond the back of the house where I have never been. Like so much of the best heather ground in Galloway, the purple has been fought back onto the very summit of the hill and is ringed around by a moat of thick commercial forest. Some of these plantations are so pathetically ham-fisted in their design that no access was left for human beings, and often what little access there is has become rank and overgrown. If you like spending time on the hill-tops, you need to get used to punching through hundreds of yards of serrated sitka twigs and drainage ditches – an eerie window into the single-minded blindness of planting in the 1970s and 80s.
Regardless, I was confident in the knowledge that the hill I had chosen would be a particularly fine one, and I fought through spruces for half an hour before emerging into the most extravagant cornucopia of blaeberry I have ever seen. It was everywhere in massed bunches like grapes in vineyard. I have a berry harvester which was apparently designed by Ray Mears, and while it is an excellent piece of kit, it was lying in my office. Having no practical means of gathering berries, I tried to ignore the carnival of fruit at my ankles, but soon found myself determinedly grovelling through the undergrowth on hands and knees in an attempt to gather them up as the rain came on and soaked me to the skin.
When I say that I brought home 1lb of blaeberries, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a poor harvest, but remember that a single blaeberry is an infinitesimally tiny thing, about as weightless as a sparrow’s fart. I had picked thousands, and only stopped when I suddenly realised that my fingers were too numb to operate. A goshawk screamed down in the birches below me, and the dog flushed a covey of six grouse as we trekked back to the forest edge and plunged into darkness again.
Sitting at home an hour later, I pondered what to do with this fantastic haul. In the end, I stewed them with cooking apples and poured a crumble of oats, butter and brown sugar on top. The resulting dish was phenomenal – the colour of the berries went from black at its most concentrated to rich, lusty purples and gorgeous, blushing pinks – almost more of a feast for the eyes than the tongue. I had thought that the blaeberries would be almost over for the year, but this late surge made the weekend.