Red-Letter Walk

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Cairnsmore of Fleet in the distance

Purely on a whim, I decided to head up for a walk around the Chayne this evening after a bracken cutting demonstration in Annandale. It could have gone either way – I was toying with the idea of coming home to chop some logs and do some painting, but I took a notion and soon found myself winding up the steep tracks to the hill. On such moments do great things hang.

I always feel a surge of delight to be back on my home turf, and I kicked the soggy hawkbit clocks and waited for the dogs to chase themselves to a standstill. After five minutes of absurd giddiness, they came in to me and we set off on a broad loop around the open ground. My eye was drawn by two distant shapes on the highest rocks, and the binoculars identified them as a male hen harrier and a merlin, tumbling together in the stuffy heat. As the seconds passed, they tumbled down closer until I didn’t need binoculars, then both flared away and a second merlin rose in a starburst from the dyke nearby where it had been watching the action. They all rushed off over the grass; this harrier has been on the hill for almost a month along with a younger cock, but the two merlins were a real treat.

Within paces, I was finding regular signs of grouse – shit and feathers, then the birds themselves. I spend hours following on behind these birds, and they have formed the basis of my work on the Chayne for seven years – I am obsessed with them, but readers should be under no illusion that the interest is reciprocated. In the winter, weeks can often pass without my seeing a single grouse. I must have seen many thousands of birds over the past few years across the country, but finding them on my own ground is always a joy. Even stumbling upon roost heaps and moulted feathers is often a rarity, but over the course of a half hour walk, I saw thirteen birds – probably the most I have ever seen in a single visit. I was thrilled by two separate coveys of three at a ten minute interval, but climbing up into the high Nick, I looked up to see a large gang of seven watching me from the horizon, their heads all stretched up in curiosity so that they resembled a rack of hockey sticks. With a noisy purr, they got up and away and I could have jumped for joy.

Snipe rose here and there, and then on the final rushy walk down to the car, the grass before me parted like a wave – with an almighty clatter, a young blackcock rose up from the rushes and loped away dramatically against the screen of hills towards Clatteringshaws and the Buckdas of Cairnbaber. He was at exactly the stage which captivates me year after year – the mottled black feathers running in seams across his back and down his sides, with his long swan’s neck curled up like a sea monster to watch me as he went. If I hadn’t been standing up to my knees in black, oily mud, I would have sat down in sheer triumph and delight.

This is the joy of September – the rowans bursting, the bracken hard and red and the spread of the summer’s bounty. My wife’s birthday is in the last week of May, and I tend to regard good weather either side of that date as a great sign for the grouse hatch. In 2016, we had superb weather well into June, and perhaps that crucial but ever elusive variable was finally in our favour this year. It was a red-letter day, made all the more special by the sudden descent of rain and a return to fog, low cloud and the real mechanics of autumn.

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