There was no snow on the low ground, but the little heifers were definitely cold when I went out to look them before dawn this morning. The wind was in the North and the hills ran in an unbroken white ring all around and over the Solway to the Lakes.
When I was offered the choice of these heifers, there were a few white galloways up for grabs as well. I really wanted one and was sorely tempted by a sweet little lady, but as I stood and watched her in the driving sleet, it seemed that she was very cold and was feeling it. She shivered, and when she turned her neck, her coat split into vertical lines revealing strips of pink skin that made me wince. All galloways are hardy, but if my hill plans are to go through, these cows will end up in some of the most inhospitable ground in the Southern Uplands. I’m sure the little white one will grow to be a fine cow, but that observation turned me against her and I chose a fourth riggit instead. Oddly enough, this last minute riggit has turned out to be my favourite heifer of all – we’ve called her “dolly” and she seems to be bomb-proof.
A cloud of steam hung over the heifers in the stillness, and a skein of pink-footed geese came paddling noisily past as the sun finally rose and all the cows gathered in a little gap in the whins where they caught the first of the sun together.
Later on, I headed up the hill on the off chance of a roe doe. The snowline started almost as soon as I was over the dyke, and snipe rose up before me from the ice as I walked. Snow is always such an anticlimax, and every year I imagine that it will be far more fun and exciting than it ever could be. Of course it’s a novelty, but that soon wears off after a mile or two of walking without seeing anything because, in general, wildlife has more sense than to hang around in the cold.
Once in the deep snow, I cursed the fact that I still have no snow camouflage after five years of the best intentions. I find white jackets and overtrousers at the game fair each year but I always baulk at the cost and the fact that the moment of actual use is so distant. I’m not clever or grown up enough to buy things in advance, so every year I put it off and every year I end up making do without it.
As it was, the roe saw me long before I saw them. I watched the black silhouetted shapes springing up through the shrouded scree with the last glow of sunlight. Ravens clocked overhead as the three deer turned to look back, and I was reminded how heavily I rely on their white bottoms to find them under normal conditions. They were very hard to see when they stood still against the snow, particularly on that high contrast quilt of sheer black and peachy white where the granite had slipped. There was a buck with velveteen antlers half the height of his ears and a doe with a little buck yearling – nothing worth chasing anyway. My fingers were numb, so I brewed up the Kelly Kettle and scanned the hillside for an hour before cold drove me on into the deeper powder.
Fox tracks snaked along the sheepwalks, and I followed the passage of two roe moving high on the open hill through snow that was almost up to my knees. The Lake District glowed gold as the sun sank towards the Isle of Man, and soon the snow and sky had taken on the same bruised purple tint as the temperature plummeted. I accidentally flushed a grouse cock from the little igloo he had built for himself, and the dog sniffed into the hole he had left behind him. It was full of hot, fibrous droppings and I could see where he had been stripping the blaeberry tips beneath the snow before I had arrived. A few moments later, he or another very like him came racing back overhead in a black, sharp-fingered smear with a peregrine in full pursuit. Snow warps colour and the falcon seemed black above and pink below as it rushed past eighty yards away. There is no question that it saw me, but it never flinched.
I wished the grouse good luck and returned for home with ice up to my waist and the first woodcock flighting over the granite.