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Posts from the ‘Wildlife’ Category

Just a magical day

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Cappuccinos at 3500ft? Oh, yes please.

The frothy powder was the propellent that spurred my wearying legs up the fourth mountain peak of the day. We sheltered behind peak three’s cairn to munch doorstep sandwiches and chocolate while the chill wind blustered, numbing our hands and cooling the drinks.

By evening the day had mellowed to sun and long autumnal shadows when whole hillsides moved with herds of red deer and bounding mountain hares. Occasionally a ptarmigan dodged between the rocks while, high above us, skeins of early geese wheeled in from Scandinavia.

Spot-on map reading was provided by my son (who didn’t inherit his navigational skills from his mother).

For sure, a day to remember.

Discovering a real Jurassic Park

P1080035A ranch. Somewhere high in north-western Montana. We’re fly fishing in the baking heat, casting for trout, listening to the trickle of clear spring creeks and glimpsing sleek, fast-moving shapes in the shadows.

It should be relaxing, but I’m distracted. I discovered in a chance conversation with the rancher’s wife earlier in the morning that at least two dinosaurs are entombed in rock on their land and she promised a ride to where the university volunteers are digging – and spending the long scorching summer.

“Yeah, they’re all living up there in the rocks, right beside the rattlers,” said the woman with a  real life Jurassic Park on her land. “Someone flew over the ranch in a hang glider years ago and discovered the site and they’ve been working on it on and off ever since.”

The Jeep bounced, rattled and shuddered its way over a track more suited to cowboys on horseback than four wheel drive trucks. Finally we crawled out to climb the last few feet up the hillside and in a corner of the rocky excavation site we found an anthill of burrowing bodies working under a protective sunshade. It was, the palaeontologist told us as he gestured over the valley, a spectacular example of the Morrison Formation in the Jurassic period, the geological era when many dinosaurs died.

I’ve never really had the dinosaur bug. But this was different. A long-necked Diplodocus and a Stegosaurus  had walked and died precisely where we were standing around 150 million years ago and I was holding some of the fossilised bone that had just been excavated. The scientist described the size and age of the creature his team were uncovering; the way rivers had risen and fallen, how the ice had covered them and then retreated; how they might have died and been scavenged.

It was a huge privilege to be there, to gaze out over the valley and imagine all the other dinosaurs resting just below the surface of that dry scrub land.

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The bored bison of Yellowstone

P1070646The cool waters of the Yellowstone River flowed around my legs. I was wearing waders, casting half-heartedly for the fabled cutthroat trout as I gazed over the still meadows and up at the mountains in this paradise setting of “A River Runs Through”. All was quiet in the searing afternoon heat but for the trickle of the water on stones. There was no shade. No fish. No animals. No other fisherman in sight.

When I turned I realised I did have company. The lone bison who’d been napping earlier was now wide awake, considerably closer and grazing only feet away at the edge of the river. He filled the entire frame of my vision and I froze.

Do bison swim? I rapidly spooled back through childhood cowboy movies to scenes of herds fording rivers and concluded they’d certainly move faster in deep water than I would in my waders. Or even without them. So I sidled slowly away and he watched with one eye but barely lifted his head. A bit like Ferdinand the Bull, it was just too hot to bother.

Yellowstone has pink stone too, and rocks of orange and red and white. But Yellowstone it is. A natural wonder. P1070389

Making morning memories

P1070232When dawn is breaking at 04.15 and the sun’s rays are just starting to inch their way down the rocky mountain tops, it isn’t easy to walk away from the wilderness.

I’d been camping out in the remote wilds of Fisherfield in Scotland’s far north west for two nights, climbing some of the most inaccessible hills in the country, and it was time to leave.

My friends tents were motionless in the half light; the inhabitants still asleep. Quietly I packed up my dew-sodden shelter, stuffed the gear into my rucksack and set off on the track between the sprawling lochs and hills. What a morning to be alive and alone.

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At the first loch I unhooked my pack, washed my face in the soft peaty water, stowed my jacket and sized up the last of my food store: just an orange and a tiny breakfast bar. The walk would take at least five hours so I delayed my feast and crossed the stone causeway between two lonely stretches of water.

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I heard the cuckoo calling and startled a few red deer as my boots grazed the stones of the rough path. And as I walked I tried to think of other mornings in my life that had felt as magical and momentous as this one. The early hours when my children were born are unforgettable, of course; there’s a string of dawns spent walking out from a corrie camp one romantic summer many decades ago that merge into one; and most nostalgic of all are the occasional early mornings of an idyllic childhood when my father woke me early to walk with him up to our high fields to collect the cows for the early milking. I recall anxious swallows swooping with food for their young in the eaves of the barns and the otherwise stillness of summer dawn as I held Dad’s hand and we walked up the road. I remember my sandshoes getting damp on dewy grass, the herd rustling and impatient at the gate and the precious feeling that no-one else in the world was up this early.

