After a fairly torrid few days, it was a real treat to head up to Aberdeenshire for some heather burning on Friday. Every day is a school day on the hill, and it’s one of the constant delights of my work that there is always more to learn and see. Looking back over notes from previous years, I often find great value in trips to the hill which at the time seemed pointless or wasted if only because they led me to some new hint or clue which helped me get a better grasp on the way of things. Burning heather is no longer much of a novelty, but every day with a besom in hand gives a new angle or sheds some fresh light on the hills.
As it was, the heather seemed too wet to burn at all as we drove up the tracks to the drive we had intended to tackle, but it managed a dull crackle even as fog and smirr wafted around us. As the afternoon cleared and a steady breeze came on, it felt like we were in for some good burning, but the sun stayed in and the fires roared for a moment or two before dwindling away into patchy affairs. We forced them to carve out a few nice patches with a certain amount of careful curation and micro-management, but it was generally quite a disappointing outcome.
The black fires were thick with stick, and some could probably have been burnt again with a few hours of fresh air and sunshine to dry off the rotten litter. On one fire, the crackling buzz flushed a greyhen who rose “huk-hukking” against the sky and turned through the smoke, reaching over the top of each wingbeat with a faltering stretch. On another, an eagle took a break from squabbling with a pair of ravens and slid in for a close look. Hares stood out like shreds of quartz at every point of the compass, and grouse provided a constant droning whirr of sound and fury. On the way back off in the evening, we passed a pack of seven blackcock by the roadside. Some rose up and flew a little further off, and several were showing their white underarms as if they meant business.
It is a long way to Fettercairn and I increasingly wonder if my old suzuki is up to the job, but the uncomfortable journey is always trebly rewarded with new lessons.