Sunday, 17 December 2017
ISOLATED plumes of grey smoke from muirburn start to rise from the hills as soon as the sun has burnt off the snow from all but the high tops and north-facing gullies.
For more than 200 years the moors have been intensively managed for grouse and deer shooting.
The scattered tree cover has gone and there is only a patchwork of heather of different ages — old, leggy growth to give cover for nesting, new heather full of insects and shoots for grouse to graze and burnt patches where tender fresh tips will appear for the young grouse when they hatch in May and immediately start to feed.
Previous to that the hills were dotted with ponies, cattle, sheep and goats, grazing all summer in the care of herd boys and milk maids, for it was essential to remove livestock from Highland farms so that hay could be grown and dried before the long winter.
At the end of March there is as yet no fresh grass in the strath; the cattle are being fed fragrant hay and pungent silage and the sheep get turnips, hay and supplements for the ewes in lamb.
Letting the moors for shooting made farming unsustainable, rents unpayable, and led to the clearances and exodus to Nova Scotia, Perth, Australia, and beyond — the Scottish diaspora.
Walking down through the heather from the bare moor, we disturb several meadow pipits which fly up and make their singing display, like stubby, miniature larks.
In the silver birch on the lower slopes a lone red hind paces off, head held high, as if offended at this rude intrusion to her woodland glade but actually to scent the air for danger as she moves into an area where there may be more humans.
Red and roe deer are still in their dark winter coats, camouflaged in the woods but obvious when they venture out to graze on the frost-bleached grass fields at dusk.
Down on the marshes the curlews wheel and call, seeking mates. When they land they lift their wings up behind their heads, displaying the siver-grey underwing, advertising their location. Later, when they have nests, they will land silently some metres from the nest and creep to it through the grasses.
A pair of lapwing tumble, exchanging “peewit, peewit”with prospective partners. Are they rarer? Yes, but taking out the binoculars we find a dozen pairs feeding on insects in the margins of the marshy pools.
The oystercatchers, too, have returned from the coast, bright red beaks open as they pipe their contact calls, flying up the rivers, looking for wide pebble margins on which to nest. They need flowing water for the mussels which their specially adapted beaks can open, fields nearby to probe for worms and not too much disturbance.
17 April 2017
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