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There was no-one else up early in Fisherfield either. I didn’t meet a soul for hours.

And I resolved to make more morning memories.

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The best view (a mother’s perspective)

P1060732 Wild squalls blustered down to batter us at an exposed 3400ft and swathes of swirling mist chose that moment to lock down all the views. But at the first glimpse of the white stuff in the corries to the north I knew snowball fights were inevitable. Equally predictable, once the missiles were fired, was my role as a human shield. Mothers know their place even when the “kids” are nearing 30.
Solitary Ben Wyvis lies midway on the road to Scotland’s west coast from Inverness. It’s not a magnificent hill; it can’t boast fine lines or soaring crags, but (on a fine day) it’s renowned for the extensive vistas to east and west. I’ve driven past it for 35 years and yesterday we climbed it on a day of rain, mist, gale-force wind and the very occasional blink of weak sunshine.

So it’s not for a fine panorama of Highland scenery that I’ll cherish the day, but the rare company of both my boys. The younger one is home from New Zealand for a brief visit and the three of us were on a long-promised Highland hike. Tents, sleeping bags, food, stoves, rucksacks and three full-sized adults were stuffed into my Mini and we headed north to a soundtrack of atrocious weather forecasts.

The tents remained unpacked and instead we retreated to climbers’ hostels with their accompanying pubs, pool tables, wifi and big industrial kitchens. Yet the hills still beckoned even when we couldn’t see them for the torrential rain or misted-up windows. We reviewed our ambitions and instead of aiming for long multi-mountain circuits we chose Ben Wyvis. We strolled gently through dripping birch woods; followed tumbling Highland streams to lower slopes then climbed steep stone steps as views teased and then evaporated.

Mist soared upwards in spins and wisps then closed in to hide everything but the few feet in front of us. Then suddenly we were up on the broad high ridge that stretches for a couple of kilometres along to the peak of Glas Leathad Mor. A rocky outcrop gave shelter to munch sandwiches and chocolate then we piled on every last piece of warm clothing to reach the cairn at the far end of the ridge. The thick snow that lay clumped and accessible in the corries was an entertaining distraction from the cold and wet. IMG_9407 A solitary ptarmigan disguised as a rock made a dash from his hiding hole then sat stock still as we watched and took pictures. P1060770 Pints in the bar and fish and chips were our reward then card games and drams from a hip flask entertained us. I was in my bunk long before the boys (ok, men) but wakened to the sight of their sleeping heads on nearby pillows. It has been a while so yes, I know it’s soppy and I’m biased, but it was the best view of the week. P1060743

First frost

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Sounding out autumn on the Solway

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It’s quiet for now but the waves of Barnacles are close. Thousands of geese are migrating from the Arctic every day, settling on the Solway to escape the harsh Svalbard winter. The skeins speed overhead in a cacophonous cloud, swirling, unsettled, mad.  And when the deafening sky fades and the last outliers pass, an expectant stillness settles on the sands, fields and rivers. The next invasion is imminent and compulsively you scan the empty skies and listen for the elemental sounds of autumn. The long, languorous summer is over.

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Approaching the Peak of the Hound Keepers

 

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Its gaelic name is Sgurr nan Conbhairean and it’s a high, elegant hill that’s hidden amidst the ravaged peaks of Kintail, a wild land that I thought would be far beyond  my caution (i.e. terror) of exposure to huge drops.

The summit, behind the rounded top in the foreground, peaks at 1011m at the top of a steep slope and this picture’s taken from another high top, Carn Ghluasaid, the Hill of Movement. And yes, fortified by my patient pal, I endured a (scary by my standards) ridge walk and climbed them both. It was exhilarating to be so high, absorbing wave after dusky wave of the mountain ranges that stretch across Scotland, from the jagged Cuillin of Skye and Rum, south to the imposing lump of Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart and far beyond.

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We saw red deer and ptarmigan, or snow grouse,  at around 1000m. These chubby little birds don’t venture much below this height and a funny family of seven allowed us to watch them potter around on their rocks before they flew away in a covey of crisp white underbellies.

And now I’m back down at sea level and hungry again for the crunch of my beloved new boots on stony tracks, the scent of rocky streams in spate and the wind whirling my hair on the high tops.

