In a bid to relieve some pressure and capture some more of the summer while it is still with us, I headed out West for a run up the Merrick on Monday afternoon. Perhaps “run” is an exaggeration, but I am sufficiently enthused by the idea of fell-racing to up the tempo on my walks to a moderately brisk shamble. The Merrick is no mean piece of hill, and at 850m it falls just short of munro status. It took just less than an hour and a half to reach the summit from Glen Trool, and as I lay in gasping ruins by the trig point, I looked down over some of the wildest country in Southern Scotland.
Vast, granite crags, deep lochans and swathes of dark heather rolled away to the far horizon, and turning slowly in a circle, I could see almost everything from Argyllshire’s Cruachan and Jura to the Lake District and Ireland. This is a fine, majestic place, made all the more special by its remoteness. By the time I had returned to the car, I had covered twelve miles and seen not a single human being. This is also one of the heartlands of the new Golden Eagle reintroduction scheme which has landed vast funding in the last few months.
I’ve written several times about this project (e.g. HERE in 2015 and HERE in 2016) but my attitude is generally that if we worked to conserve prey species in the Southern Uplands, golden eagles would not have to be brought in by human beings – they would simply recolonise under their own steam. I seem to be howling at the moon with this perspective, and modern conservation is so heavily predicated on a kind of headline-grabbing “superstar” project that I’m tempted just to switch off and accept the fact that crucial budgets are being routinely sluiced down the drain.
However, it must be said that as I descended from the Merrick down the Eastern face, I disturbed a single young mountain hare. These animals are few and far between in these hills, and it is their fundamental scarcity which makes the golden eagle project so ludicrous. Eagles depend on hares in many parts of the highlands, and I am continually astounded by the amount of money and effort spent on apex predators in the Southern Uplands without ever thinking of their key prey species. A project to rejuvenate mountain hares in Galloway would pay dividends for both eagles hen harriers (which love small leverets), but there is no appetite for this kind of grassroots project because it’s costly, slow and lacks a punchy one-line summary to sell to the general public.
I have only seen a handful of mountain hares in Galloway in over ten years of roaming the hills, including trips where I have specifically been looking for them. The fact that I was so pleased to see this youngster reflects the unavoidable truth that without management or consideration, these hills have become horribly bare.