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Posts from the ‘Wildlife’ Category

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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On the edge of the Atlantic

 

Hill lochans, peat bogs and wild flower machair stretch out behind me; I’m on the white shell sand at the edge of the Atlantic, gazing out at hazy St Kilda, forty miles away. Beyond that it’s Canada.

I’m just the latest to stare out from the western shore of North Uist across thousands of miles of sea to wonder about friends or family on the “other side”. Hundreds left from here in the early 1800s, bound in the main for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Desperation drove them on perilous one way journeys because they couldn’t afford to pay high rents on their small crofts and there was no mercy from the landowners who effectively “cleared” them from their land.

Maybe that’s why this feels such a fragile, poignant place; it’s haunted by the memories and the longing of families who’ve gazed for two centuries from either side of the ocean. You hear ancient whispers in the western wind and sense a long sorrow for the loss of homeland.

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Spring in the hollows

P1030060 Down in the damp hollows of disused railway tracks, where trees have quietly colonised the banks over 50 years of neglect, the pussy willows are  in fragile blossom.

Spring has arrived.

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No one home

I travelled such a long way to visit….P1020602

… but only the chickadees came out to play on the cross country trails.

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The knots that make magic

P1020204Oh it’s grey, grey, colourless bleak on the beach in these dying hours of the year. The waves, the sky, the land – even the little birds feeding down at the tide’s edge disappear in the dirty half-light. Monochrome. Cheerless.

And then they rise up and you’re mesmerized and smiling. They flash quicksilver white, swarming sky-high in a throng of thousands, diving and twisting, catching light you didn’t know was there. There’s a rush of wings and they’re bearing down, funneling a wind as they flock over and around, and suddenly silence. And then another synchronized spiral of wings and they disappear to lifeless cloud.

Happy, mercurial little knots, you have made magic in a grey day.

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