I could do without this morning’s unbendable legs, but even that discomfort brings a certain gratification; I’ve earned it.

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The thin line between adventure … and a forced march

 

The lonely Moine Path from Loch Hope to the Kyle of Tongue

The lonely Moine Path from Loch Hope to the Kyle of Tongue. We didn’t see another soul all day.

The next eight hours looked grim.

I  had a splitting headache, nausea and 15 miles to walk across boggy, inhospitable ground and empty roads before there was any prospect of a hostel bed. Could it have been an overdose of cleg poison?

Ill as I felt, there was no alternative to walking. No cars. No houses. No people. But hey, this was an adventure, wasn’t it? I popped some pills, heaved on my pack and we set off.

I figured we could do the most isolated bit in four hours if I just kept my head down and followed Noreen’s relentless red socks all the way across the bog. And we almost did.

The first 10 miles were the worst, up and over the 1000 year old Moine Path (henceforth remembered as the Vomit Path – too much information?) a raised track across tussocky moorland between the great rocky strongholds of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal. After nine miles I lay down on a stone and slept, spontaneously, and woke after 20 minutes, feeling decidedly better.

One of the beautifully built bridges that keeps the ancient path drier than the surrounding bog

One of the beautifully built bridges that keeps the ancient path drier than the surrounding bog

By the time we reached the village of Tongue on the far north coast I’d made a full recovery and we celebrated the end of the trail with an ice cream at the shop.

And life got even better when Julia, the fantastic warden of the Youth Hostel spotted our rucksacks outside the Post Office and popped in to see if we wanted a lift to our beds. We knocked her down in the rush.

I bought shampoo and had a long, blissful shower which was only marred by the revelation of considerable insect damage. We doctored our bites with antihistamine and hydrocortisone  then drank cup after cup of tea while we laughed and relived our adventure from the comfort of a soft armchair.

Finally I picked up a thriller from the hostel shelves and lost myself in someone else’s drama; so much less stressful than one’s own.

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We walked towards Ben Loyal, a beacon across the moor, and were finally rewarded with a view from a different perspective

 

Naked hills and empty glens

 

The remoteness was exhilarating, but last week’s hills were lonely and lifeless. I walked away from the wilderness more anxious than ever about the desolation and destruction we’ve imposed on these fragile places.

The brutal beauty of the rocky mountain tops remains stark and true. Up there, beyond 3000ft, where the ice and weather have gnawed and eroded,  it’s harsh and dangerous and there’s a grandeur to the bare crags and peaks. They evoke awe and respect; they’re tougher than us.

It’s the empty, treeless expanse  below the tops that worries me. On the green slopes, in the soft, broad glens,  beside gentle lochs and Highland rivers there should be more than the tattered remnants of ancient Caledonian pines, more than an empty greenness where only deer roam. There should be  animals and  birds. And trees.

Much of the land that stretches across wild Scotland  hosts little wildlife and no natural woodland. It’s often assumed  trees simply won’t grow on the poor soils, but in the bogs you see the roots and remnants of strong trunks and branches preserved in peat. And in steep river ravines or on inaccessible islands – places that the sheep and deer haven’t been able to graze – the birches, rowans, pine and other native species take root and flourish. The photographs of the tiny lush islands against the degraded land that surrounds them tell the story.

These places have been slowly dying from overgrazing for 200 years but we’ve become inured to the desecration. We walk to the echo of boots on paths and the occasional ricochet of a rifle. It’s what we expect to see and hear, along with the burnt strips and squares of heather on grouse moors; the preserve of the game birds, wealthy landowners and their foreign clients.

Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world. Just 432 families account for half of all non-public land and a handful  – “absentees” who don’t even live there – own hundreds of thousands of acres. Since Victorian times they’ve “managed” this land for their fun; the occasional forays north for “sport” – deer stalking and grouse shooting. All that matters to them are plentiful herds of deer and coveys of grouse. Everything else can wither and die.

There are some enlightened places where natural regeneration is now taking place, and beavers, sea eagles and red kites have been reintroduced to wails of protest. But the efforts of the green owners, which are often conservation groups, are a drop in the ocean and opposed at every turn.

At long last however there’s a glimmer of hope that our Government might be taking the situation in hand. Land reform is on the cards in Scotland and landowners are slowly wakening up to a new world where they no longer hold all the power and the mismanagement of our most precious resource won’t be tolerated.

My new boots won’t last long enough to walk through a more natural order but I’m confident that the monoculture, and the influence of the landed minority that enjoy it, will eventually wither as surely as the Caley Pines and wildlife they condemned to near extinction. Our landscape deserves it.

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